“What happened to Steve Blass? Nobody knows, but some speculation is permissible—indeed, is perhaps demanded of anyone who is even faintly aware of the qualities of Steve Blass and the depth of his suffering. Professional sports have a powerful hold on us because they display and glorify remarkable physical capacities, and because the artificial demands of games played for very high rewards produce vivid responses. But sometimes, of course, what is happening on the field seems to speak to something deeper within us; we stop cheering and look on in uneasy silence, for the man out there is no longer just another great athlete, an idealized hero, but only a man—only ourself. We are no longer at a game.”
—Roger Angell, “Gone for Good,” June 1975
Nobody knows. Even 35 years later, nobody knows what happened to Steve Blass, why, after his best season in the major leagues, Steve Blass lost the ability to pitch. Blass was, historically speaking, the first in a list of infamous players that now includes Mackey Sasser, Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch, and Rick Ankiel—baseball players who suddenly and inexplicably could no longer do simple tasks that they had long ago perfected.
Sports, as Chad Harbach points out at one point in The Art of Fielding, create a strange paradox between the art they aspire to and the artless, thoughtless repetition required to best attain it. Baseball, just like any other sport, relies heavily on muscle memory and on keeping your brain as far out of your physical movements as possible. KISS, we all hear at some Little League practice: keep it simple, stupid.
Harbach’s much-anticipated debut novel—it isn’t often first-timers get six-figure advances these days—adds another name to that ignominious list with Henry Skrimshander, a balletic shortstop for Division III Westish College in lakeshore Wisconsin. Harbach’s novel essentially takes its cue from Roger Angell’s oft-praised (and deservedly so) profile of Blass from 1975: What happens to a baseball player when he loses the ability to play baseball? What happens when your self-definition dissolves?*