Act like you’ve been there before.” That there is a genuine sports adage, generally employed to encourage kids to ignore big-league moves—say, Manny Ramirez’s “Ramirez Akhbar” slo-mo home-run sojourn or Jose Guillen’s various tantrums—that don’t belong on Little League fields. “Really,” Coach’ll tell you, “don’t slam your helmet down on the ground when I pinch-run for you, son. Act like a pro, like a man. Act like you’ve been there before.”
From the moment the cursive-W-donning citizens of Washington were awarded their first baseball franchise in three decades, they’ve acted like they haven’t been there before. Like the smiles and goodwill would last. Like there was never going to be a stadium fight. Like two different franchises hadn’t already left the city. Like the scrappy bunch of nobodies, has-beens, and borderline psychopaths assembled on a shoestring by an impulsive, place-holding general manager would be able to hold on to win the National League East.
Forget the fact that there was—and still is—no owner to take control. The officials who brought the woeful Expos south, and the mostly doughy suburban white guys who have supported them, acted as if the return of baseball were some sort of gift that would bring prosperity to the banks of the Anacostia and easy coin to city coffers, never mind that many experts and most D.C. citizens felt otherwise.
So who gets the book deal? The perfect author would have to be a committed anti-fan—someone willing to put all the gosh-it’s-great-to-have-baseball-again bullshit aside and take a hard look at just exactly what is going on. Instead, we get someone who really hasn’t been there before: the Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga, whose first full-time hardball assignment was the 2005 Nationals beat.
Svrluga might have used his naiveté as an asset, allowing him to look past the clichés and hyperbole flung at any MLB beat writer. But all National Pastime: Sports, Politics, and the Return of Baseball to Washington, D.C. offers is a perpetual wide-eyedness that perfectly fits the Nats’ fan base. Coupled with his penchant for fairy-tale-style prose (“By all rights, they should have been out of the race for the postseason, for they didn’t look like a playoff team”), Svrluga turns out to be ill-equipped to deal critically with the political intrigue, the many complex issues surrounding the sports world’s intersection with municipal economics, or Major League Baseball’s existence as the last legal refuge of the robber barons—in other words, the real story of the Washington Nationals.
So in National Pastime, Svrluga does what he can: He focuses on the most boring view of the team’s inaugural season—the one from his seat in the press box. And even when he ventures off the field, Svrluga’s material, much of it recycled from his Post reportage, comes off like he wrote it with one hand on the keyboard and the other super-glued into a foam “Nationals No. 1” finger.
Take Svrluga’s opening chapter, an account of the working conditions of some new Nats front-office employees, who, thanks to typical ineptitude on the part of MLB, have had to settle for trailer-park digs in RFK Stadium’s parking lot. Svrluga points out the heroic efforts put forth by such employees as Chartese Berry, “a refined Georgetown graduate who served as the team’s public relations director,” who had to drive her Mercedes the 50 yards to the toilet trailer.
Then, after a spin through the sad story of D.C. baseball franchises past, Svrluga takes a crack at more recent key players—here some of the major politicians—and their relationships with baseball. “Tony Williams would get his spanking,” he writes with typical flipness. “But it would have to be between innings.” The approach lets Svrluga get sidetracked too easily, and the lack of focus here leads to a lack of analysis. There’s the de rigueur Marion Barry–bashing, sure, but Svrluga is too focused on the comparatively mundane 2005 season to spend time dissecting the much more interesting—and much more pertinent—behind-the-scenes issues. An in-depth examination of the economic fallacy of major sports revitalizing cities and the way the promise of such a thing turns public officials into drooling sycophants? Why go into that when you’ve got a markedly mediocre team to cover half-assedly?
And cover half-assedly he does. Throughout the frequently interrupted story of the 2005 Nats’ season, Svrluga scatters profiles of key team personnel. He travels to closer Chad Cordero’s homestead to reveal how then–Expos Assistant General Manager Tony Siegle was overcome in the Cordero family kitchen “by a thought: Man, I hope they take all this money, because they are just really nice people.” And he recounts how Cuban defector and Nats ace Livan Hernandez reacted when President Bush wished him luck in Spanish. “Buena suerte? For real?” writes Svrluga. “The President of the United States was speaking to Hernandez in Spanish.” There are the obligatory feisty Frank Robinson stories—which serve as a nice teaser for Robinson’s autobiography—and troubled-slugger sections reserved for Guillen. None of these represent any real effort to delve into content we couldn’t read in the paper.
Instead, we get dead-end anecdotes, fond look-backs, and Rudy-style inspirational pap—the filler that a better book might have used to flavor a fuller exploration of the realities of big-time sports in a major city. The biggest frustration is that Svrluga, assigned to cover the Nationals, doesn’t seem to think that his beat also extends to Major League Baseball in its entirety. Instead of any focus on Bob DuPuy or Jerry Reinsdorf—two of MLB’s pit bulls, charged with making sure the District fell in line with the organization, who often dangled the team’s local existence in front of politicos and fans when it seemed like it wouldn’t—we get Alan Alper, D.C. baseball fan, who was so very excited when the team was in first place on his birthday.
Still, for 16 pages, Svrluga almost gets it. The break comes during his fourth chapter, “The Mayor, Mrs. Cropp, and Chaos,” an attempt at chronicling the first D.C. Council stadium fight, in 2004. He’s able enough with the blow-by-blow but short on the analysis, aside from a few positions attributed to D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp. Svrluga presents no real context: no discussion of other metropolitan areas and their stadium-building experiences, no numbers from sports-economics experts that might shed some light on why D.C. residents had reason to be concerned. Likewise, he offers nothing about MLB’s repeated shadiness: no reminder of the do-it-our-way-or-else approach baseball had taken to relocating its most unfortunate money-hole franchise, a team that could barely draw 6,000 spectators a night in 2004. With all this omitted, the result reads like a hollow piece of pro-MLB propaganda that, as written, echoes the popular conception of a completely inept D.C. government. That assessment may be true, but ignoring the fact that Williams, Cropp & Co. had to deal with an equally dysfunctional organization is an unfair way to present it.
But nothing here is as empty as the coverage Svrluga offers of Nats General Manager Jim Bowden. While in Cincinnati, filling the same position with the Reds, Bowden earned a reputation for having a quick trigger finger for disastrous trades—one he’s hardly relaxed during his stint in Washington. Here he’s continued to make shortsighted moves, bringing on the woeful Christian Guzman and the elderly Vinny Castilla for the 2005 season. (Not to mention the more recent deal for the mediocre and insubordinate Alfonso Soriano.) Still, even though Bowden is a major character in Svrluga’s rambling book, the hardest look he takes at the leather-pantsed GM comes through the eyes of two of Bowden’s kids:
“My dad always trades my favorite players,” Chad said, somewhat contemplatively. “Isn’t that right, Ty?” Tyler, bigger and older, laughed at his little brother. But Chad was serious. He thought about it some more. “Why is that?” Chad asked. Ty responded quickly, “Because he can.”
With that, the Bowden brothers go where Svrluga doesn’t—at least not in his own words—offering honest, informed criticism of their dad. Of course, compared to Svrluga, these guys are relative pros: They’ve been around the game the whole of their short lives. Svrluga, like many Washingtonians, now has only a year of real, modern baseball experience, and his book reads like it. CP