October 10, 2018

It’s Never “Only a Game” — John McPhee Makes Things Matter

By Stuart Mitchner

Early morning, early October, my wife and I are walking along the Delaware near Lambertville, the roar of the rapids so loud there’s no talking until we’re past the sound, heading south toward Washington’s Crossing. Downriver near Pennsbury Manor my paternal ancestors John and Sarah were indentured servants on William Penn’s estate, having come to America with him from England in 1682 on the good ship Welcome.

I’m mindful of my roots these days after unloading boxes of family photos, clippings, genealogies, old letters, and journals like my mother’s from the time she and my father took a cruise up the St. Lawrence to visit Barnhart’s Island, the home of her maternal ancestors. Just before she died, my mother, who grew up in river towns like St. Joseph, on the Missouri, and Smithville, on the Little Platte, told me, “Go down to the river.” My scholar father’s last words were “What’s on the agenda for today?” It would be hard to find two sentences more expressive of the differences between my parents and their families.

McPhee 33

Being one of those St. Louis Cardinal fans who enjoys imagining a symbiotic relationship between the bird and the baseball team, whenever I hear a cardinal singing sweet sweet in our backyard these days I feel like saying “What have you got to sing about?”

A year ago I was indulging in a similar lament while writing here about John McPhee’s 32nd book Draft No. 4. Now I’m reading number 33, The Patch (Farrar Straus and Giroux $26), and finding comradely reassurance in his image of the disciplined, self-denying writer who will put off domestic chores, “excuse himself from the idle crowd, go into his writing sanctum, shut the door, shoot the bolt, and in lonely sacrifice turn on the Mets game.”

When I turn on a do-or-die Cardinals game after a day engrossed in the Ford/Kavanaugh hearings, I have little hope that the season can be saved. In spite of the storybook surge driven by an influx of youthful pitching and hitting and a new manager, everything has come down to one moment in the last game of a series with the Milwaukee Brewers.

In the National Pastime it’s all about home. Other sports refer to the goal, the endzone and such, but in baseball the metaphorical significance of “home” makes scoring personal, a family matter, as in “home is where the heart is,” home is what it takes “a heap of living” to make a house of, the place where, contrary to Thomas Wolfe, you can go time and again, and if you’re on the home team and happen to hit a home run or score the game winner in the last of the ninth, you’ll have a hero’s welcome as you cross the plate, falling into the arms of your brothers to be joyously mobbed and doused with buckets of water. This season the Cardinals had enjoyed more than their share of walk-off celebrations, not to mention numerous comeback wins.

The distance between third base and home plate is the ground zero of baseball. Whole seasons can die there, which happened to the Cardinals when a rookie named Adolis Garcia, one of their fastest players, was sent in to run for a slower teammate with two out in the bottom of the eighth inning. The move appears to pay off when wild throw sends him running, suddenly there’s hope, here he comes, rounding third heading for home; if he scores, the game’s tied, and there’s a glimmer of life for the home team with extra innings on the agenda. And he’s fast, oh he’s really fast, he’s sure to beat the throw, except that after making the turn at third he loses his footing and stumbles, falling forward and down, all the way down, and though he’s up again in an instant, it’s too late, ground zero has become the Bermuda Triangle, for there stands the catcher, a human wall blocking the way, and the youth yearning for home can only stagger back at the threshold, a craven, deeply humiliating, excuse-me defeat, and that’s when everyone watching knows, if they ever doubted it, that the 2018 Cardinals are toast.

“It’s only a game,” Mickey Mantle’s wife is said to have told her tearful husband after Roberto Clemente and the Pirates defeated the Yankees in the 1960 World Series. Try telling that to Adolis Garcia. He’ll be back. He’s 25, hits with power and runs well, with 37 homeruns and 25 stolen bases in the minors, but it’s never going to be “only a game” for him. That stumble will haunt him as long as he lives and will also stand as the defining image for the end of what could have been a Cinderella season: the moment when the carriage turns back into a pumpkin and the horses to mice.

