Shortlisted for the 2016 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing
**WITH A NEW AFTERWORD**
“If every era gets the baseball books it deserves, The Grind is definitely one for ours. Svrluga reveals a culture of nonstop stress: a relentless rhythm of scouting odysseys, training routines, travel monotony, injuries—all before anyone gets out on the field. No wonder these guys are obsessive. But they must also be undaunted. In our distracted, data-saturated age, grittier models of excelling would be hard to find.”—The Atlantic
AT 162 GAMES, baseball has the sports world’s longest season. Grueling. Thrilling. Routine. Lonely. Exhilarating. Major league ballplayers even have a name for this relentless, unmatchable rhythm: The Grind.
In The Grind, Barry Svrluga, The Washington Post’s national baseball correspondent, zooms in on the 2014 Washington Nationals, reporting not just on the roster’s star players, but also on the typically invisible supporting cast who each have their own sacrifices to make and schedules to keep. There’s The Wife, who acts as a full-time mom, part-time real estate agent, occasional father, and all-hours dog walker; The 26th Man, a minor leaguer on the cusp of job security who gets called up to the majors only to be sent back down the very next week; The Reliever, one of the most mentally taxing, precarious, and terribly exposed positions on any pro squad. These and many more players, scouts, equipment managers, and even travel schedulers create the fabric of Svrluga’s intimate and unusual book.
In The Grind, Barry Svrluga has given us an unforgettably raw, inside look at the wear and tear, the glory and impermanence, of America’s pastime.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.23(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
In 1876, when the National League was founded, all of eight teams competed for a championship. The Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Red Stockings staged the first game in league history on April 22, with the rest of the franchises starting their seasons over the ensuing days, beginning what was designed as a 70-game schedule that lasted until late September, five months to determine a title. The Chicago White Stockings easily made history, winning 52 of the 66 games they could complete, beating the Hartford Dark Blues by six games in the standings.
The White Stockings played those 66 games over 156 days, the schedule meandering through the heat of the summer to the edge of fall. With the league spread from Boston to St. Louis, from Louisville to New York, teams had to allow time for train travel. Still, even when in one place, the White Stockings never played on three consecutive days. They more frequently had back-to-back days off than back-to-back days with games. It was the kind of schedule that allowed right-hander Al Spalding to pitch in 61 games, starting 60, completing 53—all with a little rest in between.
Such a rhythm, if that’s what it was, would be unrecognizable in today’s major leagues. When I arrived at spring training in 2005 for my first season as a baseball beat writer for The Washington Post, I had only a fan’s sense of the ebbs and flows of a season, and I understood only that each day brought new possibility. Standing in windswept Viera, Florida, the calendar to come was right there in front of me: pitchers and catchers reporting February 15, the first Grapefruit League game March 2, Opening Day not till April 4, consecutive days off not until July 11 and 12, 230 days until the last of 162 regular-season games would be played. It all stared back, sure to be full of unexpected celebrations and soon-to-be-identified story lines, but daunting all the same.
What I didn’t understand then seems obvious now. A baseball season is a shared experience, an experience broken into tiny little sections—a pitch, an at-bat, a rally, an inning, a game, a series, a winning streak, a slump, a month, a summer. The fan sees all of those elements, shares in them, stringing together the nightly three-hour public performances. Watch the game enough, and its patterns become familiar and unmistakable, even as there’s no way to know what will happen on the next pitch or the next night. As complicated as it can be, baseball leaves little mystery. A curveball is a curveball. Now, whether that curveball should have been thrown in a certain situation is part of the conversation, the common discourse that takes place on subways and sports talk radio each summer morning.
What I discovered, though, was that the shared experience is much deeper back up the tunnel from the dugout, into the clubhouse, onto the bus back to the hotel, and during the flight to the next city. Everyone in that community—players and managers and coaches, sure, but video analysts and media relations people and play-by-play guys and athletic trainers and clubhouse attendants and beat reporters, too—comes to understand it and deal with it, even thrive on it, individually. No one outside this bubble really knows it, comprehends it, so there’s not much point discussing it beyond those parameters.
