Track­ing the highs and lows of life in base­ball

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Kevin P. McVicker


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.

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