Friday, December 26, 2008

Spring Training: A book review along with some personal memories

I am currently in Georgia, on a ten day road trip, out of the snow and ice. Hopefully, I'll catch up on reading blogs while on "vacation." I have not been doing any serious reading this month, as I'd promised myself. Most of my reading has been humorous. Although this book isn't humorous like Bill Bryon or Carl Hiassen, it brought many smiles to my face. Just remember as you shovel snow or scrape ice, in another five or six weeks pitchers will be reporting to spring training! (Who needs ground hogs?)

William Zinsser, Spring Training (1989, reprinted 2003, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press), 207 pages plus 16 pages of prints.

I can’t believe I "found" this book without first knowing about it. Last month, in a going-out-of-business sale at our hamlet’s bookstore, this title caught my attention. I pulled it off the shelf and was surprised to see a “Pirate” sand sculpture on the cover and wondered, “Can this be about the Pittsburgh Pirates?” Then I turned it over to the back cover and read that not only was this about my team, the Pirates, but it was about their 1988 Spring Training. In 1988, I was a graduate student in Pittsburgh and was at Three River Stadium on opening day, to see Fred Roger’s throw out a “wild” first pitch. I chalk it up to providence in finding this book.

William Zinsser is a master storyteller. Years ago I read his book, On Writing Well. Spring Training is the second book of his that I’ve read. (Currently, I am almost finished with a third book of his, Writing About Your Life, which I’m sure I’ll review at a later date.) Zinsser prose, at places, is almost poetic. His writing is descriptive. But it’s not limited to what happens at the Pirate training camp in Bradenton, Florida. Zinsser tells the story of the six week of training in a way that connects us to the larger world of baseball, its history and the long up coming season. Although about baseball, this book you gain some understanding of what theologians refer to as “the communion of saints” within these pages.

Zinsser begins his book with a personal chapter on the “rites of spring,” where he talks about a previous trip to Florida to watch the Boston Red Sox’s train. In this chapter, we learn about the history of spring training as well as Zinsser’s interest in the game. Next, he talks about baseball’s historic tie to Florida. Then he goes into a chapter by chapter breakdown, reporting on the role of Syd Thrift, the Pirate Bible-quoting General Manager; Jim Leyland, the manager; the other coaches; the scouts and each of the positions on the field. Inserted into these descriptions is a visit to Edd Roush, who was the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame and a resident of Bradenton. Roush died a few days after Zinsser’s visit. In his epilogue, Zinsser tells of the first game of the season and how the Pirates, a young team, had their best beginning in decades. For the University of Pittsburgh Press edition, Zinsser has prepared a new “postlude,” where he tells about how the Pirates played well, but not good enough in 1988, how they lost over a hundred games in 1989, only to come back and win their divisions in 1990, 1991 and 1992.

Although this book is about baseball, one also learns about management techniques and educational philosophy. First of all, baseball is a negative game. A 300 hitter will be out twice as many times as they make it to the bases! Zinsser spends time talking to Leyland about what a team can learn from losing (which the Pirates did a lot of in 1986-1987). Spring training is a time to sharpening skills, for developing good habits and avoiding bad ones. The infield coach informs Zinsser that they don’t practice too long on one thing, for doing so risks the players becoming tired or bored and picking up bad habits (136).

This book was a pleasure to read. Memories of the Pirates in the late 80s flash back in my mind. I could hear the announcer roll out names of players approaching the plate: Rafael Belliard, Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds (he was a skinny 23 year old in these pre-steroid days), Sid Bream, R. J. Reynolds, Mike LaValliere and Andy VanSlyke. I recalled times of watching Doug Drakek and Bob Walk pitch. I remembered going to the ballpark on Wednesday Evening for “Buc Night.” You could sit in the cheap seats for a buck and we would ride the bus downtown and back for a buck and a quarter! It was good it was so cheap, it meant we had money for beer, which cost more than the ticket and bus ride! I remembered how, after I left Pittsburgh in the Spring of 1990, I came each year to meet up with friends, including Brent who is no longer with us, and cheered the Pirates on against the Reds (in 1990) and the Braves (in 1991 and 1992). These were optimistic times and each year I had a ticket to the World Series (the winners of each division presell tickets for the series). And I also remembered the disappointments as the Pirates lost the playoffs and failed to make it to the World Series. I’ve never been to a World Series game, but Zinsser’s reminded me of the times when I came close!


