Roger Angell, America’s best baseball writer over the past several decades, is 93 but still going to work almost every day at The New Yorker. Last week he told a WWD (Women’s Wear Daily) reporter, “It’s so easy to sentimentalize the good old days, but I don’t ever do that. I’m aware that things have changed, but I try not to go there. It’s very easy, and you get sort of a mental diabetes. All that goo. I am a foe of goo.”
Told that many baseball writers regard him as a “poet laureate” of the game, Angell responded, “I’m not some ‘poet laureate.’ … That sounds as if I’m doing no reporting, and that’s not the truth. If you do enough reporting, then you don’t have to gush about the emerald field, the white streak of the ball, and that.”
Angell has been able to get ballplayers, who are rightfully paranoid about reporters they don’t know, to open up to him. He tries to make them see they are almost coauthors of the story, and says the process of developing trust is like “winning over your wife.”
An example: In 1975 Angell wrote a profile of Steve Blass, who has leant his name to “Steve Blass disease”: the inexplicable inability of some once-great pitchers to throw strikes, even though their physical ability is unchanged. Blass pitched two complete, winning games in the 1971 World Series (earned run average: 1.00) but two years later walked 84 batters in 89 innings and had a 9.85 ERA. That ended his major league career.
Blass needed to see that Angell would not condescend to him with sentimental clichés or blast him as a “head case.” Blass needed a biographer who would understand both the sadness and the way life goes on. Angell’s profile, “Down the Drain,” brilliantly showed how Blass still thought like a pitcher even when he could no longer be one.
As WWD writer Sridhar Pappu related, the article’s final scene has Blass imagining pitching an inning against the best-hitting team of his era, the Cincinnati Reds, and batter by batter showing how he would get the Reds out. Even when the pitcher’s mind on the mound had played tricks with him, his critical thinking was still strong, and Blass went on to be a baseball announcer and analyst for many years.
So, Roger Angell: anti-goo and anti-gush, but not anti-empathy. If you want to write Angellically, you need to write for both mind and heart, realizing life’s poignancy.