Ever since his first piece on baseball appeared in The New Yorker in 1962, no one has written more passionately or eloquently about the game than Roger Angell. The Harvard graduate was a longtime Red Sox fan, until the Mets divided his loyalties--a conflict recounted in his classic piece, "Not So, Boston," about the '86 World Series. Anthologies of his work include The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, and Season Ticket. (Selections from all these books, plus previously uncollected material, appear in the indispensable Once More Around The Park: A Baseball Reader.) Angell has been part of The New Yorker's fiction department for many years, nurturing the likes of John Updike, William Trevor, and Garrison Keillor. He also penned the foreword to the most recent edition of The Elements Of Style, co-written by William Strunk and stepfather E.B. White. Angell's latest book, A Pitcher's Story: Innings With David Cone, is an evocative account of the Cy Young winner's exploits on and off the field, framed by his disastrous 2000 season with the Yankees. Currently attempting a comeback with the Red Sox, Cone had just come off a shaky third start against the Yankees when The Onion A.V. Club talked to Angell about changes to the game, the art of pitching, and undue sentimentality.
The Onion: How did your relationship with David Cone evolve to the point where he allowed you the access you needed to write the book?
Roger Angell: It was his idea all along. I had written about him at length in 1996, the year he had the aneurysm. It was suddenly timely, because everybody was interested in that strange medical business, which very few other pitchers had experienced. And he then said, "How would you like to write a book about me?" I said, "I don't do that. I've never written a front-to-back book." He said, "Well, maybe you'll change your mind." So he kept after me. And then, about a year or two ago, a publisher heard about it and made a good-size offer, so I decided to do it. I was scared the whole way. I'd never written a book from front to back and, of course, the story changed. [Laughs.]
O: How has access changed since you started writing about the game?
RA: When I started, I was such an outsider that I was not much aware of access. I think it's much harder now, because television has made the players accustomed to the media, and there's always a television camera or tape recorder around. And the number of people covering New York teams has grown exponentially. The players, for this reason, have less to say, and it's harder to get them to say something fresh or thoughtful. The other change is that I've gotten older. When a current player in his 20s looks at you and calls you "sir," you're in big trouble as a reporter. [Laughs.]
O: How have the players changed?
RA: The obvious change is that people of color are around, and a lot of Hispanic players, which didn't used to be the case. By and large, I think players are better educated now. When I started writing about baseball and talking to players, I realized that the game had taken a lot of them off the farm or out of the mines. So it was a more significant change for them than it is now, even without the big money, which has changed the game so much. That was something for them, to suddenly change their status to that degree.
O: I think you once wrote that, at a certain point, "they" were not "us" anymore.
RA: Yes, that's very much true. In the old days, first of all, you went to the park to see the players. You didn't see them anywhere else, because they weren't available on television, and their faces weren't in the papers all the time. At the same time, when you looked at them, they were ordinary-size guys, by and large. Babe Ruth looked big, and there were a few lanky, tall pitchers, but they looked like us. They were blue-collar workers. And there was a feeling in the stands: "With a little luck, that could have been me." And that's gone away entirely now. The money, of course, is the biggest factor. But I think that also, ballplayers are much bigger than they used to be. You can see them almost grow from season to season. They're all big guys now.
O: Do you think that's why some fans are retreating to the minor leagues?
RA: I think there's been a movement back to the minors because of ticket prices, and because the country flavor of baseball is still there. That country flavor was always an illusion, actually. Major-league baseball was always played in cities; it's an urban sport. But there was the illusion that it was a country game that moved to the city. Baseball is now a big-time sport. We look at it all as one large package, and participate in it much more than we used to. We know much more than we used to, because of television. We know every move. We know how these games are played better than we did in the past.
O: What makes pitching such a fascinating subject for you as a writer?
RA: Well, if you think about it, the pitcher is the only guy out there with an offensive plan. Everything else in the game is defensive and reactive. The batter has to react to what the pitcher does, and the fielders react to what the batter does. In Cone's case, the great part about him is that he's so emotional out there, and also you could see what he was doing. He has this great variety of visible pitches. There are other pitchers, like Greg Maddux, who are sensationalMaddux may be the best pitcher around, or has been for the last 10 yearsbut you don't see much of what he does. The ball moves late as it crosses the plate, and the pitches look exactly the same. But with David, the minute he throws it, you can see the fastball, a couple of kinds of sliders, the curveball, the splitter, the two-seamer, and so forth. All that stuff was highly visible, so you could see what he was thinking. And he could talk about it afterwards, which is a pretty good combination for a writer.
O: How did you come to see baseball writing as a serious pursuit?
RA: It wasn't really planned. It was just a natural fit for me. I started writing on it because [former New Yorker editor-in-chief] William Shawn wanted to get more sports in the magazine, and he knew I was a baseball fan. I had no idea what a huge amount of time I would devote to it. I've certainly had moments when I asked myself what I was doing, talking about a game all the time. But I've enjoyed it. One thing that may distinguish my writing a little bit from other people is that I've always written in the first person. I'm a baseball fan, I like being at a game, I like being there with other fans and following teams and players. The "I" allows me to interject myself in the middle of reporting about baseball, which has helped a lot.
O: You've always complained about the sentimental associations that are made between baseball and America. When is it appropriate to make those connections?
RA: I think there's plenty of sentimentality in the real thing. There's emotion in this story about David Cone, because this is a valued and much-admired player struggling against the inevitable, which is that he's getting older. I didn't need to pluck up the heartstrings for this. It was just there. There's nothing wrong with that, and there's nothing wrong with excitement if your team unexpectedly does something amazing. What the Phillies fans or what the Twins fans are feeling right now is real emotion. And I'm all for that. I'm just tired of the old idea that baseball is somehow "good" and this great American sport for kids, because it forces us to think athletes are role models or something better than what they are. In baseball, there's the same mixture of pretty good guys and scoundrels and ordinary guys as there is in the rest of life, except it's compounded by the amount of attention and money that we throw at athletes when they're very young, which is hard for them to get used to. The other side of baseball, which is the anger that is felt when stars fail, is certainly evident in the Darryl Strawberry case. I know people, as I wrote in the book, who are just outraged by any sympathy extended to Darryl Strawberry right now. They think he's had every chance to take care of his problems, and he hasn't done it, so they're angry with him. The big change, of course, is how we feel when these players begin to let us down, when they can't do what they once did. When they are being great, when they're doing something absolutely remarkablenot just as individuals, but for the specieswe're in awe of them. But when they can't do that anymore, suddenly we scorn them or laugh at them. Those are real emotions.