  1. You lucky... oh, nevermind... I'm a nice girl... I don't use such language. ;)

    Let me reword that: I'm so happy you get to be in Georgia right now. I love Georgia. And higher temperatures than the 20s we are having.

    As for the book, without your review, I'd definitely pass over it. Reading about sports wouldn't interest me, however, baseball is the one sport I really do enjoy, and since it's more than just what happens at spring training... well, I just might pick it up someday.

  2. I'm not a baseball fan, Sage, but I do hope that you have a safe trip and don't run into any more snow and ice.

  3. I'm looking forward to going to Barnes and Noble with my Xmas gift cards to take a chance at finding gems like this one.

  4. Since I only watch baseball when I need to sleep, I think I'll skip this book but the other two on the subject of writing sound interesting. I can't wait for the reviews.

  5. Lisa, I can't say I love Georgia. It's not NC and it's not the West and it's not even Michigan (which I'm rather fond of despite the lack of mountains and jobs and economic good news)

    Kenju, but it's more than a baseball book!

    Diane, good luck shopping!

    Ed, It's been years since I read "On Writing Well," so I don't think I'll review it. I will review the other book--and I recommend the both.

  6. hmmm... i love georgia. i love savannah and would be happy to live on a boat there someday...

    i know it's a matter of opinion and personal choice, but how could one not love savannah???!!!

    I do love VA Beach and Williamsburg moreso than anywhere in GA though.

  7. I have the line "I'm goin' to Georgia on a fast train honey" by Billy Jo Shaver in my head.

    Enjoy the break in cold. I hope your Christmas has been wonderful.

  8. I remember watching Field of Dreams with a friend. Afterwards he told me how much he loves movies about baseball. "Baseball!" I shouted. "That movie wasn't about baseball!"

    Enjoy your break.

  9. I ain't in Savannah. I'm a southerner, raised up in eastern NC, near the ocean. I'm always sad when I come back to the sprawl that has overtaken the south. That said, the one way I would consider moving back to the SE coast would be on a boat.

    Deana, try "it's a rainy night in Georgia!" Or maybe the Marshall Tucker Band: "Take me Southbound, all the way to Georgia now, till the train run out of track..."

    Fantasy Life, baseball and life are interwined!

  10. A book that takes you back and prepares you for what's to come; what a find.

    I'm trying to find more baseball books suitable for my son (who's 7). He loves the Boston Red Sox.

    I hope you're enjoying your road trip!!

  11. I'm going to Atlanta for the first time (aside from many times at the airport) probably in January

    I love Zinnser's On Writing Well--didn't know about the other book and will get it either when in NY for New Years or Amazon

    We do have a second hand bookstore in a strip mall that's rather good

  12. I didn't know about this book. I'm glad I found your posting! I grew up going to Bucs games at Three Rivers, our family driving up from Washington, PA. Now I live in Georgia, but still spend a portion of most spring trainings with a friend in Bradenton. McKechnie Field is one of my all time favorite ballparks. It's great that in this day and age of franchise movement (Dodgers & Indians left the Grapefruit League this year alone) that the Pirates have remained entrenced in the Friendly City since 1969. Even Three Rivers Stadium has come and gone since then. Hopefully I'll be able to find Zinsser's book. There's not much written on the subject of spring training outside of the last decade.

  13. Scarlet, this is probably a little beyond a 7 year old reading level, but if he's still interested when 17...

    Pia, I need to go back and review On Writing Well. Actually, in Spring Training, he writes about writing--comparing how writing and baseball are both negative sum games (you write more discarded sentences and are out far more times than you write perfect sentences or score runs.

    Graham, What a website you have--all the links to the various spring training ball parks! I haven't been back to a game in Pgh since the mid-90s--I've only been back once since then and it was in November... I drove by the new stadium. One day, I'll check it out.

  14. You're on a road trip and you're still blogging... and of all the topics you blogged about baseball?! Hhmm, either your road trip is depressing or you're depressed :)

    (I'm bored, I need to pick on someone, and consider yourself lucky!)

  15. Ah, so that's the Pittsburgh book you were mentioning :)

  16. The idea of spring training being only six weeks away may get me through winter yet ;-)

    I cheered loud and proud for the Braves in '91 and '92... and every year since, even when they suck like they did this year. (OK, so they really have only sucked the last couple, but you know what I mean.)

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