Saturday, November 19, 2016

How Much Should We Appreciate Roger Angell?

In the barrage of Cubs stories after their historic World Series win -- covering everything from the 108-year-old who died soon after the Game 7 victory to absurd parade crowd estimates -- the source of my favorite article was unsurprising. Ninety-six-year-old Roger Angell's story "At Last" should be recopied onto beautiful parchment paper in the style of medieval scribes as a way for future sports fans to learn about one of the greatest games in baseball history.

Just as former Cub Moises Alou* came from a long line of big leaguers, Angell was born into a writing family. His mother was a New Yorker editor and writer from 1925-60, and his stepfather was the famous author E.B. White. Like Alou, Angell surely owes some of his success to his genes but most of it to tremendous work ethic and decades of experience.

*Insert Steve Bartman joke here.

Regardless of how hard I worked, I'm sure I could never replicate even 1/1,000th of Angell's performance in print. However, that doesn't stop me from appreciating the crap out of the legendary writer's annual World Series wrap. Here, then, are the 10 best things about that story:

10) The greatest stat ever
Angell is much more of a storyteller than a statistician and his articles contain far fewer stats than those of most baseball scribes. Still, his latest story contains one of my favorite stats ever:

Their infield has a combined age of ninety-six—my own age, as it happens—as good a young bunch as I can recall.

My main question is how a nonagenarian figured out such an obscure, wonderful stat about the Cubs' infield. Did someone tell him? Did he use scratch paper to do the math? Did he figure it out in June then withhold it to use as a nugget in a later story?

9) Calling Davis's homer
Every idiotic fan loves predicting home runs at pivotal moments. It's comforting that someone as thoughtful as Angell does, too. To wit:

I’d essayed a rare call—“Here comes a two-run homer”—for my little evening group the instant before Rajai Davis obliged with his shot into the lower left-field stands.

For some reason, I feel like Angell's "little evening group" might be a bit more of an intellectual crowd than my own bunch of screaming loudmouth buddies.

8) Did he forget about Enos Slaughter? 
In the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 1946 World Series, Slaughter famously raced around from first to score on a hit that was officially scored a double but could have been ruled a single. In Angell's article, he says:

Kris Bryant, the remarkable third baseman, scored in the fifth on a single by Anthony Rizzo—scored from first base. Who can remember seeing that before?

At first glance, I thought Angell was subtly nodding toward the Slaughter play. However, a few sentences later, the scribe calls Jon Lester's two-run wild pitch "another never-before for me." That second sentence makes me think that Angell really might've viewed Bryant's running as a revolutionary play. Did the scribe forget about "Slaughter's Mad Dash"? I doubt it, but it's still fun to dig into these questions of baseball history while reading Angell's work.

7) Reminders of a lifetime of fandom
Way back in 1981, Angell famously penned a story about a pitchers' duel between two college kids named Ron Darling and Frank Viola. Angell watched that game with Smoky Joe Wood, who starred in the early 1900s and made all of his career starts before 1918, the last time the Cubs won the World Series.

In his most recent recent article, Angell devoted this passage to Cubs fans:

Whether staring and suffering, or grinning and hugging and high-fiving, fans become generic in every World Series. But I remember Cubs fans differently from my sporadic visits to the sunlit Confines in those lean years. They loved their Cubs and yearned for better times, but cheered without irony for every good or great play by the visiting team. It was the game they loved above all.

And clearly it's the game Angell loves above all, as well.

6) The asterisk
Angell details Aroldis Chapman's eighth-inning struggles but notes that Chapman "still somehow emerged, in the end, with the 'W.'*" At first, I thought Angell's asterisk was his way of poking fun at the pitcher win stat since Chapman clearly didn't win the game for the Cubs. Later, after Angell mentions that "a win washes away all sins", I began to think that Angell might've just been asterisking Chapman's whole body of work for the Cubs, with the asterisk as an allusion to Chapman's off-the-field "sins."

I was dismayed, then, when I reached the end of the article and saw that the asterisk simply denoted an editorial mistake:

*A previous version of this story misstated that Aroldis Chapman returned in the tenth inning.

If it's okay with you, when I re-read the story, I'll always read the asterisk as a comment on Chapman or his win and not on Angell's minor mistake. 

5) Touching personal touches
Angell ends his story with two anecdotes about the Cubs' general and field lieutenant, Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon. In the last paragraph, he writes about Theo enjoying the game's aftermath with his arm draped around his father Jack's neck. He also notes how Maddon kept his arm linked with his wife's as he navigated the post-game scrum. Angell always humanizes sports and their protagonists.

4) The parting shot
And while we're talking about that last graf, let's look at Angell's closing line:

And the season was over at last.

So Angell, so baseball.

3) An awe-inspiring description of Kris Bryant's swing
While he possess many traits of the prototypical power hitter, Kris Bryant is still a unique player. Every time I watch him, I try to pinpoint just what it is that makes him so special to watch. Well, give Angell one sentence:

Bryant, the third baseman and coming National League M.V.P., goes six feet five and bats from a spread-legged crouch that expands magically into a sudden tall tree with the skyward bat at its top.

"Expands magically into sudden tall tree" -- what a phenomenal piece of figurative language.

2) Angell's magnanimity
After playing something like 1,600 innings in the 2016 season, the Cubs finally slayed the Indians in an extra frame in the deciding game of the World Series. Cleveland came sooooclose, but how do you put that into words? You can't; not even Angell can. Here's what he wrote instead:

I loved the Indians, as well—Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, Coco Crisp, and others—but cannot do them full justice here.

This sentence is a simple tribute to the Cubs' worthy foils.

1) Wait 'til next year
Angell has been covering baseball since 1962, when he went to spring training with the famously woeful Mets. Don Zimmer was on that team -- as a player. Angell's longevity in baseball isn't equal to Vin Scully's, but it's still pretty dang extraordinary.

As Sam Schube wrote in his excellent GQ profile of Angell last year, "He's been writing his couple-times-a-year baseball stories for the New Yorker since that first one in '62, and if you do anything a few times a year for fifty years, it adds up." But's it not the quantity as much as the quality that's so mesmerizing about Angell. 

I look forward to Angell's 2017 World Series wrap, but I'll spend some hours in the upcoming cold winter re-reading and treasuring the 2016 one. And the season was over at last...

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Follow Francis Tolan on Twitter @frantweet

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