Hit By a Pitch… Beaned By The Art of Fielding

Back, back, back before the internet and hamstring pulls, and the yoga for my hamstrings, I played baseball.

Swarthmore College had spent most of the 20th century losing baseball games. Then one magical season, the spring of ’85, we became the only team in school history to go undefeated in our league and advance to the NCAA playoffs.

The previous summer, my father had given me his copy of Bernard Malamud’s baseball classic, The Natural. When I sent a fan letter to the author, I didn’t expect a reply. One came, and inspired me to start dreaming up a “great American baseball tale” of my own.

My take had a perennial-underdog set up, a coming-of-age plot that involved a college campus scandal and the mysterious death of a father/former quarterback, and an oddball ending that veered abruptly from the traditional sports-narrative outcome. A Division III squad recruits a prodigy, who, from shortstop, inspires the troops; on the way to first-time championship contention, he bails on his teammates, then returns to conquer his demons in a 9th inning moment of truth: Will he be the hero? The goat?

Neither. Down to one strike, he suddenly sees his salvation: Get beaned in the head.

If the synopsis above sounds familiar, you’ve probably read The Art of Fielding. However, I’m not Chad Harbach writing under the pseudonym “Charlie Green,” and the title of my (unpublished) novel is Bucky’s 9th.

In 2011, Harbach’s debut came out to superlative reviews and bestsellerdom. The Wall Street Journal would dub The Art of Fielding the third-greatest baseball novel of all time. I picked up a copy, eager to learn what this author had done that I hadn’t, thinking his seminal effort might open the door for other Division III baseball books.

Harbach had done plenty that I hadn’t. More surprising, though, was how much he’d done that I had… many years before. The uncanny coincidences shared by our two books are not limited to stand-alone details — e.g., female leads wearing lilac, Spahn-and-Sain redactions, relief pitchers nicknamed Loony (his book) and Crazy (mine). Aggregates of story play out in the same order, in like scenes, and land at nearly the same spots in the books’ texts.

If they’re read in parallel, these aggregates move in virtual lockstep. For example, the novels’ championship games:

When the national anthem plays in the first-ever appearance for Division III underdogs, the prodigy is AWOL from the team.

Prodigy’s teammates will forge ahead without him; they now believe in themselves.

Prodigy shows up with gym bag slung over his shoulder.

Underdog’s behemoth uses his size-14 spikes to mar the chalk remains of the batter’s box.

Prodigy gets his shot at redemption, entering the game in the 9th, as a pinch-hitter.

Two outs, runner on first, down by a run; he can win it or let everybody down.

— The count goes to 0–2.

The opposing team’s pitcher, who ought to be thinking, ‘I’ve got this guy,’ suddenly sweats what the prodigy might be capable of doing.

Does the pitcher work around the batter, keep the ball away from him — as any pitcher who understands baseball would be advised to do that far ahead in the count? Does the count get wrung to the totemic, 3–2 — as any writer who’s going for suspense would be advised to do? No.

At 0–2, the prodigy deliberately but covertly allows himself to get beaned in the head; he tosses over heroism for martyrdom.

The pitcher has just put the go-ahead run on base.

This situation begs the existential question: Does anybody want to win this game?

Beanings can be intentional or just plain careless. They don’t happen all that often. They’re particularly rare when the pitcher’s on top in the count. With an 0–2 count in the 9th inning? The occurrence would be bizarre. An 0–2 count in the 9th of a championship game? Unheard of. As the go-ahead run? Never. Not unless the pitcher wants a one-way ticket to the end of the bench for eternity.

Yet such unlikely beanings seem to happen regularly in Division III college baseball novels.

Déjà vu also proliferates in the non-baseball plots:

Looming exposure of illicit romance between college administrator and baseball-playing student threatens to end administrator’s career.

Allegation of misuse of financial aid to same baseball-playing student.

Constellation of events in the wake of this threatened campus scandal that includes a confession to a dean of the college, a visit to a hero’s statue, preparation of a speech, and a dream-like football reminiscence about a collapsing pocket and former quarterback’s Hail Mary pass to a receiver who can’t be caught, but also can’t catch.

