David Biddle: Spring Training and Working Hard
I spent the best 15 years of my life coaching city rec league baseball teams that my three sons played on. All three eventually became high school stars (definitely not their dad’s story). My middle son even became a first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies. He’s been a professional pitcher on a number of levels for 14 seasons. Spring training is my favorite time of year. I am reminded of the connections I always see every year between the writing life and what it seems like to be a ball player.
One caveat, though: professional baseball players and coaches aren’t very fond of articles like this. Most of them take a dim view of essays and stories that attempt to turn baseball into a metaphor for anything outside the white lines. I get that. But for me, there is definitely a correlation between why I have loved the game of baseball so much since the summer of 1966, and what the game has to teach me about that other thing I’ve loved since 1966, which is writing stories.
More Than Failure is the Norm
The most obvious lesson baseball is supposed to teach — better than practically any other sport — is based on the fact that players need to learn to deal with constant failure. Three hits in ten visits to the plate is basically all-star status. That’s failure 70% of the time.
Indeed, Commissioner Bart Giamatti once wrote that “…baseball is designed to break your heart.” People love that saying because it seems so pithy and defining. But you need to read Giamatti’s extended quote to get what he was actually trying to communicate:
“[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone.” (A. Bartlett Giammatti, Take Time for Paradise, 1991)
This longer quote (there’s actually even more to that paragraph) shows a more nuanced awareness of what baseball can mean. Every spring, those of us who love the game bring creativity, passion, and the comfort of being ridiculously nerdy out of the closets of our souls. We live through the season with our teams, experiencing the joy of the new beginning, then the long blossoming summer, and eventually that chill, fading back “to face the fall all alone.”
Writers do the same, of course, when they get rolling on a book or an essay or a poem or a play. Creativity, passion, and nerdiness keep us going. Writing a book can often feel like a single baseball season — even if it takes ten years. And then we’re done. There may be joy or at least relief. But eventually that feeling of having “to face the fall all alone” shows up. The same is often true for essays or op-eds or short stories, whatever, just on a smaller, shorter scale. Giamatti wasn’t talking about failure. He was talking about the joy of the game and the recurring wonder of going through a season, from beginning to end, and then the sadness and lonely feeling that comes when, again, that joy all comes to an end.
But Struggle As Well
I don’t mean to give the idea of failure short shrift here. Hitting a 93-mph fastball is one of the hardest things to do in sports. A hitter’s success is a pitcher’s failure (or his fielders’). Constantly having to re-learn the lesson of struggle and disappointment is part of playing (and watching) the game. It’s why baseball is so interesting. Hitters are always working on improving their bat swing mechanics and the details of throwing, catching, and running the bases. Pitchers spend entire seasons obsessively tinkering with the choreography of their wind up and delivery. In the professional writing world, failure is the norm as well. Several years ago, success for me was two accepted short stories out of 109 submissions to online journals all over the world. If I were a baseball player, my batting average would have been well under .050. Pathetic!
Funny enough, that was several years ago. During my first twenty or so years of taking writing seriously, not a single one of my short stories or article pitches was accepted anywhere. And every single book query was either rejected outright or never responded to at all. So, 2 out of 109 wasn’t so bad, all things considered.
Here’s a key insight, though: Most of us writer types don’t get a spring training, ever. We don’t have teammates to give us a pat on the butt or call us an endearing, partially risqué nickname. That failure thing is generally something we experience alone in front of a piece of glass. All that said, rejection and editor disinterest in our work is nothing compared to beginning a next piece, feeling that creative,] passionate, nerdiness take hold again. If we’re lucky, we’ll be successful the next time. Or the time after that. Just gotta keep toiling away, always working on our swing, and paying attention to the little things.
David Biddle is the author of the novel Old Music for New People. His new novel, Sound Effect Infinity, will be published by The Story Plant in November 2023. Watch for a few more thoughts on spring training, baseball, and being a writer in a few weeks as this year’s exhibition season comes to an end.
A version of this essay was published in February at the Writer’s Blokke publication on Medium.com
About the Author...
A part-time professional freelance writer since he published his first article on appropriate technology education with RAIN: Journal in 1985, David Biddle has published work with the likes of Harvard Business Review, BioCycle, Huffington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, GetUnderground, Resource Recycling, BuzzWorm, Talking Writing, etc. He was also a contributing editor to InBusiness (the 2nd best sustainability publication of all-time) for over a decade. His coming-of-age summer vacation novel, Old Music for New People, was published by The Story Plant in December of 2021.