In 1962 The New Yorker dispatched Roger Angell to spring
training. He wrote about the expansion Mets, who were managed by
a 71-year-old Casey Stengel and stocked with obscure players
(Elio Chacon) and fading stars in the dusk of their careers (Gil
Hodges); the team would go on to lose 120 games. It's a record
for futility that remains with us today. But so, thankfully, does
Angell came to the beat as an outsider. He was 41, a Harvard
graduate and a writer of fiction. After the Mets came north,
Angell bought tickets to games at the Polo Grounds and passed
along his observations on their play, which was--in contrast to
what was happening across the Harlem River in the Bronx, where
the Yankees were in the midst of their 20th championship
season--horrific. But he also took notice of the spirit of the
fans who embraced the Amazin's, and a foghorn that blew
"mournful, encouraging blasts" from the stands one night in early
June. "[T]here is more Met than Yankee in every one of us,"
Angell wrote. "I knew for whom that foghorn blew; it blew for
Forty-two years after his first season writing "The Sporting
Scene," Angell still hears that foghorn. His New Yorker
dispatches are sporadic, often only two or three per season. His
postseason wrap-up usually appears a couple of weeks after the
World Series, after he has had time to fully digest what he
witnessed and craft a piece full of observations his
deadline-bound peers have neither the time nor, in most cases,
the insight to make. Novelist Richard Ford, a former
sportswriter, says Angell's allure lies in his ability to "create
this incredibly dense and pleasurable experience for the reader."
Here's how Angell described Pedro Martinez's early dominance of
the Yankees in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series
last fall: "After each out, he gloves the returning ball
backhand, and gazes about with lidded hauteur. No one else in the
world has eyes so far apart."
Angell's lyricism comes honestly--his stepfather, E.B. White,
started writing for The New Yorker in the late 1920s, and his
mother, Katharine White, was a fiction editor, a position Angell
has held since 1956--but he also has an appreciation of the
game's inner workings. (He once wrote that the knuckleball "is
thrown not off the knuckles but off the fingertips--off the
fingernails to be precise--which renders the ball spinless and
willful.") That combination of style and substance has endeared
him to his readers and to the players he covers. A couple of
years ago Don Baylor, now a coach with the Mets, approached
Angell with a baseball. Baylor, a man with 338 lifetime home
runs, wanted Angell's autograph. "I've always considered his
stories to be accurate and truthful, and we became friends,"
Baylor explained recently. "I consider him a special friend."
Most of the men Angell grew close to in the game are gone, either
retired or dead. But he is still here, scribbling notes.
Recently, on a warm morning in Lakeland, Fla., he came to see the
Tigers, whose 119 losses in 2003 fell just short of the mark set
by his beloved '62 Mets. Angell, a fit man with a neatly trimmed
mustache, broad shoulders and a white baseball cap, was watching
Tigers manager Alan Trammell rake the infield at 9:30 while
waiting patiently to huddle with Detroit's do-ragged designated
hitter, Dmitri Young. It didn't seem like a promising setting for
the game's literary avatar, but Angell learned four decades ago
that sometimes the best stories come from the worst teams.
"There's enough about the game that's absolutely fascinating and
interesting and complicated," Angell says. "Every year we get in
the postseason and everyone says, 'Oh, baseball is so wonderful.'
They've rediscovered that there are some really tense and amazing
contests and astounding turnabouts. And I say, 'Yeah, that's what
I've been saying all along.'"
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER
"Last week police returned to Pete Pihos bags containing his
jerseys and leather pads."
--FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 27