Most books about a year in a life of a baseball team try to hold you in suspense as the pennant race comes down to the wire. Even if you know the outcome, a skilled writer can keep you turning the pages. Barry Svrluga's National Pastime, the story of the Washington Nationals' inaugural season, holds readers in suspense twice.
The second time comes in the second half of the book during the team's gutsy showing in the 2005 National League East pennant race. (The Nationals finished last in a tough division, but still had a respectable 81-81 mark.) But the first and more exhilarating race was the effort to get the Nationals to Washington and on the field in time for opening day, signaling the return of major league baseball to the nation's capital after the Senators moved to Texas in 1972. This is the story that you didn't read in the sports pages outside Washington or see on ESPN.
It's doubtful that many of the fans who watched Cuban-born right-hander Livan Hernandez throw out the first pitch in the Nationals' first game last year had an inkling of how close the team's season came to not happening, or at least not happening in Washington. The former Montreal Expos began their existence in Washington with literally nothing but a new name. "When a new administration takes over a team," writes Svrluga, "the game plan is relatively clear. But here, there was no infrastructure, no one with prior knowledge of how things work, of whom to call in the community. Where in the world do you start?"
Where indeed? The team, which was (and still is) owned by Major League Baseball, couldn't promise the new employees that they would have a job in six months if the team was sold. Job applicants had to be sorted through at a frenetic pace. A woman who worked for a cable TV station heard about the Nationals' job openings through a contact at a sports consulting firm; two days after her inquiry, she was offered the job of director of marketing and promotions. She took the position not knowing if she had a future with the team, but "it seemed exciting, like an adventure."
It was most certainly that. Before a single pitch was thrown in the Nationals' temporary home, RFK Stadium, the team had generated nearly as much ink as Washington's darlings, the NFL's Redskins. A few months later, Linda Cropp, chairman of the District of Columbia City Council, after enduring a maelstrom of criticism for her opposition to a new stadium paid for solely by public money, declared, "I had no idea it was going to be the level of controversy that it was. I had no idea the storm that was a-brewin'." That storm isn't over yet: Plans for the new stadium were not announced until just last month, and $535 million in revenue bonds to finance the ballpark had yet to go on sale as of this writing. Despite the off-the-field turbulence that always loomed in the background, the Nationals, led by their hard-nosed manager, Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson, took the field for 2005 and won both the respect of the league and the affection of their fans. "We are witnessing the birth of America's team," said Nationals vice president/GM Jim Bowden, midway through the 2005 season. That might have been an exaggeration, but a look at the Nats roster, featuring players from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Korea as well as the United States, suggests that "the United Nations team" might have been more accurate.
The Nationals' gritty debut season allows Svrluga to wrap up his twin story lines with as much ease as Mariano Rivera closing a game for the Yankees. But optimism for the current season should be guarded. Svrluga cautions, "Part of the process . . . for Washingtonians as they embrace baseball again was to remember that far too often, success is offset by pain." When I was a kid, we always described Washington as "first in war, first in peace, last in the American League." The Nationals began life last in the National League East, but they inspired a better book in one season than the Senators did in 71 of them.
Reviewed by Allen Barra
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