Life, Art & McPhee

Two days later we’re on another walk, this time on the towpath of the D&R canal off Quaker Road. As it happens, this is the path that crosses a golf course and I’ve been reading McPhee’s account of fishing for golf balls with his trusty Orange Trapper fly rod (“You could conduct an orchestra with it”) and of the St. Andrews Open where the winner tells a reporter “It’s still just a game you’re playing” after he and the runner-up have scored “more than a million pounds” between them.

Reading McPhee, life and art coalesce. Today of all days, on a canal path we’ve walked for 30 years, we pass a stylish Japanese woman stylishly fishing with the most genteely feminine fishing rod I’ve ever seen. It’s like a Vogue photo shoot without the photographer. She has a tidy little bag on her hip, with a fishing license in evidence, but compared to the people fishing a few miles farther north from the wooden bridge overlooking Lake Carnegie she might as well be painting a watercolor. Once again McPhee has heightened my sense of an activity I have little interest in, at least not since the one time I was taken fishing as a child and fell into the White River. Inspired by the title chapter of The Patch, I’m almost tempted to tell the woman about McPhee’s adventures in pursuit of the chain pickerel, “the lone ambush hunter” that can “accelerate like a bullet.”

I had the same conversational impulse as the path crossed the links, bringing us within earshot of two middle-aged golfers. Did they sign their golf balls? Did they agree with McPhee that “the weight of ballpoint ink” could alter the “pattern of flight” and affect “the precision of their shots”? Incredible thought. What do I care about golf? With the exception of playing the miniature version on vacations with my parents (where else can kids tilt at wind-mills?), the sport has been the epitome of so-whatness to me dating back to Ike, whom Gore Vidal liked to call “the Great Golfer.” Even worse, far worse, golf is currently associated with the terrible twosome, Donald Trump and Lindsey Graham, the inflatable master and his feral lackey. In fact, both these walks, river and canal, have occurred in the shadow of the Brett Kavanaugh debacle.

Making It Matter

I hadn’t intended to write about The Patch until closer to the book’s November 13 publication date, but once you find yourself responding to activities of no interest for you as if they mattered very much, it’s hard to resist sharing the experience. For example, here’s McPhee in the St. Andrews chapter (“Linksland and Bottle”) describing what one golfing authority calls the best view in all of sports:

“It’s a Brueghelian scene against the North Sea, with golfers everywhere across the canvas — putting here, driving there, chipping and blasting in syncopation, but being too smart to loft a wedge lest the ball be blown to the streets of St. Andrew a mile and a half away. When we turn around, the rest of the course is visible, all the way back to the masonry of the medieval town: golfers and galleries stopping and moving, moving and stopping — it’s like watching a Swiss astronomical clock reacting to the arrival of noon.”

Better yet is what McPhee pulls off in the next paragraph concerning the point “where the eleventh and seventh fairways cross,” which “may have been thought out by the same ram and ewe that caused West Fourth Street to wander all over Greenwich Village and eventually intersect West Twelfth.”

And he does all this locked into his “writing sanctum” where discipline and self-denial give way to baseball.


All but one of my references come from Part I of The Patch, “The Sporting Scene.” Part II, “An Album Quilt,” a patchwork of pieces that have never appeared in book form, is deserving of a separate discussion closer to the publication date. The range covered is dizzying, from the author’s recollection of his first drink to quick studies of luminaries such as Joan Baez, Richard Burton, Sophia Loren, and Thomas Wolfe, who wore size-thirteen shoes, “carrying his eccentricities with him until fame had transformed them into folklore.”

John McPhee will be at Labyrinth Books on Wednesday, October 24, at 6 p.m. with his former students, Kushanava Choudhury, author of The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta and novelist Elisabeth Cohen, author of The Glitch.