In 1962 The New Yorker dispatched Roger Angell to spring training. He wrote about the expansion Mets, who were managed by a 71-year-old Casey Stengel and stocked with obscure players ( Elio Chacon) and fading stars in the dusk of their careers ( Gil Hodges); the team would go on to lose 120 games. It's a record for futility that remains with us today. But so, thankfully, does Angell.
Angell came to the beat as an outsider. He was 41, a Harvard graduate and a writer of fiction. After the Mets came north, Angell bought tickets to games at the Polo Grounds and passed along his observations on their play, which was—in contrast to what was happening across the Harlem River in the Bronx, where the Yankees were in the midst of their 20th championship season—horrific. But he also took notice of the spirit of the fans who embraced the Amazin's, and a foghorn that blew "mournful, encouraging blasts" from the stands one night in early June. "[T]here is more Met than Yankee in every one of us," Angell wrote. "I knew for whom that foghorn blew; it blew for me."
Forty-two years after his first season writing "The Sporting Scene," Angell still hears that foghorn. His New Yorker dispatches are sporadic, often only two or three per season. His postseason wrap-up usually appears a couple of weeks after the World Series, after he has had time to fully digest what he witnessed and craft a piece full of observations his deadline-bound peers have neither the time nor, in most cases, the insight to make. Novelist Richard Ford, a former sportswriter, says Angell's allure lies in his ability to "create this incredibly dense and pleasurable experience for the reader." Here's how Angell described Pedro Martinez's early dominance of the Yankees in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series last fall: "After each out, he gloves the returning ball backhand, and gazes about with lidded hauteur. No one else in the world has eyes so far apart."
Angell's lyricism comes honestly—his stepfather, E.B. White, started writing for The New Yorker in the late 1920s, and his mother, Katharine White, was a fiction editor, a position Angell has held since 1956—but he also has an appreciation of the game's inner workings. (He once wrote that the knuckleball "is thrown not off the knuckles but off the fingertips—off the fingernails to be precise—which renders the ball spinless and willful.") That combination of style and substance has endeared him to his readers and to the players he covers. A couple of years ago Don Baylor, now a coach with the Mets, approached Angell with a baseball. Baylor, a man with 338 lifetime home runs, wanted Angell's autograph. "I've always considered his stories to be accurate and truthful, and we became friends," Baylor explained recently. "I consider him a special friend."
Most of the men Angell grew close to in the game are gone, either retired or dead. But he is still here, scribbling notes. Recently, on a warm morning in Lakeland, Fla., he came to see the Tigers, whose 119 losses in 2003 fell just short of the mark set by his beloved '62 Mets. Angell, a fit man with a neatly trimmed mustache, broad shoulders and a white baseball cap, was watching Tigers manager Alan Trammell rake the infield at 9:30 while waiting patiently to huddle with Detroit's do-ragged designated hitter, Dmitri Young. It didn't seem like a promising setting for the game's literary avatar, but Angell learned four decades ago that sometimes the best stories come from the worst teams. "There's enough about the game that's absolutely fascinating and interesting and complicated," Angell says. "Every year we get in the postseason and everyone says, 'Oh, baseball is so wonderful.' They've rediscovered that there are some really tense and amazing contests and astounding turnabouts. And I say, 'Yeah, that's what I've been saying all along.' "