Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Baseball isn't perfect ... but it feels like it is

The Hall of Fame Class of 2014 / (L-R) Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa,
Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, Joe Torre.

"Baseball isn't perfect, but it feels like it is," said Joe Torre, one of six living inductees, whose speech capped a lively and, at times, emotion-filled day packed with wonderful stories and heartfelt memories as the Class of 2014 was honored in ceremonies and welcomed to Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. on Sunday afternoon.

On a day when baseball got it right, the tone of Torre's speech was best described by The New York Times "as if designated to deliver the greatness-of-the-game testimonial." 

And he did.

"We're responsible for giving it the respect it deserves," said Torre, who managed the New York Yankees to six American League pennants (1996, 1998-2001, 2003) and won four World Series (1996, 1998-2000).

During the nationally televised three-hour ceremony, Torre was joined at the podium by fellow managers Bobby Cox and Tony LaRussa, slugger Frank Thomas and pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Each living great -- and I saw all of them play or manage -- exemplified the game in the right way. Together, they represented quite an assemblage of accomplishments across the baseball diamond: World Series championships, Cy Young Award winners, Most Valuable Player awards.

Decent men all of them, too.

Roger Angell accepting the J.G. Taylor Spink Award

Baseball also got it right when it enshrined the esteemed Roger Angell, a longtime writer and editor for The New Yorker, who received the J.G. Taylor Spink Award on Saturday, the Baseball Hall of Fame's writing honor. The bespectacled Angell, 93 and thin, is revered for his revealing portraits and essays on baseball, which began appearing in The New Yorker in the early 1960s. Since then, they have been compiled into several books filled full of meditations and observations about our national pastime, most notably The Summer Game, which I first read as a teenager. I still treasure the book's words today like the literary baseball bible it is.

In his debut as a baseball writer for The New Yorker in 1962, Angell wrote a wonderful essay full of humor and insight about attending spring training in Florida. "Big-league ball on the west coast of Florida is a spring sport played by the young for the divertissement of the elderly -- a sun-warmed, sleepy exhibition celebrating the juvenescence of the year and the senescence of the fans."

Many have acclaimed Angell as the greatest baseball writer. "Angell's prose is clear and erudite, elegant and informed; he is a fan with a wicked eye for detail, a sense of humor and a curiosity about the way athletes perform," wrote Richard Sandomir in The New York Times. "He filled his notebooks but did not have to convert his jottings into an article under a tight deadline. He had months to digest his observations and then wrote long -- very long."

Said Angell: "I didn't have to write after a game. That was unforgivable."

Angell's main job for many years at The New Yorker was as a fiction editor, a job once held by his mother, Katherine White. His stepfather was the famous children's author E.B. White, who penned Charlotte's Web. So, it's no surprise that writing became Angell's life-long passion. He was raised in good company.

"When he accepted the award Saturday at Doubleday Field," wrote Sandomir, "Angell said that he collected '.300 lifetime talkers like a billionaire hunting down C├ęzannes and Matisses' -- loquacious folks like Keith Hernandez, Roger Craig, Bill Rigney and Dan Quisenberry. And he gave his thanks to baseball, 'which has turned out to be so familiar and so startling, so spacious and so exacting, and so easy looking and so heartbreakingly difficult that it filled my notebooks in a rush.'"

Peter Gammons, like Angell, a longtime chronicler of baseball, wrote: "It isn't simply nostalgia, it is a weekend that allows us a sense of where we are. As Angell spoke, one thought about a life of literacy, not tweets, that not only did he wrote so elegantly, but he edited John Updike, he edited John McPhee, which made me recall the sign Angell said McPhee had in his kitchen: 'When everything is going your way, you're probably in the wrong lane.'"

Angell is a "lover of books and words," wrote Maureen Dowd in a wonderful New York Times Sunday Review column that appeared over the weekend. His prose combines his love of language with his passion for baseball. "Who else could use 'venery' in a story and write the world's longest palindrome?" she asked.

"Within the ballpark, time moves differently, marked by no clock except the events of the game," wrote Angell in The Summer Game, the first of his seven books about baseball"This is the unique, unchangeable feature of baseball, and perhaps explains why this sport, for all the enormous changes it has undergone in the past decade or two, remains somehow rustic, unviolent, and introspective. Baseball's time is seamless and invisible, a bubble within which players move at exactly the same pace and rhythms as all their predecessors. This is the way the game was played in our youth and in our fathers' youth, and even back then -- back in the country days -- there must have been the same feeling that time could be stopped. Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young."

Indeed, baseball hasn't always been perfect, but this past weekend it felt like it was. It made me feel forever young.

Photographs: Courtesy of MLB.com.

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