This is the story of your young, unproven, underpaid, downtrodden teacher. You know the type: The teacher who spends half the day laboring out of a dank and lonely trailer, one not even tricked-out enough to provide adequate heating or water of any kind, who must trudge outside in the dead of winter---the cold, the freezing rain, the snow, the mud and the puddles---just to use the restroom. The teacher who's a squatter in a more favored teacher's classroom a class period or two per day, who has no time or autonomy to discuss any subject with any student after class, because, after all, it is not the poor teacher's room.
This is also, strangely enough, the story of the Washington Nationals; it was their story, in part, even before they were named the Nationals. They hired employees on the spot and, as a signing bonus, handed them the keys to a spartan trailer in an RFK Stadium parking lot. When nature called, they faced the choice of carrying a flashlight and hoping all went well with a trip to a nearby Porta-Pottie or hopping in their cars and literally driving to the bathroom. The more senior executives, such as the team president, huddled in far more plush surroundings, a downtown law office---where they held their meetings, at least until they were kicked out by, you know, the actual tenants.
Situations like these are the heart of Barry Svrluga's National Pastime: Sports, Politics, and the Return of Baseball to Washington, DC. Svrluga, who covers the Nationals beat for the Washington Post, has composed the book form of a situation comedy, or a dramedy, or something similarly episodic. Importantly, Svrluga's work is not a real analysis of the first-ever Nationals, at least not per se. In National Pastime, you will not find incisive statistical analysis, or statistical analysis of any kind; you will not see anything beyond superficial references to the manner in which the team's relievers worked, and worked extremely hard at that; you will not notice anything beyond a passing exploration of the power-dampening effect rendered by spacious RFK; and, interestingly enough, you will not be granted anything more than a few pages on the apparently fractious personality conflicts that defined the team's final month or two of downhill momentum.
Instead, what Svrluga provides the reader is eleven chapters---more accurately, eleven episodes. At the risk of reading too much into this, I find it a fitting choice, as the Nationals are the baseball world's equivalent of the midseason network TV pickup, a new story that premieres in the winter, after all the established attractions, and is a bit bizarre.
And so, episode one is entitled "A Team, and the Trailers, Arrive"---and a bizarre pilot it is. The trailers. The portable restrooms. The night-time flashlight journeys. The perilous black ice lining the darkness in the parking lot. The plush law offices with no assurance of privacy. The initial press announcement at---of all places presaging anything---the Hinckley Hilton. The thoroughly combustible boss, Tony Tavares. The general manager, Jim Bowden, who basically said, "Forget all this; I'll see you in Florida." The excess team employees who were never moved from Montreal, and thus served a team located in a new city while themselves located in the team's abandoned location. "The whole thing," David Cope, Tavares' right-hand man remarked, "was crazy."
Crazy, wacky, weird, contrived, the antithesis of ideal---what else would you expect when the story's executive producers are Bud Selig and Bob Dupuy and Jerry Reinsdorf? It is up to Svrluga to adapt the situations into something resembling a coherent screenplay, and the young writer largely succeeds. National Pastime breaks no real ground for hard-core Nats fans like us, the types who will read all of Svrluga's and Ladson's and Zuckerman's and Wright's and Sheinin's articles and who will scour the logic (or illogic, depending on the circumstance) of those who provide commentary on our team, like Boswell, Loverro, and the rest of the gang. There are moments where Svrluga crystallizes storylines that were momentary flashpoints, such as the Zach Day situation (discussed earlier today), and where Svrluga essentially confirms what we previously believed, such as the obvious contempt shared by Jose Guillen and Brad Wilkerson. But National Pastime is not an encyclopedia of the Nats' first season, and it is not a tell-all book---instead, as noted, it is a chapter-by-chaper, episode-by-episode survey of the inaugural season of this version of the Washington Nationals. Sometimes the characterizations from individual episodes overlap, and the result is a repetition of descriptions that is potentially frustrating. By and large, though, the episodes are discrete.
Svrluga portrays an omniscient voice for the most part, but he also allows various characters---from inconvenienced front office employees; to an extremely devoted Washington fan named Alan Alper and his foil, a heartbroken and understandably forlorn Montreal fan named Katie Hynes; to Bowden; to field manager Frank Robinson---to narrate portions of the story. The story arc develops in a diverse and brisk fashion. Overall, Svrluga provides a broad-based snapshot in his book, one that is perhaps more appreciated by those farther away from the team and previously less familiar with the story. At the risk of being gauche, I use the Washington City Paper's review of National Pastime as an example. The reviewer provides a near-complete pan of the book, wishing on Svrluga his own expectations, informed by his own DC-based familiarity and obvious cynicism concerning the Nationals' story: Svrluga is too much of a beatwriter, wastes too much time painting pretty pictures and quoting breatheless fans like Alper, and does not rough-up the MLB honchos or delve sufficiently into the policy issues behind urban stadium financing. These are all fine points, except for a few problems: Svrluga is a beatwriter, most consumers of baseball books prefer nice writing and identify with foam-finger-wavers, and unless your name is Andrew Zimbalist or Rodney Fort or Roger Noll, it's probably not advisable to focus a book on the economics of baseball or public stadia financing.
In truth, Svrluga is not really writing for us---for me, as the blogger, or the City Paper reviewer, as a concerned citizen. He is no doubt writing in part for us, and I contend that Svrluga's insights are not nearly as vacuous as claimed in the above link; however, he is also and perhaps primarily writing for a wider audience---Washingtonians not yet familiar with the team, people out-of-market who find the Washington Nationals as a curiosity, and those who would find reading one of his episodes in the local Sunday newspaper magazine to be pleasurable.
National Pastime could well provide fuller portraits of Bowden and Robinson. It could dig deeper and diritier into the politics. It could analyze tangible factors contributing to the Nats' improbable first-half rise (heroic relief pitching, stifling power suppression by the pitching staff at home, and incredible one-run luck) and to the team's miserable second-half collapse (complete absence of offense, notable pitching break-downs, injuries, and reversal in one-run luck); instead, it evaluates an intangible, the team's chemistry. But, truth be told, team chemistry is a more interesting subject than home park factors or maximum-bid construction contracts.
So those others are subjects for another book on the 2005 Washington Nationals; however, there will never be another book on the 2005 Washington Nationals---like it or not. I choose to like it.
Update [2006-5-2 7:20:56 by Basil]: Capitol Punishment has posted a review with a dimmer, though certainly reasonable, evaluation of the book. The general sentiment there is that Svrluga takes an overly cursory review of the Nats' season, something I can't really rebut. I enjoyed Svrluga's stylized look at the team, but as I noted in my review, it's not an in-depth analysis.