From 1956 through 1973, one of the best shortstops in Major League Baseball was a Venezuelan named Luis Aparicio, today a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the fictional book prominently referenced in Chad Harbach’s novel, The Art of Fielding, about a college baseball player and his struggles to correct a sudden flaw in his throwing ability, is titled The Art of Fielding and is written by “Aparicio Rodriguez.” That “inside baseball” reference may be a coincidence, or may be a deliberate homage by Harbach to one of his childhood heroes. It is, however, ironic that Harbach would name his fictional author in a story about a college baseball player whose field position is shortstop. That is not, however, the sole, or even main instance of irony in The Art of Fielding.
Harbach’s novel tells the story of a young, diminutive but gifted shortstop recruited by a small, fictional Midwestern college located on the shores of Lake Michigan. That shortstop, Henry Skrimshander, is too small, and can’t hit, but he is a magician with his glove, able to field every ball hit in his direction. Suddenly and inexplicably, however, Henry loses his ability to make the normally routine throw to first base – a psychological problem that has, in fact, affected prominent professional second basemen like Chuck Knoblauch (New York Yankees) and Steve Sax (Los Angeles Dodgers). The irony in a gifted fielder losing his ability to throw with any degree of accuracy – and his first instance of being able to throw to first base injures a fellow player – provides the surface irony of The Art of Fielding. Henry’s loss of confidence in the one part of baseball at which he excels is described in painful detail by Harbach:
“Only two balls were hit to Henry. Both times he double-clutched and made a soft, hesitant throw. Instead of rifle shots fired at a target, they felt like doves released from a box.”
Sports, as is well-known, can be amazingly psychological. Whether it is a gifted golfer like Tiger Woods losing his ability to concentrate on his swing or a professional baseball player like Knoblauch, whose once promising career was adversely affected by the onset of his throwing flaw, psychological problems can deprive an athlete of his or her ability to do what has always previously come naturally. Henry’s confidence is shattered, and his teammates, one of whom is his gay, mixed-race roommate, are at a loss as to how to restore his confidence and ability to play baseball.
Another example of irony is the repeated literary references that occur throughout, beginning with the team’s name, the Harpooners, inspired by the college president’s love for Herman Melville, further symbolized by the statue of the author of Moby Dick prominently displayed on the campus peering out at the enormous lake on the shores of which the college sits. Or, one could consider the title of the fictional book The Art of Fielding that is Henry’s Bible and that he discovers is also worshipped by his roommate and teammate, Owen Dunne. A title and theme clearly inspired by Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the manual on how to play defense in baseball serves the same purpose as Sun Tzu’s treatise on military strategy that is dated to about 500 B.C.
These are just a few of the examples or irony in The Art of Fielding. In a novel ostensibly about sports written by a literary critic, there are many more, to be sure.