The transformation of the Montreal Expos into the Washington Nationals played itself out like a soap opera, complete with perceived heroes and villains and the promise of a new stomach-wrenching plot twist every day. The birth and inaugural season of the Nationals might not have made it to daytime television, but Washington Post writer Barry Svrluga does a fine job capturing the drama and emotion of baseball’s return to the nation’s capital in “National Pastime: Sports, Politics, and the Return of Baseball to Washington, D.C.”
Svrluga, a rookie big league beat writer, proves a resourceful, thorough reporter who provides a true inside look into the machinations of the Nationals’ front office and clubhouse. As is essential with any book about Washington baseball, “National Pastime” starts out with an account of the game’s history in D.C., from the pre-Civil War pickup games in the lawn behind the White House to the days of Clark Griffith and Walter Johnson, from the Senators’ lone World Series championship in 1924 to the decades of futility and frustration leading up to the franchise’s 1971 relocation to Texas.
The book shows a good feel for the historical undercurrents surrounding baseball in Washington, and it demonstrates just as solid a grasp on the complex political wrangling that went into bringing the game back. Central figures like Washington mayor Anthony Williams and District Council chairman Linda Cropp, polarizing figures who were either praised or reviled depending on how a given citizen felt about funding for a new stadium, come to life in “National Pastime” as real people who had to make difficult decisions in the face of swirling public opinion. The book explains the various obstacles that had to be overcome in order to move the franchise from Montreal–including issues with the new stadium, the old stadium that served as a temporary home, the search for a new owner and the building of a new staff–without getting bogged down in dense material.
But the real meat of “National Pastime” is its account of the season itself. Readers get a good sense for what makes strong personalities like president Tony Tavares, general manager Jim Bowden, manager Frank Robinson and mercurial slugger Jose Guillen tick. The book explores the interesting backgrounds of those men, as well as other important Nationals figures like Brad Wilkerson, Livan Hernandez, Brian Schneider, Chad Cordero and Jose Vidro. From the Nats’ surprising first-half surge to the top of the standings to their slow collapse in the dog days of summer, the book delves into the shifting clubhouse dynamics.
Svrluga deftly weaves all the storylines together into a fluid narrative, which he unfolds with a tight, clean style that makes “National Pastime” an easy read. He also writes with a subtle flair and keen sense of irony when it is called for, but his prose never distracts from the story itself. Nationals fans will enjoy reading about the inner workings of their new baseball team, and any baseball fan will take pleasure in absorbing a fascinating story well told.