Inside, though, that day-to-day, game-to-game, city-to-city existence is chewed on and digested and discussed over and over again, even as it becomes an accepted way of life. A rain delay during the last night of a three-game series in, say, Cincinnati isn’t just an opportunity for the broadcast teams to toss it back to the studio, for the television stations to fill the air with highlights from other games or sitcom reruns, until play resumes. Sure, players pass time with card games or movies or other frivolities. But the delay is a meaningful obstacle that must be overcome; it pushes back the team’s flight, which pushes back its arrival in the next city, which pushes back the time when heads can hit pillows—four a.m.? five a.m.?—all with a game to play the next night.
Such tiny disruptions over the course of the season are, by now, cast against the modern backdrop, when a baseball player is a baseball player in January and in July, in winter as well as summer. Long after the White Stockings took that original National League championship, professional baseball remained an avocation as much as a career. Into the 1960s and even the ’70s, players held offseason jobs not to fill the time but to feed their families. Yogi Berra worked at a Sears, Roebuck. Lou Brock became a florist. Players sold real estate and insurance, worked in mines and on ranches. Even before the White Stockings helped form the National League, Spalding started a sporting goods store in Chicago and eventually began manufacturing athletic equipment of all kinds, with a name that’s still alive today.
Spring training was exactly that: training. Selling insurance or substitute teaching doesn’t prepare a body for a baseball season, so players needed seven weeks in Florida or—back in the old days—Texas or Arkansas, California or Louisiana, all sorts of Southern destinations to get into shape.
The schedule, too, evolved from those sporadic games in 1876, expanding and contracting until settling at 154 games in 1904—three years after the identification of the American League as a major league—though there were occasional changes during wartime. When the American League expanded in 1961 and the National League in 1962, the 162-game season became the norm. Though further expansion has brought more tiers to the playoffs—pushing the World Series to the brink of November—the regular season hasn’t wavered since. Somehow, it’s perfect. Players know exactly what they must prepare for, what awaits them.
That first season the Nationals were in Washington—Major League Baseball relocated the Montreal Expos to end a thirty-three-year baseball drought in the nation’s capital—their first baseman was a guy named Nick Johnson, a talented hitter whose career was interrupted time and again by injuries. Until you got to know him, Johnson was one of the all-time intentionally terrible interviews in baseball, drawing straight from the Kevin Costner character in Bull Durham, meaningless cliché followed only by an even worse meaningless cliché. At some point during the season, when I asked again about how he would approach a slump or a hot streak or something, Johnson shrugged. “Just keep grindin’,” he said.
I thought about it then, and realized he had said it in spring training, during the season’s first month when he was hot, during the early weeks of July when he was out with an injury, and after he returned and started to sputter at the plate. “Keep grindin’.” Clichés, it turns out, are clichés for a reason. Johnson meant what he was saying. Head down. Eyes forward. Don’t worry about the games that have passed or how many are ahead. Don’t think about the city you’re in or the state of your swing. Keep grindin’. There was no other approach.
When the 2014 season began, I was back covering baseball for the Post, and Johnson’s quote—variations of which I had heard time and again over the ensuing years—stayed with me. There had to be a way to explain or show the impact of that grind on an entire organization. Position players are different from pitchers. Starters are different from relievers. Executives are different from scouts. The majors are different from the minors. Husbands are different from wives. But they all experience it to some degree or another. My editors at the Post allowed me to take a crack at explaining that phenomenon, one that’s just outside the parameters of those three-hour games each night.
This book is the result. This book, it would seem, is about the Washington Nationals. But the characters in it and those around them will invariably agree: It could be about any of the thirty major league teams. In baseball, these themes are universal.
Each major league team has a veteran trying to overcome an injury and get ready for yet another season. Each has a player with a young wife juggling a family with her husband’s career. Each has a scout racking up miles and hotel nights while pursuing the next star player. Each has a starting pitcher figuring out how to prepare on the four days no one sees him perform. Each is watching a player who has tasted major league success but is back in the minors, struggling to return. Each has a support staff that makes the trains run on time, even if no one understands how. Each has a reliever who has coughed up a ninth-inning lead but must return the next night. And each has a general manager overseeing it all, stepping back for a global view but obsessing about the details.
