Roger Angell is so intent on describing precisely the "gorgeous" contours of Boston's Fenway Park that he ignores his chef's salad.
"It's quirky and pretty," he says. "Someone once counted all the little angles in the fair-ball area of the outfield wall. I'm trying to remember how many . . ."
The ice in his Bloody Mary is melting, turning the drink a watery pink.
"Oh yeah, I think it's 22 angles or something. There's this one spot with such a sharp angle that if the ball gets caught between it, it keeps hitting back and forth, whack, whack, whack. Fantastic."
Angell is the Edmund Burke of baseball. When it comes to Astroturf, domeball, designated hitters, seven-digit salaries, regular fences and George Steinbrenner, he is a traditionalist who wants his baseball pure, outdoors and timeless.
For Angell, who has been writing about the sport for The New Yorker since 1962 and who has just published "Late Innings: A Baseball Companion," the sport is an inexhaustible supply of detail and ritual.
"It's perfect for a writer, so full of specifics. I love the way a ballplayer knocks the dirt out of his spikes," he says. "The ritual that is sport is strongest in baseball, and I sense there is something there that is important.
"I'm a conservative in the sense that I don't want to see things change too quickly. Our problem in this country is not that we take sports too seriously, but that we don't take them seriously enough. We're always ready to trivialize it and make it entertainment. Howard Cosell is always saying that, that sports is entertainment. Well, it's something different.
"Athletes visibly represent us at our very best. Not that someone like Willie Mays, for example, is such a great hero off the field, but on the field, where we could see him, he represented an ideal of what could be. I'm a fan and I yell and scream about what I hate about baseball. The owners haven't really thought about just what they're involved in."
Angell's own involvement began with a little dramatic flair. The son of a prominent attorney who was a semi-pro pitcher and Katharine White, who was an editor and principal figure in the early days of The New Yorker (and whose second husband was E.B. White), Angell grew up in New York.
New York--where you can run into just about anyone.
One spring morning in 1932, Col. Jacob Ruppert, owner of the New York Yankees, was walking to his brewery and crossed paths with the 8-year-old Angell on 93rd Street.
Col. Jake noticed the boy pounding his fist into the pocket of his baseball mitt. The old man stopped him, pulled out a calling card, and wrote something on the back.
"Young man," said Col. Jake, handing Angell the card, "take this up to the stadium tomorrow for a tryout. And good luck to you."
Roger Angell is 61 now. He could easily have let the world of baseball become just a soothing memory of slow games played out on cut grass--a useful memory after so much has changed.
For one thing, the Yankees are now owned by a czar, not a colonel.
For another, Angell is senior fiction editor at The New Yorker, a publication that is more filet mignon than ballpark frank.
Yet, Angell's obsession persists, and he writes about baseball with the precision of a John Updike (whom he edits), with the humor of a Woody Allen (whom he also edits) and with the enthusiasm of an 8-year-old pounding the oiled pocket of his treasured Rawlings glove. In fact, Col. Jake never really did ask him to try out for the team, but Angell is not beyond revealing his fantasy: "But it almost happened, surely," he insists. "And one of these days, in my dreams, the colonel will relent."
Angell is a distinguished, professorial-looking man who edits fiction writers such as V.S. Pritchett, Max Frisch and Ann Beattie. "He is a gentle editor and a master of psychology," says Beattie, author of "Falling in Place." "He knows just how to handle individual writers and goes over everything, word by word, really line-editing the story into being."
It is almost as difficult to imagine this softspoken man with the hornrimmed glasses and neatly trimmed mustache brandishing a lethally sharp editing pencil as it is to imagine him discussing batting grips with a naked infielder.
Baseball is not often an occasion for elegant or reflective prose--even the best baseball books tend toward the sentimental rather than the insightful. Angell brings to the game the kind of intelligence that allows him not only to record its supple details but also to make sense of them, to see what the game is, to understand why we might find baseball so absorbing and important.
"Baseball is perpetual play, a controlled environment," says Angell. "You can get to know a great number of people on rather intimate terms. Something is happening to them every day, which is something we can't say for ourselves. It's an intensified environment.
"To be a little bit serious about it--and I don't like to philosophize too much about something that is so much fun--baseball is about ourselves, a system of testing ourselves. It is something we arrange, we construct, to lift us up, to exhilarate us. There is an element of ritual that is so moving. I don't know why. This is why fans are so important, particularly in baseball. There's so much to know, so much history there that is precisely recorded. The fans know more about the game than the owners; they're more involved. The fans are there to see that it is done right, to measure how things are done as well as to see who wins."
"Late Innings," like Angell's two previous collections, "The Summer Game" and "Five Seasons," is written in a partisan voice--a voice often heard denouncing high-profile owners such as George Steinbrenner (a.k.a. King George III), who are more famous than most of their players. The loyalty of the fans, he writes, is "shown not only in their dogged, comical attachment to this hopeless team or that fading star but in their adherence to the sport in the face of the repeated injuries they have suffered at the hands of the careless men who have bought their way into baseball's seats of power."
Most of Angell's energies, however, are devoted to praise rather than criticism. One of the best pieces of reporting in "Late Innings" is his profile of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, a particularly obdurate, even intimidating public performer famous for a rising fast ball and an occasional brushback. Angell's subject is a recurrent one--the retired athlete trying to find a new life that is not wholly overshadowed by the glory and intensity of his athletic career--yet he handles it with uncommon sympathy.
The ex-Cardinal pitcher has always been a tough, blunt interview subject, especially for journalists who prefer glib performers like Reggie Jackson. Angell saw Gibson as a challenge.
"Bob Gibson was scary, the most fearsome pitcher I ever saw," says Angell. "There was nobody like him. And now that he was out of baseball, he was as tough as ever. But adrift, maybe. The thing about all athletes, in baseball particularly, is that they become sad figures. You can see a whole lifetime played out in the space of 10 or 15 years. You see them born as rookies, then they live a shining youth when almost anything seems possible, then a quick middle age and then an athletic death, their departure from the game."
Gibson recently found work in baseball again as a coach, first for the New York Mets and now for the Atlanta Braves--a happy ending for Angell's profile. "I heard a great story about him," says Angell, pushing aside his chef's salad again. "The other day Gibson was pitching batting practice and one of the Braves, Bob Watson, hit a home run off of him. The next pitch, Gibby knocked Watson down on his back. So he hasn't changed."
In a way, says Angell, baseball itself has changed very little, and this stability--the game's ability to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous owners and stay afloat on a sea of vendor's beer--is the source of its pleasure and beauty.
"When I watch the players, it's not as though they are competing only against their opponents on the field," says Angell, picking at his lettuce. "It's almost as if they're playing a continuous game in time with every player and every team playing against one other. There's a magical feeling when a player gets old and another takes his place. There's that wonderful continuity in, say, the shortstop position from Pee Wee Reese to Luis Aparicio to Dave Concepcion.
"One trap in writing about baseball is excessive nostalgia. I think it may be because we all came to the game through our fathers and at a time when we were children and everything in the world seemed good. But the quality of most experience is not confined to when we were young. Tomorrow I could see the best game I'll ever see."
And at the thought of that--of a game that has, perhaps, Angell's beloved Red Sox finally overcoming their perennial late-season jinx to win the American League flag--he begins to smile, beaming into the middle distance.
Lunch is ignored completely. Roger Angell is in the game.