Book Review: “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach

"The Art of Fielding," by Chad Harbach

Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding tells the tale of Westish College, a D-III school in northwest Wisconsin. Their athletic program has historically been about as successful as any tiny, unheard-of school ever is, but that changes when catcher Mike Schwartz discovers defensive wunderkind Henry Skrimshander one summer and convinces him to come to Westish and play shortstop for the Harpooners. The book follows Skrimshander’s successes, struggles and repercussions for the other characters.

Focusing on Baseball, Harbach Starts Strong

The Art of Fielding (named for a mythological treatise on playing shortstop by that Skrimshander basically memorizes) follows fiction’s standard three-act structure: introduce the characters, introduce the conflict, resolve the conflict. But since most of the people in this book play baseball, perhaps depicting it as a nine-inning game would be more appropriate.

Harbach breezes through the first three innings, going once through the lineup without making a mistake. He writes with an easy-going, briskly paced style that taps into all of baseball’s nostalgia without giving up the setting of a modern college. Students text, listen to iPods, play Tetris – it’s hard to romanticize the modern college experience, but Harbach pulls it off admirably.

We meet Schwartz first, then Skrimshander, and the first few chapters are almost exclusively about baseball. Then we meet Guert Affenlight, the school’s president, and finally his grown-up daughter Pella. Harbach’s most cerebral, psychologically complex character, Pella shifts the book’s tone from a breezy, fast-moving narrative to a plodding, psychological exploration of all four characters.

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Ten Red Sox Predictions for 2012

Jon Lester might win 16 or 17 games again this season, but no other starter will come close to his numbers. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Some definite patterns are emerging with the 2012 Boston Red Sox. What has and hasn’t worked so far could easily continue through the entire season. So after five games, here are 10 predictions for the upcoming season.

1) The starting pitching will combine for 60 wins or fewer. So far, no starting pitcher has recorded a win, and none have even left in position for a win. While Jon Lester will probably finish the season with decent numbers, no other starter inspires any sort of confidence. Whether it’s Josh Beckett‘s attitude, Clay Buchholz‘s health or Daniel Bard‘s inexperience starting, the Red Sox will probably be winning a lot of games in the last couple of innings.

Speaking of which…

2) The Red Sox will record at least 15 late-game-comeback victories. In four of their first five games, the Red Sox have combined for 10 runs in the ninth inning and later. This team’s experienced, big-moment hitters never cower before opposing setup men and closers, and that should mean lots of late-game heroics.

Which is good, because…

3) The bullpen will finish with an ERA over 4.50. This bullpen is terrrrrrrible! Alfredo Aceves rocked a perfect ninth Monday, but the day before he gave up a three-run home run. And he’s supposedly their best!

Unless, of course, you count…

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Red Sox Erred in Firing Francona, Should Cut Epstein Loose

Theo Epstein's bad personnel decisions caused the Red Sox's historic collapse this season. If anyone should be fired, it's Epstein, not Terry Francona. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

It’s too late to undo firing Terry Francona, a rash decision born from the kind of rabid bloodlust that few fanbases besides Boston’s are capable of. But if John Henry wants to cut out the true cause of the Red Sox’s historic collapse, he needs to go one level higher and axe Theo Epstein.

Player misuse caused by bad lineups, rotation or bullpen order can certainly kill a team, and that’s the manager’s fault. But this Red Sox team had a faulty foundation, and that’s the responsibility of the general manager who built it.

The rotten core that killed this Red Sox team began five years ago, when Epstein signed J.D. Drew and Daisuke Matsuzaka for big-time bucks. Drew’s pedestrian .264 average, 16 home runs and 57.2 RBIs per season have not been worth the cost, but that’s nothing compared with Matsuzaka. The Japanese so-called superstar was a dud in Boston, failing to contribute anything meaningful from 2009 until Tommy John surgery essentially ended his Boston tenure early this season. On top of that, he became one of the most frustrating, least entertaining pitchers in recent Red Sox history. Fans hated him, and that likely translated into less revenue from him than other pitchers. This is the exact opposite of what Epstein envisioned when he signed Matsuzaka.

Were these the only two bad contracts of the Epstein Era, he keeps his job. But these were just the beginning of a downward trend of spending big money on big games that could never hack it in Boston. For example: the 2010 John Lackey signing – a desperate, panicked attempt to prove to the fans a year after losing Mark Teixeira that Epstein could still attract major talent to as tough a media market as Boston. Lackey didn’t even have a particularly good 2009 (11 wins, fewest since 2003; 3.83 ERA, highest since 2004), but it didn’t matter: Epstein took him and his histrionics anyway. The result? A winning percentage barely above .500 and an ERA over 5.00.

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