The schedule, those 162 games, is what we see, the part that can be folded up and put into our wallets and kept as a reference point. But for all those involved, it really just represents the contours of the season. That baseball players don’t live like accountants or zookeepers is apparent. What they go through to live that way is not. Each day at the ballpark, there is the potential for joy—a game-winning hit, a game-saving catch, a game-ending strikeout. The route to that joy is far less understood.
Who knows whether the Chicago White Stockings of 1876 endured such stresses, and how they dealt with them if they did? By now, nearly 140 years later, the grind of a major league season is universal, shared by all the players and all those around them. For so many, it is the defining aspect of the national pastime.
On another cloudy morning of an endless winter, Ryan Zimmerman left his newborn daughter with his wife, hopped into his Chevrolet Tahoe, opened the gate at the end of his long driveway in McLean, Virginia, and drove down the road to the house of Jayson Werth, his teammate with the Washington Nationals, all of five minutes away. It was January 15, 2014, a Wednesday. It could have been the Wednesday after Christmas. It could have been the Wednesday before Valentine’s Day. It could, absolutely, have been Groundhog Day.
At Werth’s house, John Philbin and Matt Eiden, the Nationals’ two strength-and-conditioning coaches, met with the pair of veterans, another day in the life. “I tell Matty,” Werth said, “I’ll wake up when you ring the bell.”
And with that, in Werth’s home gym—an offseason amenity built with the baseball season in mind—the two coaches did what they did the day before, and the day before that, and what they would do in the days to come: They goaded Werth and Zimmerman into lifting massive amounts of weight to put massive amounts of muscle on their bodies, all with the stifling heat of August and the chill of October in mind.
Spring training was a month away, the season still more than ten weeks off. When the games begin, all that muscle will deteriorate, eroded by the pounding surf that is the baseball season, coming at them wave after wave after wave.
“All you can do is try to maintain,” Zimmerman said, “and survive.”
There is no other sport with an everydayness, a drum-drum-drum beat like baseball. The Nationals opened their 2014 season in New York on the last day of March, a Monday, then had Tuesday off, protection against a rainout. Over the ensuing 26 days, they played 25 games. Six times during the season, they faced stretches of at least a dozen days, each with a game. Their first and only back-to-back days off—a worker bee’s regular weekend—came in July. All told: 162 games in 182 days.
All sorts of professions—accounting and advertising, fishing and farming—come replete with their own rhythms. In professional sports, baseball’s is uniquely unyielding. It might not feel that way in March, when Opening Day serves as such a symbol for spring, for hope. But the players know, the coaches know, the scouts and the families and, heck, even the concessionaires—they all know what lies ahead. And they all refer to it the same way, with unmistakable reverence: the grind.
“I don’t think people realize what goes into a baseball season,” Zimmerman said.
Professional hockey and basketball seasons involve a hair more than half as many games. Banged-up? Make it through one night, and take it easy at the next day’s practice. There are, at minimum, three off days in a week. Three off days in a week of a baseball season would involve a couple of rainouts. Banged-up baseball players?
“People think we just stand around on the field,” Zimmerman said. “We don’t. No other sport plays every day. Even hockey and basketball, they play a lot of games, but every week you have at least two days off at some point. If they play four games in a week, that’s a bad week.
“So for them, if you’re hurting a little bit, you can make it through one game knowing that you have a day off. We have maybe four off days a month—maybe. You can’t hide it. You can’t hide.”
When he said this on January 15, his 90-minute workout at Werth’s was finished. The kitchen of Zimmerman’s house was drenched in afternoon light, the clouds having moved away. During the repetition of the baseball year, it is as hidden as he gets, tucked away in the Virginia woods with his new family. Yet the grind always serves as the backdrop. He was twenty-nine, so far removed from the day when he was drafted, the day that summer of 2005 when he made the majors at twenty. As an adult, the pattern of the baseball season—and the year that is propped up around it—is all Zimmerman has ever known.
“I think the only way to learn is to go through it,” he said.
