Read The Art of Fielding: A Novel Online
Authors: Chad Harbach
OR MY FAMILY
So be cheery, my lads
Let your hearts never fall
While the bold Harpooner
Is striking the ball.
Westish College fight song
chwartz didn’t notice the kid during the game. Or rather, he noticed only what everyone else did—that he was the smallest player on the field, a scrawny novelty of a shortstop, quick of foot but weak with the bat. Only after the game ended, when the kid returned to the sun-scorched diamond to take extra grounders, did Schwartz see the grace that shaped Henry’s every move.
This was the second Sunday in August, just before Schwartz’s sophomore year at Westish College, that little school in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin. He’d spent the summer in Chicago, his hometown, and his Legion team had just beaten a bunch of farmboys from South Dakota in the semifinals of a no-name tournament. The few dozen people in the stands clapped mildly as the last out was made. Schwartz, who’d been weak with heat cramps all day, tossed his catcher’s mask aside and hazarded a few unsteady steps toward the dugout. Dizzy, he gave up and sank down to the dirt, let his huge aching back relax against the chain-link fence. It was technically evening, but the sun still beat down wickedly. He’d caught five games since Friday night, roasting like a beetle in his black catcher’s gear.
His teammates slung their gloves into the dugout and headed for the concession stand. The championship game would begin in half an hour. Schwartz hated being the weak one, the one on the verge of passing out, but it couldn’t be helped. He’d been pushing himself hard all summer—lifting weights every morning, ten-hour shifts at the foundry, baseball every night. And then this hellish weather. He should have skipped the tournament—varsity football practice at Westish, an infinitely more important endeavor, started tomorrow at dawn, suicide sprints in shorts and pads. He should be napping right now, preserving his knees, but his teammates had begged him to stick around. Now he was stuck at this ramshackle ballpark between a junkyard and an adult bookstore on the interstate outside Peoria. If he were smart he’d skip the championship game, drive the five hours north to campus, check himself into Student Health for an IV and a little sleep. The thought of Westish soothed him. He closed his eyes and tried to summon his strength.
When he opened his eyes the South Dakota shortstop was jogging back onto the field. As the kid crossed the pitcher’s mound he peeled off his uniform jersey and tossed it aside. He wore a sleeveless white undershirt, had an impossibly concave chest and a fierce farmer’s burn. His arms were as big around as Schwartz’s thumbs. He’d swapped his green Legion cap for a faded red St. Louis Cardinals one. Shaggy dust-blond curls poked out beneath. He looked fourteen, fifteen at most, though the tournament minimum was seventeen.
During the game, Schwartz had figured the kid was too small to hit high heat, so he’d called for one fastball after another, up and in. Before the last, he’d told the kid what was coming and added, “Since you can’t hit it anyway.” The kid swung and missed, gritted his teeth, turned to make the long walk back to the dugout. Just then Schwartz said—ever so softly, so that it would seem to come from inside the kid’s own skull—“
The kid paused, his scrawny shoulders tensed like a cat’s, but he didn’t turn around. Nobody ever did.
Now when the kid reached the worked-over dust that marked the shortstop’s spot, he stopped, bouncing on his toes and jangling his limbs as if he needed to get loose. He bobbed and shimmied, windmilled his arms, burning off energy he shouldn’t have had. He’d played as many games in this brutal heat as Schwartz.
Moments later the South Dakota coach strolled onto the field with a bat in one hand and a five-gallon paint bucket in the other. He set the bucket beside home plate and idly chopped at the air with the bat. Another of the South Dakota players trudged out to first base, carrying an identical bucket and yawning sullenly. The coach reached into his bucket, plucked out a ball, and showed it to the shortstop, who nodded and dropped into a shallow crouch, his hands poised just above the dirt.
The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted, and threw to first. Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond. It smacked the pocket of the first baseman’s glove with the sound of a gun going off. The coach hit another, a bit harder: same easy grace, same gunshot report. Schwartz, intrigued, sat up a little. The first baseman caught each throw at sternum height, never needing to move his glove, and dropped the balls into the plastic bucket at his feet.
The coach hit balls harder and farther afield—up the middle, deep in the hole. The kid tracked them down. Several times Schwartz felt sure he would need to slide or dive, or that the ball was flat-out unreachable, but he got to each one with a beat to spare. He didn’t seem to move faster than any other decent shortstop would, and yet he arrived instantly, impeccably, as if he had some foreknowledge of where the ball was headed. Or as if time slowed down for him alone.
After each ball, he dropped back into his feline crouch, the fingertips of his small glove scraping the cooked earth. He barehanded a slow roller and fired to first on a dead run. He leaped high to snag a tailing line drive. Sweat poured down his cheeks as he sliced through the soup-thick air. Even at full speed his face looked bland, almost bored, like that of a virtuoso practicing scales. He weighed a buck and a quarter, maximum. Where the kid’s thoughts were—whether he was having any thoughts at all, behind that blank look—Schwartz couldn’t say. He remembered a line from Professor Eglantine’s poetry class:
Expressionless, expresses God.
Then the coach’s bucket was empty and the first baseman’s bucket full, and all three men left the field without a word. Schwartz felt bereft. He wanted the performance to continue. He wanted to rewind it and see it again in slow motion. He looked around to see who else had been watching—wanted at least the pleasure of exchanging a glance with another enraptured witness—but nobody was paying any attention. The few fans who hadn’t gone in search of beer or shade gazed idly at their cell-phone screens. The kid’s loser teammates were already in the parking lot, slamming their trunks.
Fifteen minutes to game time. Schwartz, still dizzy, hauled himself to his feet. He would need two quarts of Gatorade to get through the final game, then a coffee and a can of dip for the long midnight drive. But first he headed for the far dugout, where the kid was packing up his gear. He’d figure out what to say on the way over. All his life Schwartz had yearned to possess some single transcendent talent, some unique brilliance that the world would consent to call genius. Now that he’d seen that kind of talent up close, he couldn’t let it walk away.
enry Skrimshander stood in line beneath a billowing, navy-and-ecru-striped tent, waiting to obtain his room assignment. It was the last week of August, just three weeks after he’d met Mike Schwartz in Peoria. He’d been on the bus from Lankton all night, and the straps of his duffel bags formed a sweaty
across his chest. A smiling woman in a navy T-shirt with a man’s bearded face on it asked him to spell his name. Henry did so, his heart thumping. Mike Schwartz had assured him that everything was taken care of, but each moment the smiling woman spent flipping through her printouts confirmed what Henry had secretly known all along, made only more apparent by the groomed green lawn and the gray stone buildings that surrounded it, the sun just risen over the steamy lake and the mirrored-glass facade of the library, the lithe tank-topped girl behind him tip-tapping on her iPhone as she sighed with a boredom so sophisticated that Henry could imagine precisely nothing about her life: he didn’t belong here.
He’d been born in Lankton, South Dakota, seventeen and a half years earlier. It was a town of forty-three thousand people, surrounded by seas of corn. His father was a foreman at a metalworking shop. His mom worked part-time as an X-ray technician at All Saints. His little sister, Sophie, was a sophomore at Lankton High.
On Henry’s ninth birthday, his dad had taken him to the sporting goods store and told him to pick out whatever he liked. There had never been any doubt about the choice—there was only one glove in the store with the name of Aparicio Rodriguez inscribed in the pocket—but Henry took his time, trying on every glove, amazed by the sheer fact of being able to
The glove seemed huge back then; now it fit him snugly, barely bigger than his left hand. He liked it that way; it helped him feel the ball.