Roger and ME

Roger and ME

This summer I came face to face with a childhood hero. Not an athlete, but a writer.

Baseball writer Roger Angell, whose yellowed paperbacks still sit on my bookshelf, was one of my favorite authors. As a baseball-obsessed teen, I devoured his books.

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He wrote about the game as I saw it. The poetic motion and grace of ballplayers and the texture and smell of leather gloves and wooden bats were all there in his magical prose.

Angell’s books evolved from his New Yorker articles. They came out every five years and chronicled the previous five seasons, always detailing the postseason as no newspaper writer could.

Assigned to document Roger’s visit to Yankee Stadium with SI Senior Writer Tom Verducci, I was excited but cautious. I’ve worked with Tom often, and love talking baseball with him…but there’s a dynamic between subject and writer that I don’t like to interfere with, so I planned to keep a low profile. I didn’t want to break that spell. The plan was for Roger and Tom to spend time on the field during BP, visit the Yankee clubhouse, and then watch the game from the press box.

As Tom and I waited for Roger in the June sun outside Yankee Stadium, he explained that Roger wanted no part of the field or the clubhouse. We would have to make do with a press box setting.

Roger arrived by cab and delicately unfolded his 93-year-old frame - imagine an old aluminum lawn chair expanding- from the taxi.

Pictures that night were pretty generic. There were few workable angles as they sat in the front row of the press box. A few profile shots of Roger peering through his glasses reflected the sun and shadows of BP, mixed in with detail shots of his credential and notebook (featuring his scratchy pen sketches of ballplayers!) were about the extent of my take that night.

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After Tom and Roger moved to a back workroom to talk (I listened from behind a row of desks) we ate dinner in the Media Lounge. This is where the magic started. It evolved into a conversation between three baseball fans with unusual access. Anecdotes, details from the past, name dropping, comparing notes; no different than any other meeting of baseball photographers or writers. Roger's cadence was soft and deliberate, but his memory and story telling were sharp and vivid.

As Roger got up to go, I looked over at Tom…we both remained seated, almost as if stunned by what we’d just experienced.

“It’s like having dinner with God,” I whispered.

“Exactly,” Tom replied.

It then dawned on me that Tom was charged with writing a feature about one of the greatest baseball writers of all time…one soon receiving the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in Cooperstown.

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We settled back into the front row of the press box, now packed and buzzing with the sound of pregame announcements and music. With no fresh picture options, I simply became part of the conversation. I was amazed that Roger’s name dropping was more about who he wrote about than who he knew. He clearly implied he was not chummy with the players. Given that he wrote for the New Yorker, I have to believe many players may never have seen, let alone read, his pieces.

Roger planned his exit to beat traffic in the 8th inning…I broached the subject of another meeting for pictures at home and at his New Yorker office.

I knew he had a Fox Terrier named Andy and was anxious to get them to interact at the apartment. We agreed to talk soon.

The next morning I stopped by the SI offices and popped in on Managing Editor Chris Stone. We talked about the stadium pictures and the upcoming options. I mentioned, as a point of time frame, that Roger was headed to Maine the end of the next week, “to get off the grid.” Roger’s family summered in Maine, and he spoke nostalgically about it the evening before. Chris immediately said, “We have to get up there to get that.”

“He pretty much said he went up there to get away from everything,” I replied. “It didn’t sound like an invitation.”

Chris was already picking up his phone, “I’ll call Verducci right now and get on this.”

I called Roger a few days later and scheduled a meeting at the New Yorker office on the following Wednesday morning. He mentioned, unsolicited, what a great time he had chatting with us the night at the stadium, and, besides being thrilled that the feeling was mutual, I felt emboldened.

“Could I come to the apartment earlier that Wednesday morning,” I asked?

“Oh, no we can’t do both.”

I certainly wanted the apartment over the office, so I asked to change locations.

“Call me Monday at 9am.” he said. He was leaving that Friday for Maine and seemed very harried preparing for his trip. It seemed a bit excessive to me, but I kept reminding myself…and my editor…that he was 93.

Monday morning I was ready to go. I mean literally ready to go. I was dressed and packed to shoot. If he wanted me in New York at 11, I may have even made it!

I was driving my son to work, when my phone rang at 8:50am. It was Roger, who had been away from his phone, and wanted to make sure he had not missed my call. I realized there was a part of Roger that wanted this story and wanted these pictures, and another part, that for some reason, seemed reluctant.

We scheduled to meet at his apartment on Wednesday at 9:15. For 30 minutes.

The morning of the shoot was horribly humid. My short walk left me drenched in sweat, and the apartment’s AC unit hummed in overdrive trying to beat down the heat. Andy was excited to have a visitor and the toy I brought for him (an orange hippo/elephant thing) got his attention.

Roger mentioned in passing that Tom was visiting him in Maine, and, assuming that meant me too, a sudden rush of excitement shot through me. The apartment pictures were fun with relentless Andy (in Roger’s words, “he's four going on nothing”) jetting around us both. But the pictures were not opener material. The thought of photographing Roger in Maine eased my stress.