In Bucky’s 9th that sequence runs from 84.5% to 87.7% through the text; in The Art of Fielding that sequence runs from 84.3% to 87.8% through the text.

And when we hit the stories’ grand finales, it’s déjà vu all over again:

The former quarterback’s sudden death is pointedly ambiguous. It could be suicide; his kid’s interference with the disposition of the corpse precludes nosing around that could tarnish Dad’s legacy.

I don’t know whether the books’ shared content helped The Art of Fielding “zoom into the pantheon of classics” (The New York Times), but a catalogue of the overlaps runs twenty-five pages.

Who, how, when, what happened here?

My first stab, in the form of a screenplay, kicked around Hollywood in the ’90s. When I began to see Bucky’s 9th as a novel, I turned to my father, who was not only an avid reader of fiction, but also an accomplished writer. With his critiques, I had a complete draft by 2001.

Three years later, a connection at Random House introduced me to a literary agent-turned-editor, Jess Taylor. He loved the book and signed on. (For a look at his background go to www.revizion.net.) Jess helped me polish the draft that landed an entertainment attorney, who got me an agent. In 2007, the agent submitted Bucky’s 9th widely to major US publishers.

For Bucky’s long-suffering public, pelted by revision after revision, my novel’s development has been inescapable. That’s no exaggeration. Fifteen years into the project, one of my old pals began referring to the book as “Bucky’s Nth.” A digitally time-stamped version — including beaning, dead QB, et al. — dates to January 2002. Slews of drafts are stuffed away in mid-2000s emails passed back and forth between Jess and me, to my agent, and to any of my friends who had not already blocked my account.

Knowing the history of Bucky’s 9th’s but not The Art of Fielding’s, people who’d read my novel began to wonder: Was this simply one titanic coincidence, or was there really only one way to write a Division III college baseball story?

Curious to learn about The Art of Fielding’s provenance, Jess found a story that had run in Vanity Fair (October 2011). “How a Book is Born” recounts that novel’s struggle to find completion, culminating in a miraculous transformation. Keith Gessen, co-founder with Harbach of the literary journal N+1, and his onetime housemate, closes his story: “Time had written the book, but Chad had had to become its conduit. How had he done this? I don’t know. I’d seen him: I’d sat in the next room or at the next table, I’d been there the whole time, and I still don’t know.”

Another reader familiar with Bucky’s history contacted Harbach and his agent, asking at what point in time time had pulled off this feat. They directed him to a library at the University of Virginia, where Harbach had attended graduate school — specifically, to an MFA thesis called The Bold Harpooner. This 2004 iteration of The Art of Fielding goes only as far as the midway point of the story, then stops. What’s not in it: the salient shared material. No female lead decked in lilac, no Spahn-and-Sain redactions disparaging the underdog’s pitching staff, no relief pitcher with a nickname that says he’s nuts, no run to the championship, no AWOL prodigy, no championship game, no size-14s, no 0–2 count, no scandal, no mysterious death of the onetime QB, no redisposition of his remains, no etc., etc., and no beaning.

What’s left for Bucky as he approaches middle age, four years since his literary and figurative beaning? Shot down before his shot at the big time, like Roy Hobbs. Is a comeback possible? If Bucky’s 9th can get back up and into the game, won’t readers see it as derivative of The Art of Fielding — a retread, a knockoff?

All these questions I’d like to ask my dad. From the time he gave me his 1950s edition of The Natural, baseball provided a common language to a reserved legal scholar and his sports-minded son. He used to drive up from D.C. to all Swarthmore’s weekend doubleheaders. It was always a thrill for me to see him sitting in the crowd. After Ramapo College bounced us out of the NCAA tournament, he was right there with a bear hug. He died in the summer of 2011.

So now I return to the beginning — Malamud’s letter, a photo of the 1985 Swarthmore team, that hopeful crew, so much daylight ahead, so many dreams for the future, looking fiercely forward under the Florida sun, hours after defeating Columbia University and Carl Yastrzemski’s son on opening day — and I open my laptop and keep tinkering.