Sunday, April 15, 2018

Et Tu, Roger?

As part of my week-long celebration of self-indulgence to mark my birthday, I reread two of my favorite books. One is Madame Bovary, with its devastating exploration of the gap between daydreams and reality and its exquisite sentences. Here is my favorite: "The human voice is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars." Read that ten times quickly!

The second is Roger Angell's second baseball collection, Five Seasons. This anthology of Angell's superb "New Yorker" pieces covers the seasons from 1972-1976. Apart from the spellbinding accounts of memorable World Series during that period, Angell delighted me doubly this time around with his profiles of baseball people with whom he spent time: scout Ray Scarborough; a trio of lifelong Tigers fans/friends; Steve Blass during the dark days of his "syndrome; Giants owner Horace Stoneham, and more.

This volume also contains the incomparable "Stories for a Rainy Afternoon," brief tales suitable for rain-delay telling, and which have been among my favorites to share again and again over the years with baseball fanatics who need a good laugh: Richie Ashburn and "yo la tengo"; Hack Wilson and Boom-Boom Beck; Clint Courtney's full count; Stan Musial and two baseballs on the field; the rundown between home plate and a dugout; and why Tommy Lasorda always gave autographs. I'm cracking up just thinking about those stories. What a delight!

Among baseball writers, Roger Angell is the king of similes and metaphors. His essay on the 1975 World Series, titled "Agincourt and After," contains my favorite one-liner simile and my favorite extended metaphor. First the one-liner: do you remember the emergency hack that Bernie Carbo took at the pitch before his famous home run in Game 6? He barely fouled off the pitch to stay alive; Angell described Carbo's swing as "flailing at one inside fastball like someone fighting off a wasp with a croquet mallet." Unlike any other sports writer I've encountered, Angell writes sentences that show you how a movement on the field resembles something you might encounter in the real world.

Is there any better extended metaphor in baseball literature than Angell's catalogue of Luis Tiant deliveries? Whether you saw Tiant pitch or not (and it's much better if you did), take a few minutes to picture the man in action as described by Angell.

"I had begun to take note during my recent observations of the Cuban Garrick, and now, as he set down the Reds with only minimal interruptions. . .I arrived at some tentative codifications. The basic Tiant repertoire seems to include:

  1. Call the Osteopath: In midpitch, the man suffers an agonizing seizure in the central cervical region, which he attempts to fight off with a sharp backward twist of the head.
  2. Out of the Woodshed: Just before releasing the ball, he steps over a raised sill and simultaneously ducks his head to avoid conking it on the low doorframe.
  3. The Runaway Taxi: Before the pivot, he sees a vehicle bearing down on him at top speed, and pulls back his entire upper body just in time to avoid a nasty accident.
  4. Falling Off the Fence: An attack of vertigo nearly causes him to topple over backward on the mound. Strongly suggests a careless dude on the top rung of the corral.
  5. The Slipper-Kick: In the midpitch, he surprisingly decides to get rid of his left shoe.
  6. The Low-Flying Plane (a subtle development and amalgam of 1, 3, and 4, above): While he is pivoting, an F-105 buzzes the ball park, passing over the infield from the third-base to the first-base side at a height of eighty feet. He follows it all the way with his eyes."
Do yourself a favor. Find a volume of Angell and start reading. 

                                                      *      *      *      *      *
Suppose you're the kind of reader who can't help noticing inconsistencies in usage. Same words, same order, but the author finds some reason for spelling something differently. It bugs you. Over time, one common inconsistency comes to aggravate you more than the others, eventually giving you that chalk-on-the-blackboard reflex every time you see it. You can't get away from it.

Given that ever-expanding annoyance and the reflex revulsion that grows in vehemence -- what would you do if your favorite writer fell into the trap of inconsistency? In my case, I guess the answer is that you blog about it.

My special aversion is to writers referring to major league teams in the singular rather than the plural. A team's identity should be a simple matter, its name a no-brainer. Yet I have seen Walter O'Malley referred to as "the Dodger owner". What could that possibly mean? It can't mean he owned the franchise. That would make him the "Dodgers owner," that is, the owner of the franchise. He owned the whole damn team called the Dodgers. The only time to use the singular form of a team name is when referring to an individual player. Jackie Robinson was a great Dodger. But he was not the Dodger first baseman in 1947. He was the first baseman on the Dodgers. He was "the Dodgers' first baseman," the apostrophe indicating that he was the first baseman who belonged to the Dodgers (hence the possessive '). I've seen O'Malley also called "the Dodgers' owner," both a physical and a semantic impossibility, as O'Malley could not have been a possession of the team he also owned.

That's why the correct usage is so simple. It's plural unless you're talking about a single member of the franchise. Most annoying are the writers who favor one  usage some of the time and the other usage the rest of the time. If they can get it right, what detour is being taken that leads their minds to get it wrong so often? So imagine my dismay to find the following usages in one section of Five Seasons:

  • A grand-slam homer by Dodger outfielder Jimmy Wynn.
  • As the Dodgers' starter, Don Sutton.
  • A pair of walks off Pirate starter Jerry Reuss.
  • In addition to the costly Dodger error.
  • Topped a pitch by Dodger starter Al Downing.
  • In Dodger retrospect [This phrase began a sentence, and I couldn't help wondering what prompted Angell's failure to refer to the entire franchise by its correct name]
  • Met manager Yogi Berra. [Didn't he manage the whole team?]
  • Tom Seaver, the Mets' champion.
  • He hopes to play second base with the Pirates' Class A club. [This is the correct usage, since the minor league club belonged to the parent franchise]
  • Garvey, the young Dodger first baseman. [These last two were on the same page. This is a good one to use as an example. The best way of stating this would be "Garvey, the Dodgers' young first baseman." You could also called Garvey "the young Dodger". But you could not call him "the young Dodgers' first baseman," which would make him the first baseman for some sub-group identified as the young Dodgers, but Angell wasn't trying to say that. He had a simple fact to convey--Garvey was the first baseman for the team called the Dodgers. So he had to find a way to acknowledge the whole franchise.]
  • Rube Walker, the Mets' pitching coach. [Now we can see the apparent method to his usage: if he puts "the" before it, he uses the correct plural possessive; no "the," no plural. Probably.
  • An appearance by a good-looking Mets sprout. [Though Angell prefers the singular, here is an inconsistency where he eschewed his usual "Met" to veer into the correct usage.]
  • Ken Reitz, the Cardinal third baseman. [Oh well, he used "the" and the singular. Just when I thought I saw into his brain, he fooled both of us.]
  • The Giants' park, Phoenix Municipal Stadium. [Please make up your mind, Roger.]
  • And finally, two offerings from page 253:
    • The most consistent starter on the Pirate staff.
    • Who is now the Yankees' pilot.
I'm done. If Roger Angell, writing for the publication that has traditionally been the most squeamish about usage, could sneak such inconsistencies past the editors, my reaction can be one of only two things: I should be more tolerant of lesser writers who can't get it straight either, or I should be twice as vigilant about a trap that ensnared even the best of us. 

If you know me at all, you know that's a no-brainer. 

No comments: