National Pastime: Sports, Politics, and the Return of Baseball to Washington, D.C.

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9780385517850: National Pastime: Sports, Politics, and the Return of Baseball to Washington, D.C.

A riveting chronicle of the extraordinary debut year of the Washington Nationals—the team that brought America’s pastime back to the nation’s capital for the first time in over three decades...and quickly emerged as the team to watch in the 2005 season.

It all started in a freezing double-wide trailer parked outside RFK stadium—but this was no off-season tailgate. This was the official front office of Major League Baseball’s newest team. Crammed into the spartan space, Tony Tavares, the Washington Nationals’ newly appointed president, began the monumental task of fashioning a big league team that would, just six months down the road, usher baseball back to the nation’s capital.

Barry Svrluga, sports reporter for the Washington Post, has followed the saga of the Nationals from the early, intense political wrangling over bringing the team to Washington, to the defining triumphant moments -- and anguish -- of their first-ever season. A savvy observer of both Washington and Major League politicking, Svrluga covers the conflicts that undermined the existence of a D.C. team since the early 1970s (including the bitter opposition of powerbrokers inside the baseball establishment itself), and ended with the migration of the Montreal Expos to D.C.

Granted exclusive access to the players, the clubhouse, and the innermost workings of the team, Svrluga covers the surprise sensation of the 2005 season – which not only saw the Nationals gain a foothold on the Washington sports scene, but dominate the NL East through much of the season. From the outspoken legendary manager, Frank Robinson, to the inside stories of Jose Guillen, Livan Hernandez, and Brad Wilkerson, Svrluga brings the personalities of the team to life, interviews the most dedicated fans who’ve waited since the days of the Washington Senators for baseball to be restored in their city, and chronicles the team’s emotional ups and downs throughout the season.

A fresh new voice in sports writing, Svrluga combines the enthusiasm, authority, and attention to detail that guarantees this to be the definitive book of the Washington Nationals’ first season.

The nation’s capital hadn’t had a spring like this in more than a generation. In less than a week, the Nationals’ players and coaches were headed north. They didn’t know what kind of stadium awaited. They didn’t know what the reception would be. They didn’t know the town, how to get around, where to live, what to do. Most of all, though, they didn’t know who would play where, who would hit in which spot. Frank Robinson stewed over it all. He was supposed to go to Washington, bringing back the city’s first team in a generation, with this situation?

—From National Pastime

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About the Author:

BARRY SVRLUGA is a sports writer at the Washington Post and has written about sports for ten years for newspapers in New York, Maine, and North Carolina. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1
A Team, and the Trailers, Arrive

The nights were the best, really, when the ice on the ramp leading up to the Washington Nationals’ offices was slick and black, undetectable in the darkness. That’s when the wind picked up across the parking lot at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, when the unmarked black van might race over the asphalt, charging toward an innocent employee. “Jesus, this is it,” the employee would think. “Someone’s coming after me.” But invariably it would turn out to be a security guard, a friendly woman protecting the employees, smiling and asking, “Is everything okay?” Going outside on those nights was at one’s peril, but considering the facilities–Oh, who’s kidding whom? They weren’t really facilities. They were good old-fashioned Porta Potties. So, considering the Porta Potties were a good fifty yards across the parking lot, there was no alternative but to trudge out into the cold, wave to the security guard, find the plastic door, hold your breath, and step in.

David Cope headed out one night in December 2004, stared into the blackness, and turned back around. Cope had been hired a month earlier as the Nationals’ vice president of sales and marketing. He was a lifelong Washingtonian, a sports business professional who had worked for nearly every franchise in Baltimore and Washington, from the king of them all, football’s Redskins, to baseball’s Baltimore Orioles, basketball’s Washington Wizards, and football’s Baltimore Ravens. He drove his bosses crazy from time to time when he would think back on that experience. “When we started the Ravens, we . . .” and he would launch into a tale about relocating the NFL team from Cleveland. But he had never been through something like this. Staring out into the night, Cope couldn’t see a thing. He went back into his office, throwing open the door that, in a stiff breeze, might blow open on its own anyway. A flashlight. He needed a flashlight. The absurdity of it all didn’t hit Cope then, just as it didn’t hit the Nationals’ other employees during those sixteen-hour days, when their jobs were simply to build the front office of a baseball team out of . . . well, out of nothing. The venue for such a project: a pair of double-wide trailers that sat inconspicuously in the low-lying parking lot outside RFK. The offices inside the stadium wouldn’t be completed for four more months, and if the employees thought too much about the circumstances, all the work that had to be done between those frigid nights and Washington’s first baseball game in thirty-four years, they might have cried. So when Cope returned to the metal trailer that held his office, it was a practical matter. The staff tried not to drink too much coffee, too much soda, too much water, too much anything, because lots of liquid meant more trips to the savagely frigid bathroom. Cope had no choice. Grab the flashlight, then head back out. When he arrived at the Porta Potti, the next challenge: where to put the flashlight? He looked around. Finding nothing, he stuck it in his mouth, unzipped his pants, and went about his business. An illuminating experience. “What the hell am I doing?” he muttered, the impediment muffling any actual words.

“The whole thing,” he said, “was crazy.”

