Barry Svrluga is clearly a good guy. In The Grind, he finds what’s best in baseball: the dedication of the people who love the game, from the players and their wives to the scouts, clubhouse attendants, the pitchers, the general manager.
Svrluga covers the Washington Nationals for the Washington Post and turned a year’s worth of columns about individuals connected with the team into a book.
The goal of the book is to capture the grind that the long season represents, to which fans are not privy.
The problem is that we are privy.
We know all this stuff. The book is lyrical and professionally written. The problem is that the author doesn’t tell us much that we don’t already know.
Baseball wives cope with the uncertainty of their husbands’ careers.
Clubhouse men work hard to get the laundry done.
When it comes to pitchers, closers are a breed apart.
Scouts put lots of miles on their car and lots of zinc on their faces as they travel from game to game in search of the next star.
Here’s the thing. In sports today, there are no secrets. ESPN and its imitators leave no stone unturned, no story untold.
Which makes one wonder why these columns were turned into a book, a question about which the author seems to have his own doubts, as evidenced by the afterword.
The things that make baseball really interesting don’t come up in conversation in this book.
There is one sentence given to the existence of adultery on the part of baseball players, but there’s no further explanation of the topic. That’s the really hard part of keeping a marriage together—not just being ready to pack on a moment’s notice and move to another city.
In the era of Moneyball, it’s odd to see the lives of scouts depicted without even a single reference to that game-changing book and movie. In fact, it’s as if the Moneyball era never even existed—all that seems to happen in terms of scouting is scouts traveling the nation, going to games, and seeing who is a five-tool player.
Not a word about the Sabermetric revolution.
The only time the book really gets exciting is when examining the character of Mike Rizzo, the Nationals’ general manager. Rizzo is an old-school character, a Chicago guy, a wheeler and dealer, and by far the most interesting person in the book. Sometimes newspaper columns are just meant to be newspaper columns. If Svrluga had focused his entire book on Mike Rizzo, we might have had another A Season on the Brink, John Feinstein’s classic study of Indiana basketball’s Bobby Knight.
As a sports writer, Svrluga is excellent. As a book, alas, The Grind only displays what baseball fans would recognize as “warning track power.”
Go back and reread Ball Four or even Bill Lee’s The Wrong Stuff. Or Roger Angel. That’s what great baseball books are all about.