The-Grind-Inside-Baseballs-Endless/dp/0399176284">The Grind: Inside Baseball’s Endless Season
By Barry Svrluga
(Blue Rider Press, 177 pages, $23.95)
Regular TAS readers know I like baseball more than most. But even for me the 162-game regular Major League Baseball season, followed by endless layers of playoffs that reach almost to November, is a bit overlong. You can have too much of almost any good thing. Even very good things. (I always meant to ask Carlo Ponti about this, but alas, I waited too long.)
And I only observe this over-muchness from my office couch. Imagine being a player and having to suit up and be at the top of one’s game almost every night (and the odd day) from the football weather of early April through the football weather of October (or even, given a World Series rainout or two, early November). In his slight and not altogether successful book, Washington Post baseball writer Barry Svrluga attempts to give readers a feel for the long grind that is the Major League Baseball season.
I say not altogether successful because, in spite of much good stuff in the book, I would have appreciated more details on how individual players deal with the inevitable physical nicks and strains as well as the fatigue that accumulate as the summer progresses. And more details on how players deal with the mental stress that builds along with the pain. The amusing but incoherent Yogi quote aside, baseball is indeed a very mental game. Even though many plays may go by before the ball goes to any individual defender, players must have their heads in the game at all times. If not, costly blunders are sure to follow. Usually in front of tens of thousands (unless the game is being played in The Trop).
One of baseball’s charms is its everydayness. But this charm comes at a price for players as the optimistic spring morphs into the dog days of late summer in the bigs. (Yes, yes, before the emails start pouring in, modern players are richly – some would say insanely – compensated for the rigors they endure in lieu of those of legitimate work.) By August and September, just about every regular player is banged up in various ways, and, unlike in other sports, there are very few off days in which to recover. The game’s schedule and its demands on body and mind are relentless. Those with short attention spans need not apply. Last year’s 162-game schedule was completed in 182 days. After a game, an NBA player make take it easy at the next day’s practice. Baseball players have another game the next day.
As Svrluga covers the Washington Nationals, his examples come from Nationals players, wives, scouts, traveling secretary, and GM. He opens with veteran position players Ryan Zimmerman and Jason Werth lifting weights at Werth’s Northern Virginia home with the Nationals’ two strength and fitness coaches. Players need to start the season fit and strong, because, Svrluga writes, “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.” Players also have the opposite problem of many of us, that is they have trouble keeping on weight as summer heat and the number of daily games played build up (though Pablo Sandoval, Bartolo Colon, and Prince Fielder have managed to overcome in this regard).
Svrluga takes us through starting pitcher Doug Fister’s and reliever Drew Storen’s routines and rituals that get them through the long haul. He also parses the role of utility man Tyler Moore, with his shuttles between the Nationals and AAA Syracuse. There are separate chapters on how the team’s traveling secretary gets the team where it needs to be with clean uniforms, and on how general manager Mike Rizzo stocks the team’s roster from the 200 or so players in the Nationals organization from Rookie League to the National League. There’s even a chapter on how wives deal with family matters while husbands are on the road (or are so baseball-distracted at home they may as well be on the road for all the help they are).
Svrluga reminds us that baseball didn’t begin as an everyday business. The Chicago White Stockings were National League champions in 1876, the first year of that league’s operation. They won this title by taking 52 of that season’s 66 games. A 66-game schedule over 156 days. Back-to-back days off were more common than back-to-back game days. But this leisurely approach to what was soon to be called the national pastime didn’t last long. In 1904 MLB went to the 154-game season, which lasted until the current 162-season began when the American League expanded in 1961.
Svrluga doesn’t include any observations by veterans of the 154-game grind, though there are plenty of these folks still around. It would have been interesting. My guess is the 154-game summer was nearly as much of a grind as the current 162, though the season then got started later in April and post-season playoffs didn’t have more layers than an onion. Transportation back then was not as comfy, swift, or reliable as it is now. And the much smaller number of dollars involved in the sport meant that players were not as pampered as they are now.
Svrluga gives readers a bit of an inside look at the life of the contemporary Major League baseball player. Perhaps he’ll convince most that the Major League season is a grind. Perhaps not. But most vocations have some element of grind to them. And there is clearly no shortage of American men who would gladly exchange their grind for the Major League player’s.
Reading the book reminded me of my junior high school days, when baseball was more popular even than it is now, especially with pre- and early-teen boys. And it would never have occurred to any of my classmates to associate grind with the game that we all loved but whose skills proved too difficult for most of us to master at the professional level. If any boy in my class (1957) at Woodrow Wilson Junior High School in Tampa had any ambition other than to be a Major League baseball player, he kept it to himself. Homework was a grind. Baseball was a joy.