Back in 1988, baseball fan and writing guru William Zinsser (1922-2015) traveled to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring training in Bradenton, Florida. Zinsser’s purposes were to enjoy some baseball and to try to find a new slant on professional baseball. I’m enjoying reading Spring Training, but it’s not especially compelling.
Zinsser states that he was always a fan of the old New York Giants when he was growing up in New York City. After the Giants moved to San Francisco, he adopted the Boston Red Sox as his favorite team. However, when it came time to write about baseball, he decided to follow the Pirates because they were more “middle American,” more typical, than were the east coast Red Sox.
The Little Brother Who Didn’t Get the Inheritance (p. 21)
So, Zinsser headed to Bradenton (where the Pirates still train) and observed. Again, his prose is strong. Here is Zinsser comparing Sarasota and Bradenton –
The two cities share an airport – it’s called Bradenton-Sarasota – but they have almost nothing else in common. Sarasota is perched on the Gulf Coast, a coveted location for beach-house dwellers and condominium owners. Its downtown streets are suggestive of an old-money resort: boutiques, art galleries and pseudo-Spanish architecture. It’s also one of the few places in Florida where culture is as sought-after as the sun. Many writers and artists live there, and daily sustenance is at hand in the form of museums, concert halls, theaters, and a university. The look is one of affluence and self-esteem.
No such emanations are felt in Bradenton. It looks like the little brother who didn’t get the inheritance. Most obviously, it just missed being a Gulf Coast town, having been settled instead along the mouth of the Manatee River. Manatees, or sea cows, were once abundant in the river and are still quite common. “Resort” and “leisure” aren’t words that come to mind in Bradenton; words that come to mind are “hard work.” If Sarasota’s biggest attraction is the Ringling Museum of Art, Bradenton’s biggest enterprise is the Tropicana factory, which processes a million gallons of orange juice a day. The company was founded in 1946 by Anthony T. Rossi, the traditional immigrant who arrived from Italy with the traditional few dollars in his pocket and credited his success to ‘God and America, who gave me everything I have.’ On my first night in Bradenton I was awakened at 3 a.m. By a long freight train clattering through the center of town, carrying orange juice (I assumed) to the far corners of America. I liked the sound (pp. 21-22).
Another strong section focuses on Syd Thrift, the general manager who had been brought back to baseball after a long absence working in real estate. Thrift’s job was to rebuild the moribund Pirates team. Zinsser does a good job of detailing Thrift’s innovative methods.
Finally, Zinsser caught my eye with a short description of the Pirates’ Barry Bonds – “… a twenty-three-year-old outfielder with an open and likable manner” (p. 106). In the future, writers would devote many pages to Bonds, much of it negative.
A Swing and a Miss?
So what’s wrong here? Nothing, really. Zinsser admits at the beginning of the book that it was hard to find a unique angle on baseball. While spring training is a different topic, it is too slight to carry the book. I’m enjoying my reading, but – unless you’re a huge Pirates fan – I cannot give Spring Training more than a lukewarm recommendation.
Zinsser was a terrific writer with only a middling story to tell. The pages turn easily, but I can’t give Spring Training more than a 6 out of 10.