Book review: Third Base for Life

The following is a review of Third Base for Life: A Memoir of Fathers, Sons, and Baseball, available from Vantage Point Books. It was just released in March and can be had for $15.95.

Parenthood will present you with many unexpected challenges. Third Base for Life chronicles Josh Berkowitz’s struggle with one such challenge.

One day, Berkowitz’s son, Gabriel, tells his dad that he’d like to play at fabled Cooperstown Dreams Park when he’s old enough. After all, his cousins from Florida have played there. A bit of research reveals this is no run-of-the-mill tournament. Instead, it is an annual gathering of super-human 10-year-olds. These are the boys who will go on to play in the majors in 10 or 15 years. Learning this, the already nervous father is paralyzed with fear.

He makes it happen though. At the urging of his wife and son, Berkowitz cobbles together a team from the Jewish day school his son attends and they are off to Cooperstown to see what they are made of.

The story is a good one. Berkowitz is torn between helping his son do something he really wants to do and fear over the inevitable humiliation that will come in the tournament (this is never really in doubt and my telling you about it spoils nothing). It’s relatable to anyone who ever seen a kid bite off more than he could chew.

The book, however, is not without problems. Berkowitz is a doctor by trade, not a writer, and it shows. There are genuine and occasionally glaring grammatical errors and he has little grasp of what constitutes a relevant or appropriate detail. He can’t tell you a car is an SUV. He has to tell you the make and model—meaningless information unless the car is parked in your driveway. A baseball glove isn’t just black. It’s a black Easton. Before anyone can answer the phone, we must take inventory of what everyone in the house is doing. That kind of silliness abounds.

Further, he spends much too much time explaining. The reader is never allowed to infer anything. Even the most obvious gestures—such as a finger-crossing tradition he has with his daughter—must be explained in full detail. This kind of over-writing means that a book that probably should have checked in well under 300 pages stretches to nearly 400.

But there are two things about the book that absolutely gall me: wooden dialogue and a lack of pacing. When reading memoirs, you have to accept that the writers are trying hard to remember the dialogue and it’s unlikely to be exactly what was said. Berkowitz seems to remember only in complete and perfectly grammatical sentences; this leads to most of his characters sounding robotic. And everything is life or death. Berkowitz (the character’s) neurosis is one of the more charming aspects of the book, but Berkowitz (the writer) would have done well to rein it in a bit. While finding a glass of milk for a lost tooth is, perhaps, a bit concerning or aggravating, it does not merit edge-of-the-seat angst.

So yes, the writing is very clumsy; the story, as I said, is not entirely without merit. Berkowitz does a good job of being true to his characters—never an easy task when you know many of them will read the book. No one comes off as perfect (though the Berkowitz family is eye-rollingly Walton-esque at times). The kids all get to have their own personalities and Berkowitz is open about the way the parents and coaches treat their children (alternately) as trophies and delicate gems—a source of pride to be protected from the outside world at all costs.

Additionally, as with many books written by inexperienced writers, it gets better as it goes. Once the tournament begins, the writing and story sync up and the book becomes genuinely compelling, as the events are truly exciting; time isn’t wasted with clinical and irrelevant descriptions of every minor event.

While I certainly can’t give a wholehearted recommendation to this book, if you have experience with the bond baseball can forge between a parent and child, it will be hard not to enjoy much of it, even if you’ll find yourself wanting to skim in places.

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Comments

  1. TC said...

    My interest in this book is on only one level. If this ball park features only the best and the brightest and the father knows this and the best he can do is “cobble” together a team of clearly not the best and the brightest, what does that tell you about privilege and his and his wife’s parenting? Wouldn’t it make more sense and be of greater value to their child to explain that to play in such a forum the child should spend years working on his game so he can join a team of the best and brightest and thus hope to legitimately play on the hallowed grounds? And then his father would not have to fear the inevitable results. And his child would learn something about himself and not just that money can buy anything. Then again, that’s probably all the kid does need to know. I look for it to be in the book of the month club.

  2. Jason Linden said...

    TC – There are definitely some issues with how privilege is addressed in this book that I simply didn’t have space to get into (the catcher has a private jet). However, they don’t buy their way into the tournament. They are one of a handful of lower-level teams that are let in. I gather the park does this to keep from seeming too elitist.

  3. Alan said...

    Have thou no mercy in your heart at all? All the problems you complain of should have been corrected by editors, the people paid big bucks to smooth out books before they are published. Get over it.

  4. Jason Linden said...

    Alan, so is the writer not responsible for the writing? Editors should have done a better job with this, but that doesn’t excuse poor story-telling. Also, what do you mean get over it? The job of a writer and his/her publisher is to provide a well-written book. That didn’t happen here and it needs to be mentioned.

  5. TC said...

    Jason- If I understood the registration fees correctly, it cost $800 per person, player or coach,plus what appears to be $1000 per team registering. I didn’t see anything about having to qualify. The guys a doctor so he’s got money to burn so the$1600 minimum for the two of them is probably play money to him but my point is really, can’t you just tell your kid to work toward this instead of undeserving instant gratification. Saying no to children seems to be a lost art form in this country and without having read the book, I would say this book is the manual for kids getting whatever they want, regardless of the wisdom of it all.
    Alan- A book has to be minimally, readable. If it isn’t, its a reviewers job, whoever you think the fault lies with, to point it out. How did the book get published in the first place? Another good question. I don’t suppose its another case of not what you know but who you know?

  6. allan said...

    The writer should do what he can, but editors and proofreaders exist for a reason (though they seem to be the first people that get fired if a publisher is looking to cut costs). It sounds like this house might not employ any editors at all – judging from grammatical errors and over-detail that distracts from the narrative – and whatever gets turned in goes to press.

  7. Jason Linden said...

    TC- Yeah, you’re totally right about that. Sorry, I didn’t get precisely what you were saying in your comment. There is definitely a lot of privilege flying around in this book

  8. Jason Linden said...

    Allan – The acknowledgements at the end of the book do indicate an editor, but as a writer I want to stress that most of the responsibility, ultimately, lies at the foot of the writer. All of us have blind spots and miss things from time to time. That’s what editors are there for.

    But… Editors don’t have their names on the covers. Somewhere along the line, an editor should have pushed for an extensive rewrite, especially of the first half. That might have happened and it might not have. But again, it’s the writer who should be held responsible for the quality of the writing. You can certainly fault the editors for typos and grammar errors, but not for narrative flaws.

  9. Gregory Hazard said...

    Jason,

    Your discussion about the author’s fondness for minutiae reminded me of Steig Larsson and Dan Brown.  Both authors write novels in the style of a curriculum vitae or newspaper obituary. But Berkowitz might be on to something.  Bad writing sells.

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