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An Interior Stadium (or Library)
With respect to Roger Angell
I don’t know how to acknowledge the ongoing tragedies in the world in any way that feels like enough. Another senseless, horrifying instance of gun violence in Texas, on the heels of last week’s senseless, horrifying instance of gun violence in upstate New York, on the heels of last week’s other senseless, horrifying instance of gun violence in California, on the heels of, on the heels of. Ad infinitum. I make choices to name these instances. I don’t name everything. I feel bad that I don’t name everything. I feel bad that I’m naming them and maybe making your morning or afternoon heavier than it already is. (I know you already know.)
The passing of Roger Angell on Friday is a grief that lands differently—cleanly, if such a word can be applied to grief. Angell was 101, and by all accounts, had a life well-lived and was a man well-loved. This kind of grief—my own, at least, the grief of a distant admirer only, which is of course much different than the grief of anyone who actually knew him—lends itself to a fuller reflection on that admiration, rather than the searing feeling of having been robbed. There’s no tragic lighting here. Sad, yes—what a loss, what a quieting of a good voice—but not tragic. I’ve nearly forgotten how that feels. Multiple generations of baseball fans—and fans of beautiful writing, more broadly—had the benefit of Angell’s work as a constant companion to our reading and sporting lives. What other gifts could we want, already so surrounded by his life’s work?
Perhaps fittingly, we were at a baseball game when we saw the news, and I had a scorebook on my lap while some of my students (the same who were assigned Roger Angell’s “The Interior Stadium” earlier this semester) played their first game of the NCAA Division III regional tournament. I assign “The Interior Stadium” because it is my favorite little piece of Angell’s work, showcasing all of the things I love best about his writing—the encyclopedic knowledge of players across decades, the comfortable clarity of his voice, the music of his sentences—and also an element of his fandom that I have long coveted and do not possess: the seemingly photographic memory of plays seen.
The essay opens with a declaration:
Sports are too much with us. Late and soon, sitting and watching—mostly watching on television—we lay waste our powers of identification and enthusiasm and, in time, attention as more and more closing rallies and crucial putts and late field goals and final playoffs and sudden deaths and world records and world championships unreel themselves ceaselessly before our half-lidded eyes.
With two sentences, Angell identifies both the issue and the cause, and he does so while writing from 1971, nevermind 2022, when all of those things he names are available in crystal-clear digital media I can replay and replay on the supercomputer in my pocket. Because of the glut of riches, the constant reel of marvels, nothing sticks. Or because I am confident that I can simply watch the thing again when I want or need to, some unspoken agreement takes place in my gray matter: no need to remember it all. Maybe only the name, the broadest strokes of circumstance—whatever keywords I’ll need to find it again. (Forget years—I can conjure those only in the most relative of terms.)
If you haven’t read the essay, the premise of the interior stadium—memory and imagination, working in tandem—is that it is possible to carry these plays and magical moments along with you, to replay them as needed throughout the offseason and beyond, and even to use those indelible memories to fabricate new possibilities: in the interior stadium it is possible, say, to conjure Sandy Koufax pitching to Ken Griffey, Jr. In the interior stadium, the last two-way player (Babe Ruth) could pitch and hit against the current one (Shohei Otani). The only thing it requires is the fullness of the recollection (a swing, a delivery, a lifetime of hitterish tendencies and go-to pitches) lodged deep and whole, real enough that it can change to meet the new, imagined situation.
Angell’s interior stadium celebrates the moments etched in his memory, described with such verve and richness in the essay. Of Babe Ruth, he writes, “Babe Ruth, wearing a new, bright yellow glove, trotting out to right field—a swollen ballet dancer, with those delicate, almost feminine feet and ankles. Ruth at the plate, uppercutting and missing, staggering with the force of his swing.” Ruth’s last season was 1935. This clarity of recollection, and the ability to deliver it so precisely, without bombast or hyperbole, catches me each time I read this essay. There are startling and subtle shifts in the writing, too—an evocative turn from past to present tense to demonstrate the eternal happening, deft point of view adjustments that slide an arm about the reader’s shoulder—that are simply exactly right.
One of the many blessings afforded to readers of Angell’s work is that he has left us so much to read and re-read, and perhaps it is possible, given so many opportunities to see how he saw the sport and the world, to create in my own interior stadium—or interior library, or newsstand, as it may be—a Roger Angell who will write about the end of this season, about every season still to come. A Roger Angell-voice that can be every bit as attendant at a Division III baseball game as at whatever spectacles the professional ranks offer, anchored and confident and cadenced.
Maybe, too, as I listen to that voice imagined into new scenarios—because Angell, of course, wrote about more than baseball, more than sports altogether—I will start to understand that it is not Angell’s voice I’m conjuring, not exactly, but the things the best reading can teach, the writer’s tools absorbed and transformed, which is to say a better version of my own.
Thanks, and thanks, Mr. Angell.
What I’m making: Time for something completely different—a table! I picked up a very basic side table with a single front drawer years ago, and it’s been sitting in the garage, hideous and taupe, since. Last fall, I spent a day stripping the terrible paint from it (and about four other coats of various nondescript colors that ended with a dark stain of some kind). Then, life and the semester happened, and the ambient temperature fell a little lower than I’d like for effective paint drying. Monday, however, was perfect: some exciting thunderstorms over the weekend wrung the humidity from the air and the temperature stood steady at 70. So I stirred up the bright blue paint I obtained for this specific purpose and Had At.
The original pulls are made of wood, but one of them was already broken in half when the table came into my possession. We have (for some unknown reason) half a dozen new silver drawer pulls, so I took two of those from the stash of things one accumulates when one has a house. (The drawer pulls, it should be noted, were not in any of the various places where one expects such things—the garage, for example, where the tools and home improvement accoutrements live—but rather in a nightstand drawer. The same drawer holds a few half-used small notebooks, the manual for the television that’s in the living room, and a bag of fossils unearthed from a dig in central Wyoming.) A long rustle around the garage turned up screws that actually fit them—because there were no matching screws packaged with the drawer pulls, of course—and though the wooden front of the drawer was a little thicker than the screws themselves were long, I made it work, courtesy of a wood chisel and some sandpaper.
It is what it says on the tin: making, doing, and very much making do.
(If you’d like to see what happened with the bit of spinning I was working on back in March in the first edition of this newsletter, it’s now actually yarn.)
What I’m reading: ‘Tis the season to jump on those books I’ve been piling up on my desk, waiting until the grading is over. First up are Matt Bell’s Refuse to Be Done and Courtney Maum’s Before and After the Book Deal. If you need smart, wonderfully practical, and eminently readable writing advice, I can’t recommend these two strongly enough.
Also, over at Fangraphs, there’s a wonderful round-up of some of Roger Angell’s best work.
What I’m writing: I hope you will forgive me a trip to the archives. In honor of Roger Angell, I want to share a link to the Effectively Wild podcast, Episode 1592: the Roger Angell Centennial Celebration, from September 2020, for which I was a contributor. Hosts Ben Lindbergh, Sam Miller, and Meg Rowley solicited anecdotes, accolades, and appreciations of Angell on the occasion of his hundredth birthday. If you’d like to spend some time listening to people share nothing but love for a while, it’s a wonderful listen. If you’d like to simply read the pieces, you can find a full transcript of the episode here; by virtue of alphabetical order, my piece is the last.
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