When he answered the door that day, he cradled the lightest weight he would handle all month, little Mackenzie, a healthy 8 pounds 5 ounces when she was born the previous November. He handed her off to his wife of barely a year, Heather, a newcomer to the churn.
“At first I kind of wished he had more of a normal job, I guess,” Heather Zimmerman said. “Baseball was such a completely different lifestyle than I’d ever been aware even existed.”
Miley, the couple’s English bulldog, wandered in. In less than a month, this entire family operation would uplift for Viera, Florida, for six and a half weeks of spring training. Zimmerman leaned over to scratch Miley.
“It’ll all start again,” he said. Excitement mixed with a small degree of dread. It’ll all start again. When it does, there’s no escape.
• • •
Just after seven p.m. on March 10, Zimmerman emerged from the home dugout at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, for his second at-bat of a game that will never be remembered, even by those who played in it, the Nationals and Houston Astros. The sun was setting across Viera, the hodgepodge of strip malls and new-home developments where the Nationals set up shop each spring. Zimmerman, too, shows up here every year, taking the massive cuts in the on-deck circle that he took that night, trying to get loose for that particular irrelevant game, for that particular irrelevant at-bat.
“It’s just spring training,” Zimmerman said. “It’s hard to get up and get excited for playing down here. It drags on towards the end.”
This would seem to be the beginning, a time when each pitch is part of the important process of building to the season. Yet in and of itself, none is especially significant. “Guys hit .600 in spring training,” Zimmerman said. “Guys hit .200. It doesn’t matter.”
Zimmerman didn’t swing a bat before he arrived in Florida. But hitting is routine enough for him that, with 4,366 lazy onlookers around him, he got a fastball on the outside part of the plate and drilled it to right field, the opposite way, a double.
Part of the grind, though, is the work it took to get even to that point, to rinse clean the cobwebs from the previous season and begin anew, building again. When he was twenty-one or twenty-two, Zimmerman would take a couple of weeks to let the season go before he began working out again. “I’d get bored,” he said. Now, headed into his ninth full season, he takes a month—at least. No bats. No balls. No weights.
“During the season, you don’t really feel it,” Zimmerman said. “But as soon as the season is over, that first week you’re just kind of still in shock. And that second week is where you’re like, ‘Man, that was a long, long run.’ So you have to give yourself time to recover before you start getting at it again.”
But by the holidays, Zimmerman and Werth—the only Nationals who live near Washington year-round—are working with Philbin and Eiden five or six times a week. There is nothing subtle about this portion of the baseball year. In so many ways, it is downtime. Increasingly, though, it has become essential to bulk up.
“You have to get as big and as strong as you can,” Werth said. “I think what people don’t realize is once the season starts, you just lose weight all the way to the end. . . . The grind is going to wear you down weight-wise and strength-wise. So that’s our goal: Work as hard and try to get as big and strong as possible.”
By the previous August, for instance, Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche had lost nearly fifteen pounds from spring training. Sapped of strength, he tried to put on weight during the season, a futile pursuit. Zimmerman said he had been able to maintain his own ideal weight, about 220 pounds, through each of the previous six seasons. But it is because of the strength he builds in the offseason, so much lifting that when he begins throwing, “it’s literally like learning how to throw again because you’re so stiff.”
Philbin, known in the clubhouse as Coach, is there to guide, both during the season and after. A former Olympic bobsledder who spent eight years as a strength coach with the Washington Redskins football team, he knows the violence of the NFL and what football players endure to recover from it and then build—over six days—to another game. Yet there is nothing, Philbin said, like the baseball season.
“It’s just a different animal,” he said. “They’re not obviously in a contact sport, but yet physically, mentally, psychologically, and spiritually they have to get up and be at their best on a daily basis. And that can take its toll over time, because you mentally have to be there, too. That’s hard to sometimes overcome. But you’ve got to. There’s no days off.”
Excerpted from "The Grind"
Copyright © 2016 Barry Svrluga.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Veteran 9
The Wife 23
The Scout 39
The Starter 57
The Twenty-sixth Man 75
The Glue 91
The Reliever 111
The General Manager 127
The Winter 151
Afterword for the Paperback Edition 171
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