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Angell in the Infield
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #12 - July 2001
Written by Will Fulford-Jones   

In bookstores now...

Ask a roomful of well-read sports fans for a list of their favourite baseball writers, and Roger Angell's name will appear on almost all of them. Or, at least, it ought to. Never a sportswriter in the traditional, Grantland Rice sense of the word, but something other than just a commentating columnist too, Angell's writings on the game are among the best there have ever been. Literate without being over-intellectual, smart while never descending to smart-arse, and with a languid, elegant, smiling style that perfectly complements the game he clearly loves so much, he makes the game come alive on the page. Not just the action between the lines, either: the chatter and clatter of fans in the grandstand, the idle between-innings conversation with your neighbour and new best friend, the peanuts and the crackerjack. Hell, Angell writes about watching a game on television in his New York apartment more entertainingly than most hacks' I-was-there descriptions. To call him a fan is, you like to think, among the highest compliments you can pay him.

Angell's in his 80s now, and doesn't write as regularly about the game -- for the New Yorker, where he's worked for years -- as he once did. More pertinently, though, it's been a long time since an anthology of his baseball writing hit the shelves. All of his previous collections -- The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, Season Ticket -- are well worth seeking out; all, though, are very difficult to track down. The fact that Once More Around The Park, a collection of pieces drawn from his other collections (still with this? Good), is the only Angell baseball book currently in print is absurd, incomprehensible and ultimately frustrating. A rummage through the sports section of most decent-sized second-hand bookstores in the US usually yields an Angell book or two, sometimes more, but that's not really the point. It's writing that deserves to be in print, as valuable to the baseball literary pantheon as any book you could care to mention.

Rant over, then, we can turn to Angell's new baseball work, published this spring in the US. Unlike the books that made him famous, A Pitcher's Story is not a collection of pieces ordered and organised with some kind of thematic conceit, but rather a portrait of one season in the career of one player. The season? Last year, 2000. The player? David Cone.

It's safe to say that this isn't the book that either Angell or Cone had in mind when the latter agreed to the former's request for his co-operation in his book idea. Granted, the second half of Cone's 1999 season had been less than stellar, but despite it, he still ended up with a winning record (12-9) and an ERA more than a run below league average (3.44 against 4.47). In the post-season, he beat Boston with seven dominating innings in the ALCS, then threw seven shutout innings of one-hit ball against the Braves in the World Series. Oh, yeah: and on July 18, against the Montreal Expos in front of a packed Yankee Stadium celebrating Yogi Berra day, he'd thrown a perfect game. All of this came off the back of a 1998 season in which he'd won 20 games for the second time in his career.

It's this David Cone -- dominating pitcher, Yankee hero -- that so intrigued Angell, and inspired him to pitch the idea of following Cone for a season to the star. Cone agreed. But then an entirely different David Cone showed up for business in 2000. The season in which he was perfect for a day was followed by the most imperfect year of his career. A bad start got progressively worse, and Cone ended the year with a won-lost record of 4-14 and an ERA of 6.91 (for some perspective, Cone had finished a year with an ERA over 3.71 only once before: 1986, when he threw a mere 22 innings of 5.56-ERA ball out of the Kansas City bullpen).

It's to the credit of both Angell and Cone that A Pitcher's Story works so well; indeed, in the thank-yous, Angell pays tribute to Cone, "who expected another sort of baseball book and unflinchingly stayed with this one when it became something different". The "something different" is neither strict biography -- though there are many biographical stories in here, as Angell intersperses tales of the 2000 season with stories of Cone growing up, and of his career to date -- nor the portrait of a pitcher at the top of his game.

Instead, it's the story of a sportsman who's misplaced his powers and becomes almost a different person without them: irascible, angry, self-absorbed, sorrowful, the works. In one poignant passage, Angell describes a moment at batting practice one mid-season afternoon, when a kid collars Derek Jeter. "I'm looking for someone," asks the kid. When Jeter wonders as to who, the kid replies he's looking for David Cone. Jeter's hushed response? "We're all looking for David Cone."

Although you know how it turns out, you can't help but root for Cone (neither can Angell, of course; ever the fan). You also, though, can't help but wish he'd quit at the end of the season, fearful that the carnage of 2000 will only occur again this year (he's currently with the Red Sox), afraid that Cone hasn't merely misplaced his powers but lost them altogether. Cone might be a "warrior" (George Steinbrenner's description), but even warriors need weapons. The worry is that Cone's lost his armoury for good. Angell, though, has lost none of his, a fact proven by this fascinating, compelling portrait.


Last Updated on Monday, 06 April 2009 19:45