When the Washington Nationals arrive at their hotel in St. Louis for a weekend series against the Cardinals, their luggage is waiting for them in their rooms. In a few hours, they’ll step back onto the chartered buses and into the visitors’ clubhouse at the stadium, where their personal equipment and freshly laundered uniforms will be waiting for them, each player’s belongings in his assigned locker. In order to allow the players to focus on their jobs as baseball players, the team ensures that they don’t have to worry about the logistics of luggage, transportation, dining, or entertainment, and it is Rob MacDonald’s job to make it happen. MacDonald is the Nationals’ Vice President of Clubhouse Operations and Team Travel, and he is one of 1,100 employees, not counting the players themselves, who endure The Grind of the 162-game baseball season.
The 2014 Washington Nationals finished the season with the National League’s best record, but lost their first playoff series to the San Francisco Giants. It had been a long season, but even the most avid fan had only the faintest idea of how truly long it was. In The Grind, Washington Post reporter Barry Svrluga chronicles the season, beginning with spring training in February, and passing through Opening Day in March, the dog days of late summer, the playoffs in October, and the winter off-season, concluding with the the first moments of the next cycle, the team’s preparations for spring training in 2015.
Svrluga devotes a chapter each to nine different perspectives of the season: Ryan Zimmerman, beginning his tenth season in the Majors, is featured in a chapter called “The Veteran.” Tyler Moore, a promising but no-longer-young power hitter is the focus of “The Twenty-Sixth Man” (baseball rosters are limited to twenty-five players). Chelsey Desmond, wife of shortstop Ian Desmond, is profiled with her young children in “The Wife.” And Rob MacDonald’s chapter is called “The Glue.” A chapter each on a starting pitcher, a reliever, a scout, the general manager, and the off-season, when players go home but the team’s management is working as hard as ever, bring the total of fascinating stories to nine, because of course. Because nine is baseball’s perfect number, the number of completion.
“If the major league life brings a grinding rhythm that wears on the hearts and minds and bodies of even star players,” writes Svrluga, “at least it comes with charter flights and checks with all those zeroes. In the minors, the everydayness is the same. The payoff is not.” Fans are accustomed to one very specific view of what goes on during the baseball season, but here are nine, each with a different approach to its rhythms and flows, each compelling, sympathetic, glorious, and heartbreaking. They are all terrific, but especially memorable are the chapters on Moore and MacDonald, two behind-the-scenes glimpses not well-known by the baseball fan.
No sport lends itself to great storytelling quite the way baseball does, and Svrluga nails the story of the season from beginning to end, giving us nine stories that contribute to the saga. I’ve read more baseball books than most people, and this was immediately a favorite before I got through the first chapter. It is an excellent and worthy addition to the top shelf of any fan’s library.