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At the 27-minute point Roger mentioned he had to make a call, and it was clearly time to wrap up. Roger’s timeliness would catch me off guard again, but Andy would bail me out. I waded back into the soupy haze thinking of Maine.

Baseball Picture Editor Nate Gordon told me to arrange to go to Maine, so I contacted Tom to get his itinerary. My email request to Roger to accompany Tom was rebutted with a gentle, but clear “no.” Tom was just making a personal visit to Maine, he wrote.

Now, this wouldn’t be the first subject to try and get out of being photographed, but he didn’t really think Tom was coming for just a visit did he? Not a writer? Working on a story for SI?

Tom intervened and set us up for two days of shooting in Maine. Better yet, it was after Tom’s trip so I’d have the story in hand and could work smarter.

When I pulled up to Roger’s Maine house I was greeted at the door by Peggy Moorman, Roger’s fiancé. (You want details, check out Roger’s incredible New Yorker piece). Andy came charging around the corner and clearly remembered the ‘orange-toy guy’. In fact the toy lay in the middle of the main room.

The office envisioned a portrait of Roger on a scenic Maine shoreline, and then some lifestyle shots at the house. One scene mentioned in Tom’s SI story, described Roger taking Tom to see his family’s gravesite which included a headstone, etched with Roger’s name, just waiting for the final date…and Roger. I envisioned photographing Roger at that location, mocking his fate with a hearty laugh. Roger greeted me as Andy bounced around, and Peggy brought lemonade to the veranda.

After some small talk Roger announced, “We’re going sailing.” Roger walked past me and up the steps where his retreating voice mumbled, “In ten minutes.”

Peggy seemed as surprised as me, and she scrambled to pack them sweatshirts while I rooted through my gear thinking about what I’d need; I’d never been sailing, so I tried to stay compact but knew full well I’d have one shot at this trip. Roger came down the steps and said to no one in particular, ”We’re leaving in four minutes.”

I was pulling out sunscreen, a sweatshirt, my Tilley hat, my gear, when Andy walked to the center of the room and bailed me out by puking all over the floor. I love that dog.

That bought me the extra minutes I needed, and bang, we were out the door.

Verducci nailed Roger's driving in his story so I won’t pile on here. We survived the trip to the marina and boarded a beautiful boat with two of Roger’s friends.

We sailed about two hours on a spectacular summer afternoon. Roger was in his glory, a little boy again, sailing, giving instructions, and playing tour guide along the Brooklin coastline.

The banter between Roger and Peggy was smart and funny. I was still a bit in shock at the fact that I was sailing with Roger Angell, but Peggy had clearly dispatched that feeling. About an hour into the trip the conversation had again drifted from the ‘subject of Roger’ beyond the allowable 30-second period. So, tiller in hand, he tapped his right wrist with his left fingers and said, out of the blue, "This right hand I'm sailing the boat with is also the hand I use to write baseball."

Peggy didn’t miss a beat, “And this is the mouth that points it out.”

Roger looked at her and smiled, curling out a finger towards her, because I assume, he was speechless! They both broke out laughing. It was a great moment.

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Back at the house I broached the subject of the cemetery, but that was a non-starter. Roger said he did not want to go there and asked that I not photograph the headstone either. I complied, but knew the scene was vividly described in the story. Was it second thoughts about revealing that image, or was it simply that a writer for a magazine that, until recently, never used photographs, could not see the power, or irony, in that image?….I may never know.

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With a trip to the shoreline planned for the morning, and Roger taking a nap, I took Andy outside with his tennis ball.

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The following morning we got our coastline pictures but Brooklin is so remote that it was almost too barren. A Maine novice, I was expecting folksy lobster shacks and mist on the water. My plan was to transmit from my hotel around noon, but Nate texted a change in plans; it was 9am and he needed the pictures asap.

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I drove to the small public library to use their wifi. Trying to save transmit time with a loose edit, I never properly ingested the images, missed captioning the images with the .xmp file, then, ended up sending one batch of images ordered by file name and a second batch ordered by capture time, somehow creating matching jpegs and raws with different file names!

Taylor Ballantine, one of our techs bailed me out with a remote access re-do of the whole process…only to have one relatively minor image run with the story, replaced by a pencil drawing opener that, quite honestly, I didn’t even think looked like Roger.

But I have learned in the last 25 years that the only control I have is the work that I do, and the real, lasting value is the adventures and relationships I experience. I type this next to a Drobo unit, bearing a picture of me actually sailing a boat, sitting next to Roger Angell, in waters off Brooklin, ME.

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All images ©2014 Sports Illustrated/Al Tielemans

Tech specs: Canon 1DX, Canon 14mm 2.8L, Canon 16-35 2.8L, Canon 135 2.0L, Canon 70-200 2.8L

Posted in Baseball