Soon after you start to read David Falkner's new book about spring training (The Short Season, Times Books, $16.95), you may be tempted to say to yourself, "The sophomore jinx strikes again!" Falkner's first book, published two years ago, was the innovative, revealing biography of Japanese home run hitter Sadaharu Oh—a genuine triumph—and if you compare that fine work with The Short Season, you'll surely wonder how such a superb writer could be struggling so hard to get started on another book. Well, stay with it—it gets a lot better; in the end, it is just as rewarding as his first one.
In one sense, the books are similar. Sadaharu Oh's particular achievement was its exploration of the inner life of a public performer—the ingredients that energize and propel an athletic career. In the current book, Falkner searches for the corresponding qualities in baseball's rites of spring, the season that, as he puts it, "is over almost before it begins," but holds much significance for the diligent observer.
As he travels from camp to camp in Arizona and, chiefly, Florida, Falkner spends little time on palm trees and sunshine and similar distractions. One of his concerns is conditioning. He had previously observed the regimen trainer Gus Hoefling puts Steve Carlton and other members of the Phillies through at Veterans Stadium, and he follows that up with a visit to the team's camp in Clearwater. Elsewhere, as he says, spring training "is accomplished well within banker's hours. In fact, there is usually time enough for nine holes...." Not for Carlton, Jerry Koosman, Pat Zachry, Greg Gross and other Phillies. Hoefling's workouts demand the same enormous expenditure of effort and concentration that are required by the martial arts on which, indeed, they are based. Falkner does not limit himself to descriptions of this and other training programs, impressive as his observations are. He helps you understand and evaluate them.
His reports are equally valuable in other areas, as when he compares the atmosphere of purposefulness and cohesion at the Orioles' camp, despite the decrepitude of Miami Stadium, with "the feeling of settled gloom that one finds in and around today's Red Sox," in Winter Haven. Falkner, admittedly, is a great admirer of Oriole team orientation, of Oriole tradition and training methods and, especially, of Eddie Murray; but he is also a longtime Red Sox fan. So he can hardly be accused of bias in his analysis of "the lamentable slide suffered by the team since its near championship year of 1975." His Winter Haven report is a gem, amusing, as well, in its description of the diametrically opposed views and techniques of Boston's two batting coaches, Walt Hriniak and Ted Williams: Hriniak is a Charlie Lau disciple, and Williams, as usual, is his own man. Says Williams of the Hriniak-Lau theories, "I really in my heart feel that some of this junk has retarded hitting ten to fifteen years." You might feel something in your heart for the Sox rookies caught in this kind of crossfire.
Falkner did not visit every camp in the spring of 1985, of course, but there is much of interest in the book for fans of any team and any player—from a sharp vignette of Billy Martin in the Pink Pony restaurant in Phoenix to a warm tribute to Jimmie Reese, once Babe Ruth's roommate on the road, and here, at 80, in his 14th year of coaching, hitting fungoes just out of the reach of California Angels' fielders for hours at a time.
There are a number of reasons for the early misgivings about The Short Season: the scattering of grammatical errors that starts with the book's very first sentence, for example. But the most serious of the problems (they all fade, eventually) is that Falkner decided to write a book about spring training in the first person. When is this mania for reporting events old and new with "I went there...I saw this...I feel that..." going to run its course? Falkner's first person is such a self-conscious device that he can tell you, as he does on page 8, "I spent a good deal of time researching my subject before I set out." For heaven's sake! Must we be told how hard our authors work—and by the authors themselves? Sure, you can skip over all the "I...I...I..." stuff and the lapses in grammar as well. But should you be asked to pay $16.95 for the privilege of editing someone else's book?