Roger Angell Jonathan Yardley

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Jonathan Yardley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Make no mistake about it, Five Seasons is a "baseball book." It is, in point of fact, one of the two best baseball books we have—the other being Angell's The Summer Game, published in 1972—and anyone who loves our national pastime is going to love Five Seasons. But it is also so much more than a baseball book that a grave injustice will be done if only diehard fans read it. If its central subject is a game, it is also deeply concerned with larger, and in some cases darker, questions….

As one who admired The Summer Game with unreserved ardor, I followed Angell's dispatches [in The New Yorker] in the five years after its publication with uneasiness and apprehension; it seemed to me that he was in danger of repeating himself, and that he was becoming a member of the Baseball Establishment, that pack of journalists and assorted hangers-on who yap at the heels of the younger, handsomer and luckier men who play the game. Brought together in one volume, however, Angell's 1972–76 baseball pieces prove me resoundingly wrong. Five Seasons makes abundantly clear that Angell has been altering the focus of his writing rather than trading on past glories, and that he has become a ferocious and devastating critic of the game's commercialization and debasement.

It is true that Angell now talks to the men on the field rather than watching them from the stands, but what is noteworthy is that he is not primarily interested in the people everyone else is talking to. In three different pieces he introduces us to five men who love baseball profoundly and whose lives have been shaped by it to various, but in each case important, degrees….

The [Steve] Blass profile is one of the finest pieces Angell has written. Without the slightest hint of sentimentality, but with compassion and sympathy, Angell explores one of the more puzzling mysteries of baseball history: "Steve Blass … is out of baseball, having been recently driven into retirement by two years of pitching wildness—a sudden, near-total inability to throw strikes. No one, including Blass himself, can cure or explain it." The piece, however, is far less about inexplicable failure than it is about a man of limited talent but powerful dedication who managed to fulfill the dream of a lifetime….

A Steve Blass, unfortunately, is rarer and rarer in a game that has become a child of corporate America. Angell, who is drawn to baseball in large measure because of the memories it holds for him of his own childhood, is angry and bitter…. (p. G1)

In the end, however, Angell cannot resist the lure of the game he loves so well, and the book ends on a hopeful note. I know what he means. During this year's spring training here in Florida, my two sons and I went through a real baseball orgy of autographs and hot dogs and home runs and double plays, and if the boys felt half as rejuvenated as I did, they were in great shape….

Together with The Summer Game, Five Seasons is an unmatched and, and I think, unmatchable account not merely of how baseball is played but the place it occupies in the national consciousness. No other sport has ever been so well served by any other writer. (p. G2)

Jonathan Yardley, "The Diamond's Best Friend," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1977, The Washington Post), June 5, 1977, pp. G1-G2.