Spring training: a season of hope, a time for talk

The Short Season: The Hard Work and High Times of Baseball in the Spring, by David Falkner. New York: Times Books. 288 pages. $16.95 The problem with writing about baseball is the same as writing about good food. The best advice is to go and enjoy it and talk about the details while you're enjoying it. But here's a good attempt that will make food for the mind of the fan.

The baseball year starts during ``The Short Season,'' and the book gives us a tour of the archipelago of spring training camps that stretch from Florida to Arizona, places described as ``a carnival, a boot camp, a country fair, a street festival, a meditation on things slow, easy and tranquil. . . .'' Most of the camps are in Florida, but not all. The Chicago Cubs, for example, are near Phoenix, Ariz.,close to the Superstition Mountains. Cubs fans will wonder about the name of the city and the mountains.

Spring training is a time of hope, probably the most boyish part of the entire boyish sport. It's the time when everybody talks -- players, managers and owners -- and only the real sportswriters know that, though they are talking out loud, they are really talking to themselves. Some of the greats are here (Dave Winfield, Ted Williams, Sparky Anderson), and some great talkers: Billy Martin as you've never heard him, even if you thought you'd heard enough. Later in the season, when the won-lost ratio is either so bad that there's no sense in talking, or so good that you don't dare say a word, the game will get down to the nervous, split-second game of inches that is professional baseball. But in the spring, there's plenty of talk.

Mr. Falkner is not a sportswriter, but was at one time a minor leaguer. It's surprising he writes so well. He gets the mood and the detail -- it must be love. It's all nicely balanced, not much rhapsodizing over the players or gushing about the game itself. He shows us he knows what the game is; it's a pastime, and all the more valuable because that's all it was ever designed to be.

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