Baseball returned to Washington, D.C. for the 2005 season after a hiatus of 36 years. When it became clear that Montreal was not able to sustain the Expos, Major League Baseball (MLB) bought the team and moved it to our nationís capital. Barry Svrluga, a sports reporter for The Washington Post, covers the teamís inaugural season in this riveting, rich in detail storytelling that brings to center stage the politics of professional sports as well as the camaraderie and team spirit that are pivotal to a teamís success.
MLBís grand plans for the former Expos were to move it to its new location and find an owner prior to the 2005 season. As Svrluga narrates it, local politics got in the way, when MLB and Mayor Anthony Williams couldnít convince Washington, D.C.ís municipal council to agree on how the new stadium was to be funded. As the political grandstanding by various parties continued well past late 2004 into 2005, the teamís General Manager, Tony Tavares, set up the Nationalís administrative offices in two semi-trailers parked in the parking lot of RFK Stadium. It was from these make shift offices (with a less than sanitary outdoor bathroom that the employees had to use even in terrible weather) that the team, under the leadership of the venerable Hall of Famer, Frank Robinson, was managed.
Much to the surprise of everyone in baseball, the Washington Nationals were very successful on the field, leading the National League East up until the All-Star break. Svrluga takes us through spring training, where the team that had a tumultuous previous season, playing before sparse crowds in Montreal and even playing ďhomeĒ games in Puerto Rico, came to appreciate the joys of permanency and the support of a rabid fan base. Players who were essentially cast away by other teams Ė like the combustible Josť Guillen Ė coalesced into a competitive team. Svrluga structures the book adroitly by concentrating on the first half of the season, when the team was successful, and describing in thankfully sparse detail how the season unraveled in the end.
Svrlugaís pacing is perfect because it is unfair to judge the Nationalís 2005 season by the fact that they did not make it to the post-season. Rather, the season was about bringing baseball back to Washington, D.C. for fans such as Alan Alper, who had watched with broken hearts when Bob Short took their Senators to Arlington, Texas after the 1971 season. That the team was in contention for half the season was both a testament to the motley crew of players and Frank Robinsonís leadership, as well as to the parity in the division.
In Svrlugaís nuanced chronicle, the on-field action is neatly juxtaposed with events off field. The rhythms of a teamís clubhouse, in good times and in bad, are captured in fine detail as Svrluga talks to several of the key players and describes how the long baseball season takes a heavy toll on those who play it as well as on those who coach and manage in it. National Pastime goes beyond the typical sports book that details a teamís season. Svrluga does not lose sight of the fact that the team plays in Washington, D.C., where politics is the way of life, and how everyone and everything, including its professional baseball team, is affected by it.