The first thing you do when you get to a press box in another city is check the seating chart. Where are you sitting? And who else is coming?
I like to arrive early. Stupidly early. This gives me a lot of time with nothing better to do than to pore over the seating chart.
In my days as a baseball beat writer, I was always the first man in at old Yankee Stadium. All ballparks are magnificent when empty at midday, but that stadium had a permanent hum that was best experienced alone.
The press box there was a concrete bunker, built on a diagonal. It had heat lamps embedded in a far-too-low ceiling. On cold autumn nights, you could feel them frying the crown of your head while the rest of you froze.
It also had a dedicated hot dog stand. The hot dogs were free, but if you forgot to tip, the servers would become magically blind to your presence. Every trip to New York to cover baseball started with a negotiation with yourself – ‘I swear I will only eat X number of hot dogs.’ Those negotiations always failed.
So I’m standing there looking at the chart one day when I see it: ‘Roger Angell, New Yorker.’
I think ‘thrilled’ is the right word. I was thrilled. It had not occurred to me until that moment that Angell was a real person who went to actual baseball games. The essayist and New Yorker editor and contributor died on Friday at age 101.
I did not grow up reading Angell because I was not born a middle-aged man. Why would a grade-schooler have a New Yorker subscription? Until I was in my mid-20s, I thought The New Yorker was about New York. I did not start reading it until I got a job in a book store and could do so for zero dollars.
Longtime New Yorker writer, editor Roger Angell dies at 101
At that point in my life, I was shopping around for new obsessions. Baseball was something I’d decided to leave behind. I did not have the time, plus the Jays were abominable. I’d cancelled Sports Illustrated. Guys such as Frank Deford and Rick Reilly – those were the sportswriters I’d grown up with.
So I came to Angell as a fully formed reader and a lapsed fan.
I did not care about Angell’s favorite teams, the Mets and the Yankees, or who’d done what in that year pennant race. At first, I read him for the sake of completeness. I liked the feeling of having finished an issue front to back.
But Angell’s way of turning baseball stories on a slight angle so that they became illustrative of some greater truth about life reeled me in. Also, he was an impeccable stylist. You know the writing’s for you when you begin to breathe in rhythm with the sentences, as though you were speaking them aloud. You sometimes found yourself whispering along to Angell.
“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. ”
If that sentence does not make you feel the powerful need to read it over and over again, then I do not know what to say for you.
Angell’s homespun, aphoristic technique made it almost possible to believe you’d had these thoughts yourself. He’d just put them to words.
Famously, Angell did not start writing about baseball until he was in his 40s. So he’d never been infected by sportswriteritis, which is especially dangerous in the young.
He did not obsess over minutiae or feel the need to impress with his knowledge. He wrote like a guy who’d seen a lot of baseball and spent a lot of time thinking about what it meant.
And what did it mean? Nothing. Also, everything.
He did what great athletes do – make something that is very hard look easy. His pieces had the quality of letters written to a friend. They seemed dashed off, were funny and philosophical, made something you had already seen or read about feeling fresh. It is hard to appear that effortless.
Most sportswriters are hitting for average. You write four or five things a week and hope that one or two are good. Every year, you might really get hold of a half-dozen pieces. You aren’t trying to fail, but like a professional hitter, you realize failure is part of it.
Angell appeared in print so seldom that he had to swing for the fences every time up. They did not all make it over the wall, but every one of his essays had a few sentences you found yourself writing down in a notebook for reference later. Angell’s average outing was a career showing for the rest of us.
In the end, I did not read Angell for baseball. I read Angell for Angell.
And now here he was, sitting one row behind and one seat over from me.
There is no riskier business than meeting your heroes. It’s not that they will disappoint, but that they can not possibly sparkle in person the same way they do on screen, or on vinyl or on the page. A few of these interactions have taught me that it’s better not to know.
So though Angell had a reputation as an approachable guy, I did not say anything to him. I also did not want to disturb the master while he worked.
My only regret is that I was in front of him rather than behind so that I could not watch his process. How did Angell watch baseball? Was he taking notes? Did he daydream like the rest of us? Did he write longhand? He wouldn’t have been in his middle-80s then. I’m assuming his writerly habits were set in stone long before laptops.
Because I could not observe Angell, I spent three hours sunning myself in his reflected glory. Several times that night I had the delicious feeling that I could turn after some remarkable play and engage Angell in casual conversation about what we’d both just seen. He would be funny and I would not be a complete idiot and it would be a signpost memory. Just knowing it was possible was enough.
You know the way old boxers glow when they talk about getting beat up by Muhammad Ali? Whatever else I would manage in my little writing career, I could say I once shared a press box with the greatest of all times.