During spring training, the Washington Nationals bring along 600 bats and 16,800 baseballs to tide them over until the regular season. During a three-city road trip in 2014, Rob McDonald, the team’s travel coordinator, presided over a to-do list that included arrangements for “1 train ride, 3 flights, 46 bus rides, 78 passengers, 25 equipment trunks, 6 sets of golf clubs, 1 massage table, 125 pieces of luggage, including 2 guitars.”
These details are among the many interesting nuggets Barry Svrluga mines in his new book. The Washington Post sportswriter developed The Grind from a series of articles chronicling the toll of a major league season and showing the strain of baseball life through magazine-length profiles of a range of Nationals players and front-office staffers.
The subjects, whom the author trailed throughout 2014, include household names—Ryan Zimmerman, the veteran with 1,250 games to his name—and the heads of households, like Chelsey Desmond, wife of shortstop Ian Desmond. Last season, as the Nats entered the playoffs, Chelsey’s third child was due in October. She negotiated with doctors to induce the birth on Oct. 10—a day off between the division series and the league championship series—so Ian could be at the hospital. “Baseball wives,” Svrluga writes, “are expected to wed at a certain time of year, to give birth at a certain time of year, to pick up the toys and the car and the dogs and the kids when Dad is sent to the minors or traded midseason. They are full-time moms, part-time real estate agents, occasional fathers, all-hours dog walkers, logistical magicians.”
Other profiles include: Kris Kline, a scout and baseball lifer who spends his time following college players and other prospects as part of an endlessly repeating loop leading up to the annual MLB Draft; Doug Fister, a starting pitcher who takes the reader inside the mental and physical demands of gearing up for a starring role every fifth day; Tyler Moore, dubbed the 26th man by Svrluga, who shares the frustrations of coping with regressing to the minors after playing more than 400 big-league games; McDonald, the Nats’ travel planner, and Mike Wallace, the team’s clubhouse and equipment manager; and Drew Storen, a top-notch relief pitcher haunted by blowing a playoff-series clincher after twice being one strike away in 2012. That setback, so public and so scrutinized because of the stakes, crushed Storen the next season, so much so the Nats sent him to the minors for a short stint. And Mike Rizzo, the GM whose blue-collar work ethic fuels him through spring training, a 162-game regular season, playoffs (when things go well), and the most important time of year for any team executive—winter trades and free-agent signings.
Again and again, Svrluga demonstrates his own relentlessness, similar to that of the players and insiders profiled here. Short of the Running Presidents, nothing escapes his eye—or his willingness and ability to dig deeper, delivering specifics where most reporters would stop with generalities. Best of all, whether baseball bores you or thrills you, The Grind offers a glimpse into what it feels like to be a part of a rarefied world punctuated as much by failure and frustration as glitz and glamor.
Slim and brisk, Svrluga avoids the literary equivalent of throwing over to first too many times to check on a baserunner, instead serving up a story easily consumed in a sitting or two. Consider The Grind the perfect balm for fans suffering withdrawal during the All-Star break or, worse, a lengthy rain delay.