The greatest baseball books aren't really about baseball per se, they are simply great books that are set it in the baseball world. That's definitely the case with Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, a stunning debut novel set at the Division III college level. Harbach's book concerns the fates of five characters, all tied together by what happens on one play in a seemingly meaningless early season game. I had the pleasure of catching up with Chad recently and asking him about writing the book, his personal story, and the meaning of the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers.
Did you play baseball at all yourself?
I was a ballplayer, but only for a limited time. I grew up playing in Wisconsin. It's a very sports-centric part of the country that I grew up in and I played a lot of sports, but baseball first and foremost. I played through high school. I was a middle-infielder. I was OK but not good enough to go on past that point. By the time I was 18 I was pretty well retired.
Were you also a fan?
I grew up in Racine, which is a city just south of Milwaukee, and my first memories of fandom were pretty good ones because I was six years old for the season of the 1982 Brewers, who were a great and famous team, who of course tragically lost to the Cards in Game 7 of the World Series. I've been a Brewers fan ever since. I think 1982 was the first year I started going to games and I can't remember which game was the first one because I went to a lot of them. But I do have one memory that's probably from that season, of getting to a game and being six years old and very excited and knowing the Brewers lineup up and down and cheering for everybody. And when Cecil Cooper came to the plate I got up and cheered "Coooooooop, Cooooooooop." And there were two women sitting me and my Dad and one of them turned to the other and said, "If that kid is booing the Brewers, I'm gonna smack him in the head."
But you weren't saying boo, you were saying Cooooooop!
She didn't smack me in any case and my dad thought it was the funniest thing in the world.
Was Cooper your favorite player or did you have another favorite on that team?
Like everyone else in Milwaukee, my favorite player was probably Robin Yount. He was the shortstop and that's the position I was most interested in, and my first glove was a Robin Yount glove.
So you and your protagonist - who would have been too young to remember the '82 World Series - would have been on opposite sides in the '82 series. Was there anything special that went in to your making Henry a Cardinals fan?
There were a couple things. In his playing style, if not his personality, the character Aparicio Rodriguez [whose book of fielding aphorisms Henry is obsessed with] is kind of an Ozzie Smith character. As much as I always hated the Cardinals, I always thought that Ozzie Smith was the best shortstop ever to play. And the other reason is that Henry is a farm boy who grew up in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the country, and a lot of people from there are Cardinals fans because of KMOX.
Absolutely. KMOX has that famous reach where people from all over became Cards fans because they could hear the games on the radio. How much baseball did you watch in 2011?
I watched as much of the Brewers as I could, especially when I started to sense it might be a special season for them. But that's not necessarily so many games overall when you're not living in Milwaukee. It was kind of fortuitous that I was back in Milwaukee and Racine to do some readings during the playoffs so I was actually at the ill-fated Game 6 where they once again lost to the Cardinals.
Why did you choose to write about baseball at the non-scholarship, Division III level?
It had to be college because that was what I knew about, that was the setting that was going to be natural to me. I wanted to write about real amateurs, guys who don't even have scholarships so their lives have to contain other things besides baseball and they're playing for the love of the game. That was the milieu that I wanted to write about and that was the milieu that I wanted to have Henry come out of, that would produce his surprising rise before his fall. If he'd been on scholarship at LSU or something, that would have been less pronounced.
Henry's character starts off the book in an unusual way for a novel, psychologically speaking. What's interesting about him is that off the field, he's not very interesting.
That was by design. Part of the quote-unquote point of the novel is that Henry does not become a full and rich human person until he goes through this crisis. And before this crisis, his whole life takes place on the field and everything comes so easily to him that he doesn't have to develop or grow up in certain ways. In a certain way, he is a stereotypical jock who is devoted to training and this savant-like activity. I hope that he becomes a very psychologically interesting guy later on in the book.
Absolutely, he does. Speaking of his crisis, a lot of the New York media has singled out Chuck Knoblauch as the probable model for what happens to him, is that who you were thinking of?
Not specifically. But either a little bit before I started writing the book or maybe just after, there was a cluster of three guys who I remember having similar things happen to them. One of them was Chuck Knoblauch. I was living in Boston at the time and I remember watching him warm up before a game at Fenway and even then you could see that he was having this real trouble just making these warm up throws. And then famously, Rick Ankiel for the Cards, when he fell apart in that playoff game. And the third one, which I don't think people remember as much, was Mark Wohlers from the Braves. He was one of the best relievers in baseball and then he was having these struggles throwing the ball. The Braves were trying to ease him back in and would bring him into games where they'd be behind by 5 or 6 runs. I went to one of those games in Milwaukee where Wohlers came in and just was throwing balls to the screen. And normally, the crowd would be cheering wildly for this kind of thing and they were just hushed. With all three of those guys it was just such an eerie thing to see that kind of naked, pitiful emotion when that happens to somebody.
You have a great personal story as well with a real "Do what you love, the money will follow" feel. You worked for ten years on the novel without necessarily knowing you were ever going to get paid for it, but then in the end it sold for a good deal of money. Any advice to aspiring writers who might be in the position you were in ten years ago when you started this book? "Give up now," is an acceptable answer. . .
It's a tough road. I'm extremely grateful for the way things worked out for this book. The last part of this process has been unbelievably great. The whole time I worked on this book I was making between $20,000 and $25,000 a year and scraping by. If I had been concerned about money, I would have given it up. In any case, writing is not a great way to make money. And if that's your end goal, you probably should give up now. But if you're interested in trying to perfect what you're trying to say, you have to stick with it as long as you can.
Here's Part 2 of the interview.