Saturday, May 18, 2013
May 6, 2013 Issue
I want to compare Ben McGrath’s “Oddball,” in this week’s issue, with his earlier “Project Knuckleball” (The New Yorker, May 17, 2004). Both pieces are about that “rare specialist,” the knuckleballer. “Project Knuckleball” is a group portrait of “the knuckleball bunch” – the relatively few pitchers over the years “who have entrusted their livelihoods, at one point or another, to the vagaries of the knuckleball.” The heart of the piece is McGrath’s depiction of Tim Wakefield (“Tim Wakefield was not supposed to be a major-league pitcher”). McGrath vividly describes how Wakefield salvaged his career by learning to throw the knuckler. One of the piece’s major themes is the knuckleball’s career-saving aspect. Regarding knuckler Charlie Zink, McGrath writes, “Zink’s reincarnation story, set in the summer of 2002, is similar to Wakefield’s, only more vivid.”
“Oddball” is also a “reincarnation story.” It’s a profile of the ace knuckler, R. A. Dickey. McGrath calls Dickey’s story a “redemption narrative.” But unlike “Project Knuckleball,” which is totally admiring of the knucklers it describes, “Oddball” seems edgier. The piece’s tagline sets the tone: “Is R. A. Dickey too good to be true?” McGrath seems to subtly suggest he is. For example, early in the piece, he says, “Conspicuous cosmopolitanism can be its own form of vanity, especially in a sport with a culture as lethargic as baseball’s.” Later, he describes this moment:
While riding in the car with Dickey, I picked up what looked like an ordinary baseball card that was resting on the console of the transmission. The name and picture on the front of the card were unfamiliar to me. “Oh, man, that’s a story,” Dickey began, and flicked his wrist against my arm, commanding my full attention.
That “and flicked his wrist against my arm, commanding my full attention” is brilliant. The card leads to a story, told by Dickey, about God saying to him that he should attend the wake of the man depicted on the card. Dickey attends the wake. He says, “And when I stepped in there, and it registered with the wife and aunt and uncle who I was, they just started, like, bawling, weeping, and I was just in a place where I felt this need to console her.” That’s when I wrote in the margin, “Bit much.” It’s not that the story is unbelievable. It’s that Dickey appears to be trying to manipulate McGrath’s impression of him. But, to his credit, McGrath is writing his own story, and Dickey’s saintly posing is part of it. Darren Oliver’s pithy “Look at him, trying to be all serious,” in the piece’s penultimate paragraph, says it all. “Oddball” is an excellent illustration of one of journalism’s fundamental principles: the writer, not the subject, shapes the narrative.