Bookshelf review: Third Base for Life

July 20, 2012

A Memoir of Fathers, Sons, and Baseball, by Joshua L. Berkowitz. Vantage Point, 2012.

One of the knocks about youth sports over the last generation of so is that every kid comes away with a trophy, at least in the early stages. It’s all about building self-esteem, cooperating with others, good sportsmanship, etc. But as the athlete progresses through the various levels, that is no longer the case. The competition gets tougher, the stakes higher. So do we reward good intentions, even if the outcome doesn’t really warrant it? Do moral victories count?

Bearing that in mind, I had very mixed feelings about Third Base for Life, written by a doctor from the Boston area who agrees to lead a group of fourth graders from a Jewish day school as they prepare for a popular tournament in Cooperstown, NY. (Other than just one kid (!) who needs to keep kosher and a few other religious references.) In a way, Berkowitz and I have much in common. I coached my daughters softball team one year and served as an assistant coach for a few others, including a higher-level travel team. Anyone who’s had that experience — especially those who have worked with younger ballplayers — will appreciate Berkowitz’s stories of small success and amusing (and not so amusing) failures; dealing with butinsky parents who are, after all, only thinking of the welfare of their kids; and wondering, “what the heck am I doing here?”

For many readers, especially those who don’t really care about the baseball per se, it’s the relationships that are the key issues in Third Base for Life, especially that between Berkowitz and his son, Gabe. How often do we as parents agree to take on a project we really don’t want to do for the sake of our kids? The warmth there is endearing, both for them and the other coaches and their kids. The dialogue is, for the most part, believable, if a bit schmaltzy and the author is diplomatic (and amazingly patient) in dealing with his charges and owning up to his own shortcomings.

On the other hand, do we really need one more version of The Bad News Bears, a tale of a “ragtag group that must learn to play baseball, come together as a team, and face formidable opponents on and off the diamond,” as per the book’s blurb? There’s little to differentiate this Jewish team from other ethnic groups in the genre. In addition to TBNB — a multi-cultural group whose members actually won some games — you have Hard Ball, a 2001 film starring Keanu Reeves about a Chicago inner-city team with low expectations battling the odds (they won, too); The Perfect Game, a 2009 feature film about the first Mexican team to win the Little League World Series (you know they had to overcome racism and economic difficulties); The Comrades of Summer, a 1992 TV movie starring Joe Montegna as “Sparky Smith,” coach of a team of Russians; and even The Yankles, another 2009 feature about 20-something Yeshiva buchers who overcome lack of perceivable athletic ability to make it to a high-level tournament (their major tsouris was dealing with tourney organizers who weren’t so much anti-Semitic as greedy, rescheduling the championship game to Shabbat for the higher TV revenues. I finally saw this film during the “Judaism and Baseball” weekend at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center and will be addressing the film in more detail anon.).

A rough idea about the similarities between all these entities…

Hard Ball: “They were the worst team in the league…”

The Perfect Game: “Most kids only dream about playing in the big game. But for nine boys, that dream is about to become real…”

The Comrades of Summer: “To teach a team of Russian wanna-be baseball players the finer points of the all-American game is no easy task…”

(Sorry, no trailer available.)

The Yankles: “He needed a fresh start. They needed lots of help…”

One of the characteristics that separate these from Third Base is that the coach is an upper class professional, rather than a down-on-his-luck reprobate. In fact, despite the fact that Berkowitz says the high fees associated with entering the elite tournament were a hardship for some of the families, you get the feeling that’s not really an issue, especially when the regular catcher arrives after playing in a tournament in his family’s private jet. Hard to build up a lot of sympathy for the underdog here.

There are a few other issues I have, such as the “appearance” of Sandy Koufax during Berkowitz’s times of doubt and introspection, and some of the dialogue, which seems to acknowledge the repetitive nature of the “underdog theme,” as when he tells is wife

“Sheryl, this isn’t some movie where I can actually bring a truly terrible team to one of the most-sought after and praised national youth baseball tournaments. There won’t be any theater-going audience who will be happy to sit there, eat popcorn, and delight in our ineptitude. This is real life!”

There’s even a “where are they now” epilogue, which, for kids who are just a few years older than when the story ended, seems superfluous.

Y’all probably think I’m being too harsh, and you may be right. I sometimes tend to look at these stories with a mindset about the sports aspects more than the overarching story. How can I come down so hard on a book about fathers and sons playing ball? It’s like hating puppies.

So despite the flaws — little or great depending on your own points of view — I would still recommend Third Base for Life where honest sentiment trumps everything else.

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