The fact that Washington had a baseball team, the fact that Major League Baseball had decided, finally, to move the Montreal Expos to the nation’s capital, was a thought that warmed the souls of lifelong Washingtonians during the fall and winter of 2004, in large part because they were oblivious to those icy treks to the outhouse, to the wind hurling open the trailer doors, to the pizza that arrived night after night from that place down East Capitol Street . . . that is, until the orders stopped, because no one could remember ordering a roach as an extra topping. For outsiders, for Washington’s baseball fans, a drive past RFK Stadium, just twenty-two blocks east of the U.S. Capitol, might bring back memories of when the Washington Senators played there, back in the 1960s and ’70s. But inform anyone who drove past Parking Lot 4 that basically the entire franchise was being run out of those two double-wides at the bottom of the hill, and that was another story.

“You have to wonder,” Cope said, “how it all happened.”

Before the trailers, before the Porta Potties and the pizzas, it started at the Hilton Washington, which is rarely referred to as such. It is, rather, the Hinckley Hilton, because it is here that, on March 30, 1981, John Hinckley, Jr., the son of a wealthy Colorado oil executive, emerged from a crowd of journalists outside the hotel, brandishing a .22 caliber pistol. There, too, was President Ronald Reagan, just his seventieth day in office. Hinckley fired six shots. The fifth pierced Reagan’s lung. Police tackled Hinckley, Secret Service agents whisked the President away in his limousine, press secretary James Brady was shot in the head and ended up in a wheelchair. Reagan recovered, and the Hilton Washington, perched on the east side of Connecticut Avenue Northwest as the street rises from Dupont Circle, became a landmark.

Yet on a clear October day, nearly a quarter of a century later, the Hinckley Hilton served as a workaday Washington hotel. In the function rooms below the lobby bar, they staged a USO gala. Around the corner, smiling women with dark hair handed out name tags for the meeting of the National Italian American Foundation. And on the eighth floor, in a suite that didn’t look or feel like home, Tony Tavares’s cell phone rang . . . just as it had been doing for days. It rang again, beeping out an electronic version of “O Canada.” He was, indeed, a stranger in a new land. Tavares picked up his phone, growled a few words, and hung up. As soon as he put down the cell, the phone in his suite let loose its more traditional ring.

“Tony Tavares,” he said in his clipped, East Coast, this-better-be-important-or-else tone. And he listened. Just for a minute. “Okay,” Tavares said, but it was rushed, abrupt. “Uhkay. If you want a job with me, e-mail me at . . .” and he provided his e-mail address. “I can’t guarantee anything, uhkay? Just e-mail me. . . . Yeah. Right. Bye.”

Tavares put the phone down and looked through some papers. He had been in Washington less than forty-eight hours. All he had was a suitcase. He was, in theory, the president of a major league baseball team, but what evidence of a baseball team was there here? Kevin Uhlich, dressed like Tavares in a dark suit, was also employed by the Washington Expos, or whatever the soon-to-be-renamed Washington baseball club would be called. He and Tavares had worked together with the Anaheim Angels, Tavares as president, Uhlich rising from bat boy as a kid to CFO as an adult. When Major League Baseball moved the Expos to Washington, the Expos’ executive vice president for business affairs, Claude Delorme, had to remain back at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium to tend to a twenty-six-page black binder, Delorme’s ad hoc document that provided him with a guide that might have been entitled “How to Shut Down a Major League Baseball Team.” The baseball operation, the people who dealt with real-life pitchers and catchers, remained at Olympic Stadium, too. There was no point in moving those people to Washington. Tavares needed help on the business side. He called Uhlich.

“Do you want to do this?” Tavares said.

Uhlich had lived his whole life in California, had a family in California, was attached to California, was California.

“Yes,” he said anyway.

So they hit the ground in Washington, a city about which neither knew anything. Tavares had been there, oh, must have been twenty years ago now. He’d returned once in August, when it looked more and more likely that the Expos would move to the District of Columbia and not to northern Virginia, Norfolk, Las Vegas, or Portland, Oregon. He and Delorme took a cab out to RFK Stadium to get an idea of what they might be getting themselves into should the Expos take up residence there.

“Claude,” Tavares said at the time, “I just want to warn you: The neighborhood around there, it’s, uh, not the best.”

That, Tavares thought to himself, was being gentle. He remembered something worse. He remembered a war zone. So when the cab drove east down Independence Avenue, past the Starbucks on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Third Street S.E., past historic Eastern Market, where residents shopped and ate, and past the row houses that were selling for $500,000, $800,000, even upward of $1 million, Tavares knew the town he would bring the Expos to was different from the town he’d visited all those years ago.

This, he thought, will work.

But how? When a new administration takes over a team, the game plan is relatively clear. But here, there was no infrastructure, no one with prior knowledge of how things work, of whom to call in the community. Where in the world do you start? Tickets. Tickets would be a good place to start. So on their first day in town, Tavares and Uhlich met at the Hinckley Hilton with reps from Ticketmaster and Tickets.com. And they needed a place for their employees to work, so they searched for office space in downtown Washington. They ended up with two nondescript rooms at Foley & Lardner, a law firm used by Major League Baseball with offices in Georgetown, on K Street, in the heart of Washington’s power center. And, in a move that sounded like a joke, they arranged for those trailers to be installed in the parking lot at RFK Stadium, the kind that contractors use on large projects, because the stadium itself, which hadn’t hosted baseball in thirty-four years and had been...

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