The Art of Fielding has a feel-good sports story ending—the Harpooners win the championship, after all. At the same time, it's also got one of the weirder endings we've experienced in contemporary fiction.
First, the winning plot: despite Henry quitting the team (or maybe because of it), the Harpooners make it to the championship. However, injuries force a few players off the team, and Owen sits out when he finds out Guert Affenlight has died (more on that in a sec).
So, Henry has to step in. It's odd that the book hinges on Henry batting when he's known for his defense, and maybe Henry himself realizes this. Perhaps he remembers one of his first games, when Owen lays down a bunt: "When a player hit a home run, his teammates were at liberty to ignore him, but when he sacrificed himself to move a runner, he received a long line of high fives" (5.48). Henry takes "sacrifice"literally, bunting the ball with his head, which moves players along the bases and wins them the game. Sure, it almost kills Henry in the process, but he's at rock bottom by that point and doesn't care.
Even though Henry is off his rocker—getting purposefully hit on the field and saving his pee in Gatorade bottles—he gets a huge signing bonus from the St. Louis Cardinals. Still, he rejects the major leagues to stay at Westish. He doesn't want anything to change, probably because he hasn't changed himself. He might be a little more muscular, but Henry is basically the same person at the end that he is at the beginning.
Ashes to Ashes
Now to the weird ending: while Henry is stressing out about baseball, his teammate Owen is having an affair with sixty-year-old Guert Affenlight, who happens to be the college president. Guert gets caught and is forced to retire. He, too, takes the concept too seriously and just up and dies. It's been foreshadowed for a while, with all the smoking and heart disease, so it doesn't actually come as a surprise.
What does come as a surprise is what his daughter, Pella, decides to do to honor his memory. Dedicate a building to him? No. Build a statue? Nope. She digs up his dead body and dumps it in a lake.
Go ahead and read that again. We'll wait right here...
Digging up her father's corpse is given less thought than that time she agonized over washing Mike's dishes. Why does she have this idea? Well, Emerson did it. Allegedly, Emerson dug up his dead wife's grave. Her dad liked this story, so Pella decides it must be a good idea. (Count us out, though. We like Great Expectations, but it doesn't mean we want to be jilted at the alter and burned to death in our dingy wedding gown.)
Pella and Mike interpret the Emerson story as making death symbolic: "Your mind stayed trained on the emotional, the intellectual, the symbolic" (80.21). And that's just what Pella does with her dad's body. She makes it a symbol. But a symbol of what? Of dealing with grief? A metaphor for being buried at sea? It's up to you to decide.