WILLIAMSTOWN — My wanderings into the world of sports could be described by one of my favorite words: inept.
Looking back, I feel slightly — but genuinely — sorry for the coaches who harbored high hopes for a kid who stood a good bit taller than his cohorts and seemed able to catch on to the “fundamentals” of the game under study, only to descend into utter incompetence on the court, field or track.
The basketball coach at Mount Greylock Regional High School in my days there during the late 1960s was among the first to experience this whipsaw effect. Russ Pickering did what a good coach should do in such a situation: demonstrate, encourage and demonstrate again. I’ve since learned that patience is the key to success in this work, and it’s clear that Pickering possessed enormous stores of it.
(How much he had left after trying to teach me how to dribble a basketball properly is anyone’s guess, but he rated top marks for effort.)
The trouble became obvious early on: I was uncoordinated. The “pumping” of the ball rarely continued past my first few steps before one of my outsize feet delivered a solid kick, sending the ball soaring in the general direction of the basket.
Pickering, constrained somewhat by the need to keep to the curriculum/schedule, did what he could in the time available, but the conclusion was inevitable: A basketball player this kid was not. It turned out he was no square dancer, either, but that’s for another day.
Embarrassing displays of klutzery marked my early explorations of football (I once ran the wrong way), ice hockey (skating backward proved to be completely beyond me) and baseball (the safest position for me was manager, and I wasn’t to be trusted too far with that job.)
Then, sometime in the early 1970s, I picked up a copy of The New Yorker magazine and read an article about baseball written by Roger Angell.
I was hooked. Angell, who died last week at age 101, added a dimension to sports writing that brought the Great American Pastime onto a richly colored and detailed canvas that was ornate in its clarity and simplicity. Angell’s writing style was friendly. He never lectured. His work aimed to show, not tell, and he hit the target every time. He was, to fans of all levels of devotion, a knowledgeable, witty and amusing companion at the game.
“There’s nobody, in my mind, who’s ever challenged him as the greatest sportswriter of all time, and in fact one of the greatest writers of all time,” Susan Slusser, a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, told Tyler Kepner, whose tribute to Angell ran in Monday’s New York Times.
“He wrote plenty of things that weren’t sports that were equally elegant and perfect,” Slusser, who successfully nominated Angell for the writer’s award at the Hall of Fame in 2014, continued. “It actually makes me angry sometimes. His writing was so beautiful and precise and evocative that you think, how does a human have this kind of ability? But you can’t be jealous of Beethoven or Shakespeare. It’s just beyond what most people are capable of.”
Kepner recalls that Angell’s notes sometimes consisted of “doodles of a player’s swing or pitching motion. He had a knack for describing movement in colorful, relatable ways nobody else could conjure.
“Here’s Angell in 1985 on Dan Quisenberry, the right-handed relief ace of the Kansas City Royals, whose best pitch looked harmless: ‘His ball in flight suggests a kiddie-ride concession at a country fairgrounds — all swoops and swerves but nothing there to make a mother nervous; if you’re standing close to it, your first response is a smile.”
Lovely as always.