Perhaps by its very nature, baseball is a sentimental sport. It’s a sport about the perpetual chase of perfection, and the inevitable failure that goes along with that, and the mind set required to participate in such a sport at its highest levels.
THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach understands this better than any other book I’ve ever read. The novel initially drew my attention when I read reviews that compared it to “The Natural,” declaring it an entrant in the “best baseball novel ever” conversation. And it certainly didn’t hurt that one of the main characters, Henry, idolizes a sure-handed, Gold Glove-winning St. Louis Cardinals shortstop who goes by the name Aparicio in the book but is really a thinly-veiled version of Ozzie Smith, my own boyhood baseball idol.
But at the end of the day, it’s not really a book about baseball. Sure, three of the story’s five protagonists play baseball, and it’s obvious in Harbach’s writing that he truly loves and understands the game, but it’s really more of a coming-of-age novel, as all five of the protagonists struggle to figure out who they really are despite their very different backgrounds and viewpoints.
Somehow, after spending more than 500 pages with these characters, the outcome of the championship game in the book’s climactic scenes becomes secondary, even though Harbach does a masterful job of portraying one of baseball’s great truth’s throughout the book — that every pitch and every play, at that very moment, is the most important one in a player’s career. The baseball scenes are fantastic because they not only depict the drama of the game, but they advance each character’s story arc.
It’s not a perfect book — about 3/4 through, as one of our main characters goes into a funk and withdraws from his life, the pace really slows down — but it finishes strong, and it’s an amazing accomplishment. Non-baseball fans can certainly enjoy it, I believe, because so much of it takes place off the diamond, but I think to really understand the soul of this book, you have to understand the soul of baseball. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough to any real baseball fans out there. It certainly belongs in the “best baseball novel ever” conversation.