Monday, May 01, 2006

National Pastime

Federal Baseball has posted an excellent review of Washington Post beat writer Barry Svrluga's book, National Pastime. Conveniently, my copy came Saturday, and I polished it off in a few hours. Svrluga's book recounts the return of baseball to Washington, DC, and details the off-field craziness that surrounded (and, hell, still surrounds) this franchise. It's a good look behind the curtain, and certainly gave me an appreciation of some of the struggles the poor saps in the front office encountered.

If you're a Nats fan, you'll enjoy the book, and I'm pretty sure that 15 years from now, when you pull it back off the shelf and give it a quick read, you'll get a good flavor for what this past season was all about.

Yet I was disappointed with it.

Federal Baseball says that it's not a book aimed at people like me or him, and I suppose that he's right. If you've followed the team with the level of obsessiveness that we have, it's going to be hard to surprise us with new facts. And other than having some of the player's backgrounds filled in, I can't say that I learned anything new about what went on between the lines or in the clubhouse. And that's a disappointment.

I'm sure that the book could be aimed at more of the casual fan, and there probably more in there that's new to them, but even many of the few in-season stories will probably be familiar -- just with more swears!

The book follows the standard format of this genre. Here's an event, here's the key player, and here's the player's background. When done well, such as in Buster Olney's "The Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty", it's beautiful. But Barry doesn't introduce us to many players, and many of the stories he tells aren't particularly compelling, which really isn't a fault of his -- just the boring players we have.

Brian Schneider comes across as the most interesting player, which I suppose isn't really much of a surprise, and Svrluga does a good job comparing the firey confidence of John Patterson and the timid acceptance of Zach Day.

But reading the book, you'd never know that Vinny Castilla, Nick Johnson, Ryan Church, Cristian Guzman, Esteban Loaiza, Luis Ayala et al played for the team. There's a large number of these players who exist on the fringes. Svrluga has a paragraph or two about what a bore Johnson is, but the rest of these players exist only in passing. I wanted something more, even if it's a throwaway story.

Svrluga uses the story of two superfans -- one in Montreal, one in DC -- to tell the story of the fan experience, but when I know more about them than I do the core of the team, something's wrong. It's not that their story wasn't interesting, and I can understand how and why he'd want to use them as a connective device for what sometimes comes across as disparate chapters, but it just didn't work for me.

I just felt that the whole thing was rushed. And when you consider that he was writing this on his free time, even as he was filing daily stories on the status of the team in the offseason, it makes sense that it'd be that way.

Case in point: The book really needed tighter editing. Since the chapters were seemingly written separately, characters who were introduced early in the book, are reintroduced later in the book. Tony Siegle, for example, is revealed to have been a scoreboard operator at the Astrodome two or three times. Joy Browning is indentified as Bowden's fling a number of times as well. That's not a problem with Svrulga's writing, per se, but it's an indication that more time was needed.

And I suppose that that's my problem with it. Svrluga's writing is fluid and smooth. He turns a phrase really well, and some of his stylistic tricks to advance the prose are entertaining and well done. But I just wanted more.

One thing that I don't think he did well was some of the jumps. Jumping back and forth chronologically to review the history of an event is an essential part of this style of book, but he did it excessively in some spots. There was one section in particular that leaped from (and I'm pulling the dates out of my butt) 7/5 back to 7/4 then a week ahead then back to 7/5. With the in-season narrative jumping from week to week, it confuses events and had me thumbing back a few pages to get the timing of things right.

Am I reviewing another book instead of the one I read? Perhaps. As I said early, the one I read was fun, interesting, and did teach me some new things about the team. But, to use a tortuous baseball analogy, this book was a two-run Jose Guillen double when the Nats were down three. A good result, for sure, but not entirely what I was looking for. Should you read it? Sure. If you're reading this blog, you probably like the team enough to be entertained by it. But just don't expect the definitive account of the Washington Nationals.


  • That reminds me of another point I had wanted to make.... He falls a little too easily into some of those baseball saws, citing chemistry repeatedly as the reason the Nats lost in the second half.

    I think he was using it as a catch-all for a lot of things, and not necessarily the way someone with a lump of chaw in their cheek would say it, but it bugged me. The story of the second half was the injuries to Wilkerson, Castilla, and Guillen, as well as the complete decimation of the pitching staff. Did he even mention the four-man rotation -- and that was a HUGE story.

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 5/01/2006 12:07 PM  

  • Storywise, yes, that's an appropriate end to the season and the narrative. And yes, in terms of a storyline, there was the home opener (though he didn't mention anything about the 2 weeks of regular season preceeding it), July 4, and the Sept 17th Massacre.

    But there was more to the season than that. And that's what I was looking for. What he had was well-written and entertaining, but I just wanted more.

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 5/01/2006 12:19 PM  

  • A good review to complement Basil's.

    I haven't read the book yet but I keep hearing that it's pretty good but by no means a definitive account of the team.

    You know who should write a definitive account of the team? You. I'm not kidding.

    You've been blogging about this team every day for a year and a certainly have the depth of knowledge and a body of work from which to draw! Not to mention a great writing style. Hell, with all the blogging you've done you've practically already written the book!

    I think you'd do a great job. Just a random, unsolicited suggestion from a daily reader!

    By Blogger Brandon, at 5/01/2006 2:59 PM  

  • I had some similar general vague sentiments after reading the book. I just didn't put enough time in to flesh them out into a full review.

    I enjoyed reading it very much. But I wasn't blown away.

    By Blogger Rocket1124, at 5/01/2006 10:13 PM  

  • Thanks, Brandon! I'll send the check soon.

    I'd shop a manuscript around, but I don't think I could afford all the copy editors I'd need. ;)

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 5/01/2006 10:17 PM  

  • Off the topic, but the front page of the post has "sources claiming" that the Lerners are getting the team. Looks real this time.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/01/2006 11:22 PM  

  • Chris...

    I'm with you on this one. I enjoyed the read but was hoping there might be a bit more there, there.

    As you mentioned, it's likely because Barry was writing for a more general populace that there wasn't a bit more...okay, a lot more...detail and insight. Or maybe the budget he was given limited page weight, number and spacing.

    In any event...just like the opening day tickets - a little bit of a reminder of history that can sit on the shelf.

    BTW - let's hope Bud is more pissed at the Council jokers than at the reporting of the story. ;)


    By Blogger Jim H, at 5/01/2006 11:36 PM  

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