Tracking the highs and lows of life in baseball
THE GRIND: INSIDE BASEBALL’S ENDLESS SEASON By Barry Svrluga
When New York Mets infielder Wilmer Flores learned he might be traded just before the Major League Baseball July 31 trade deadline, he cried on the field. That rare display of emotion attracted headlines and provided a brief glimpse of baseball players’ worries that are not reflected on the sports page.
Two new books by respected sportswriters give readers insight into life with one of baseball’s newest teams, the Washington Nationals, and a recounting of one of baseball’s most bizarre incidents — the infamous “pine tar” game between the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Royals.
Barry Svrluga, a reporter with The Washington Post gives a panoramic view of life with the Washington Nationals in “The Grind: Inside Baseball’s Endless Season.” Behind the scenes, the Nationals have 1,100 employees working in unison to put nine men on the field. Each chapter profiles different people, including a veteran ballplayer, a struggling minor leaguer, a relief pitcher, a player’s wife, a scout and an executive.
The profiles are adapted from Mr. Svrluga’s previously published Post stories. The interviews give a sober look at not just the 162-game season, but the entire yearround efforts and sacrifices necessary to pursue a championship.
Veteran players fear injuries, while minor league players just hope for an opportunity to play in the majors. The scouts travel to far-flung corners of the country, amassing frequent flier miles to observe the best high school and college prospects.
One of the more interesting chapters, which could be the basis for a separate book, focuses on the families of the players. According to Mr. Svrluga, baseball wives are expected to “wed at a certain time of year and give birth at a certain time of year.” Some of the things they must manage include dealing with realtors when their husbands are abruptly traded, finding new schools for their children among many other details. According to Mr. Svrluga, the Nationals, in particular have made efforts to make players’ families comfortable.
It examines the routines and training regimens of several players. Relief pitchers have the most unusual of all. They train rigorously, but are uncertain if they will be put in the game. If they get in, it is either to preserve the team’s lead or to work out of a jam. The chance of being a hero or a scapegoat hangs on every pitch.
One such episode occurred on July 24, 1983. In the top of the ninth inning, Kansas City Royals slugger George Brett faced New York Yankees reliever Goose Gossage. With two outs and the Royals down by one run, Mr. Brett drilled a home run into the right field seats to claim the lead.
Billy Martin, the Yankees’ combative manager, protested that Mr. Brett’s bat handle had more than 18 inches of pine tar, a substance used by batters to improve their grip on the bat.
It was an obscure rule, yet there was history of it being invoked. After a brief meeting of the umpires, Mr. Brett was called out, thus giving the Yankees the victory. He stormed out of the dugout in such a rage that he had to be restrained.
After a month of wrangling and appeals, and even an unsuccessful attempt by controversial attorney Roy Cohn to obtain an injunction against the game moving forward, the president of the American League ordered that Mr. Brett’s home run would stand and the game would continue from the top of the ninth inning at a time when the Yankees and Royals had an off day.
New York Daily News reporter Filip Bondy, who covered the game, not only recreates this moment in “The Pine Tar Game,” but chronicles the long, bitter rivalry between the Yankees and the Royals.
Readers may wonder if there is enough material for an entire book on one incident, yet Mr. Bondy’s book is also a study in contrasts between the small-market Kansas City team and the Yankees with their huge New York market. The Yankees and Royals met in the playoffs a number of times in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the Yankees winning the majority of games.
Royals owner Ewing Kauffman was a self-made pharmaceuticals magnate who ran his team as a hobby. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner inherited his wealth and micromanaged his team with intensity that earned him the nickname “The Boss” and always provided fodder for the press.
Both books can be quickly read and will please baseball fans. The authors had extensive access to players and executives, and they deserve high marks for eliciting candid observations. Neither author can be accused of bias for their hometown teams.
Baseball is a game of small moments bracketed by unbelievable feats and spectacles. “The Grind” and “The Pine Tar Game” depict the highs and lows of life in baseball in the present and three decades ago. This timelessness makes these books the perfect twin bill this baseball season. Kevin P. McVicker is vice president with Shirley & Banister Public Affairs in Alexandria, Va.