A REVIEW OF THE GRIND…This year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the publication of two of the best books about baseball. year anniversary this year. Published in 1990, George Will’s Men and Work and Thomas Boswell’s The Heart of the Order both are insightful examinations of the inner game, of the small things that players and managers do, in preparation for and during the execution of the game, that make for big differences in game outcome. Will, an opinion writer best known for his political commentary (and recently ridiculed by Donald Trump) is both everyday fan and historian of the game. His interviews with the best players of his day (pitcher Orel Hershiser, shortstop Cal Ripken) and the best managers (Tony LaRussa) produce revelations that even the most ardent follower of the game found novel. In a series of books (including How Life Imitates the World Series and Why Time Begins on Opening Day), Boswell, a sports writer for the Washington Post, examined life both inside and outside the foul lines. His works were compilations of his regular newspaper columns. His “99 Reasons Why Baseball is Better Than Football” (1987) is a funny comparison of the DNAs of America’s past and future pastime, and one of the major documents in the long standing baseball vs. football debate.
Perhaps it is no surprise that on the 25th anniversary of Will’s and Boswell’s books, another Washingtonian would offer us an inside look at the game today. Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post has been a beat reporter for the Washington Post covering baseball and the sporting world for the last 10 years. Svrugla’s addition to the extensive baseball shelf is The Grind: Inside Baseball’s Endless Season.
Perhaps it’s no surprise either that the team whose season he wants to document is the Washington Nationals, one of the best teams in baseball. Many sportscasters pick them as 2015 World Series finalists and they currently lead the National League East, though with a record not as robust as many would have predicted. The Nationals are clearly a franchise on the way up, despite their quick flameout in last year’s National League playoffs, and with a bright future due to All-Star players like outfielder Bryce Harper and pitcher Max Scherzer and a creative general manager in Mike Rizzo.
While Svrluga’s book gets positive cover blurbs from his famous predecessors Will and Boswell (and from Pardon the Interruption co-host Tony Kornheiser and Nationals player Ryan Zimmerman), the book, while interesting, feels a bit lighter. Part of the reason is that it is a collection of longer set pieces that appeared in the Washington Post, previously published materials altered to suit the his goal of showing what the “grind” of the title means. He is always eager to remind us that the baseball season is a long one. It begins in early March and for clubs fortunate enough to advance to the World Series it goes through late October. It’s a season that has twice as many games as football and hockey and ten times as many as football. While professional basketball players may have three or four non-game days per week, the professional baseball player may go two weeks without a day of rest.
But it is not the players who are of greatest interest to Svrugula, although there are chapters devoted to established veterans and to the utility players (the 26th Man) who bounce up and down between the parent club and AAA baseball throughout the season.
Instead Svrugula is fascinated by the work lives and fan lives of the supporting cast: the scouts who build up huge airline mileage awards in their search for the next superstar; the wives who with young children in tow head South for spring training and to the DC area where they wait patiently for their husbands’ 10 day road trips to end; the Chicago-born general manager who rose in the organization through the scouting ranks and loves the art of the deal. While the Nationals have 200 players under contract, they have 1,100 personnel – ticket sellers, public relations specialists, catering coordinators – on the payroll. All of these bit players feel “the grind” in their own way.
No chapter captures the everydayness of the baseball season than that devoted to men described as “The Glue” of the organization: Rob McDonald, VP for clubhouse operations, and Mike Wallace, team travel/clubhouse/equipment manager. These are the guys who are responsible for all of the logistics required to getting a team on the field for a 7PM start in Atlanta after playing an extra-inning game that ended in Miami at 12:30AM. These are the guys who are responsible for a three city road trip that involves scheduling “1 train ride, 3 flights, 46 bus rides, 78 passengers, 25 equipment trunks, 6 sets of golf club, 70 equipment bags, 1 massage table, 125 pieces of luggage, including 2 guitars.” These are the guys who in off-season don’t get to rest poolside like the players do but instead are arranging all of the hotel and transportation bookings for the next season and the temporary housing for players and staff during Florida spring training. Svrluga has a fine appreciation for the ways that the team’s success on the field is due to McDonald’s and Wallace’s ability to enable the players to concentrate fully on the game itself.
Baseball’s inside game involves dissecting a pitcher’s pick-off decisions or figuring out how to pitch to the league’s best bunter with one out and a man on second. Plenty has been written about this part of baseball, as the Will and Boswell books attest. While there may not be the same kind of interest in how an equipment manager deals with retro jersey days as there is in a manager’s deliberations on when to bring in the relief pitcher, I wished there were more attention to the indispensable, behind-the-scene guys like McDonald and Wallace, who, I’m sure, could run rings around The Rolling Stones roadies.