The great Mike Barnicle wrote, “That’s one of the great gifts of this, the greatest of all games, baseball: it allows you, still, to lose yourself in a dream, to feel and remember a season of life when summer never seemed to die and the assault of cynicism hasn’t begun to better optimism.”
And in his introduction to his father’s last novel, Jeff Shaara wrote, “What is it about baseball? … My father understood that baseball is a part of all of us, and will always be. He understood the purity of the game, the simple and the complex, and he understood that no matter how often the game changes, or how many records fall, we will still be there, still watching, for the love of the game.”
Summer. Optimism. Purity. Love. Dreams. You get all of it Michael Shaara’s For Love of the Game—a wistful, quick read about pitcher Billy Chapel. He’s aging. He knows it. The season is winding down. he’s on a bad team. There’s a growing weight to the season. Billy Chapel pitches for the last-place Hawks. He thinks about baseball but mostly because fans and hotel employees all ask him about it. Is he done signing that bucket of baseballs? You pitchin’ today? You okay?
But Billy’s mind is drifts to Carol, his lover of four years. Golden blonde. “Perfect” legs. “They were light to each other whatever the darkness.”
A sportswriter comes to his hotel room with bad news. He’s been traded. “They were going to hold it back until the season was over and not let you know till then. That’s only—a few days off. But they figured it was better not to break the news now. But when they let it loose, Billy, they won’t tell you first. Just as they do so often with … Willie Mays, fellas like that. The big boys they—can’t face. You’ll hear it on the news or read it in the paper, and that’s the first they expect you to know.”
Seventeen years with the same team and it’s over. Shaara’s style is deeply interior—often quick and clipped:
“Knew this day would come.
Yep. But. Well.
Chapel had seen this coming, knew it was coming, and had planned nothing, nothing at all.”
Carol, when she appears, has her own issues—she’s quitting her job and going home. Carol, who was married once and no longer thinks Billy needs him, is thinking of getting married again.
For Love of the Game builds toward Billy Chapel’s last turn on the mound for the Hawks and the action remains all in Billy Chapel’s head as he throws a stellar game and continues to alternatively reminisce, ponder his future, and grow increasingly worried about a pain in his arm.
“Pain only there, in the right arm. Better now. How much reserve? No way to know. From the back of the brain … a slow dark signal from deep down there, way back where the dreams formed and much of the work was done. There’s not enough left, Billy Boy, Billy Boy. They’re going to get you.”
(The ellipses are Shaara’s. For Love of the Game loves ellipses.)
Billy Chapel even contemplates his own dilemma in the context of The Old Man and The Sea—lone, wounded man on a singular, gallant, last-gasp mission. That Billy Chapel makes the Hemingway comparison (and not us readers) might be a little too on-the-nose, but For Love of the Game is an often poetic portrait of veteran pitcher, alone on the mound, playing a mystifying, beautiful sport.