Tuesday, May 13, 2008
My Conversation With Barry Svrluga
Since virtually the very first days of Major League Baseball's return to Washington, DC--Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post has been on the beat--covering Our Washington Nationals. Whether through game stories, features or consistently updating his Nationals Journal Blog--Barry found a following among the many fans of DC's Team. Now--Mr. Svrluga is moving on. This summer he will travel to Beijing for The 2008 Summer Olympics and return to cover The Washington Redskins.
This past weekend, Barry handed over his coverage of Our Washington Nationals to his replacement--Chico Harlan. As Mr.Harlan settles in, Mr. Svrluga is traveling with Chico to assist in the handover.
Knowing this time was coming, I reached out to Barry a few weeks ago and asked whether he would be willing to sit down and chat with me for The Nats320 Blog. An exit interview, if you will, to discuss his time covering Our Washington Nationals.
Enthusiastically, he agreed to chat and we met on Friday, May 2 at 3PM in the afternoon--in the Press Box at New Nationals Park. Many thanks to Our Nats Media Relations Staff for allowing this location for the interview. Over the course of this two parter--Barry and I discussed his life as the beat writer, blogging, covering the team and some of the many personalities with whom he has crossed paths.
With that, here we go with My Conversation With Barry Svrluga.
How is it that you found so much time to put into your Nats Journal? I put a ton of time into mine— and I am totally for fun. Are you being paid extra for it? (SBF)
“It is a part of the job now. The best part about it is—take today (Reminder--Interview on May 2nd). They (The Nationals) made a move. A simple move this morning. Paul LoDuca activated with Chad Cordero put on the Disabled List. Not a big thing, not worth a separate story in the middle of the day. But, it’s an easy way to get news out to people immediately. So, if I get the email at 10:15AM, it’s up on the blog by 10:20AM. Just a really good way to get the information out.”
“Now, it can become a little consuming. You do feel an obligation to get fresh stuff up there as much as possible. And we (Post Correspondents) get a report every day on how many hits each of the sports blogs get. (Chuckling) So, you kind of attach your self-worth to the rankings.”
At times, I have read your posts where you stated you were sitting in an airport. And even on off days—you are doing stuff for your blog. (SBF)
“Yeah, Yes. We are encouraged every day to produce content. If you brand it as a place to come, and reliable information is there, and you can add new stuff a lot—people are going to check more often. We have actually had discussions at The Post on how to balance making sure stuff is fresh--without wearing out the beat writers. There may not be a right answer, but it’s just another part of the job now.”
How much of an effect has other Blogs—just look at all the ones surrounding The Nationals—had over The Post getting into the fray? There had to have been some realization by The Post that many other blogs have audiences. (SBF)
“I think that fact is the absolute genesis for Nationals Journal. There is a kind of balance. I can’t take the same opinions that some of the Nats Blogs take. But, I do have access to things that they do not have—the team, officials and those types of things. I wrote that story about blogs a year or two ago. A lot of those Nats Blogs fill different needs. (Wants? —SBF) Yes, absolutely. But, I think Nationals Journal fulfills the little more newsy need.”
I am always amazed at the immediate comments that show up—sometimes reaching into the hundreds—if some newsworthy item occurs. (SBF)
“Right. Those are the best days. Let’s take stuff surrounding the trade deadline. NJ is a great outlet while you are trying to figure out what’s going on. Things might be happening, might not be happening. Last year, we had a really big day on trade deadline day. People were interested. They wanted to know what the team was going to do--anything, or nothing at all. It teaches you that people want to know immediately.”
It’s a common thread on blogs—including yours. People can be very critical, even take you on personally. How do you deal with it? (SBF)
“It’s a little alarming. Before, you use to get maybe a phone call from someone who was irate over something. But, it took a step for the reader to get your number and call. You really had to be committed to lodge a complaint. Now, just click and you can say whatever you want. It’s just like the players—if they are criticized by a columnist or the media. You have to have a thick skin about it. You also have to think about what the criticism is. Is it valid and should you think about doing something in a different way? But, you also have to understand that some people are going to be upset about—whatever. And as long as you have handled the situation fairly—you just move on.”
Moving on—you knew this beat covering The Nationals was coming to an end. Are you going to miss it? (SBF)
“Absolutely. I have very mixed emotions about it. I love baseball and I love coming to the park. And these players have been—in general—very good to work with. I had never covered a Major League Baseball Team before I came here (to Washington). I did cover a few Minor League Teams. But, I never thought I would do it for twenty years. In large part, because it’s a hard lifestyle. You are away from home a lot and it wears on you, despite how much you love coming to the park each day.”
“There is a little bit of a toll. But, this is the right time. The Boss had always pitched it as a three-year thing. It also doesn’t mean I might not come back to baseball at some later point. Definitely though, there will be parts that I miss—parts that I won’t.”
As a baseball fan, do you find it difficult to sometimes NOT cheer for the players? (SBF)
“No. I covered college basketball for years—University of North Carolina first, then University of Maryland here. I am a Duke Grad. Obviously, I had rooted for Duke when I was in college. But, you can’t cover their two biggest rivals and root for Duke. You find yourself just stepping back and watching from a distance. It’s terrible in one sense, but it’s the only way you can handle it—by not being a fan—focusing on the story.”
“It’s amazing—and I don’t know if everyone can do it. But, it’s come naturally for me. If Gary Williams (UMD Basketball Coach) ever sensed from me that I was rooting for Duke—my credibility with him would be shot.”
“Covering The Nationals is a little bit different. I didn’t have any history with this franchise. Now, you can’t say you don’t like some players more than some other players. Or that you have trouble with some people you cover—all that type of stuff—that can color your vision. But, we always say: ‘We root for the best stories.’ And as long as they are interesting stories, I am fine.”
How interesting has it been for you to see this team basically start from nothing? (SBF)
“Yeah, it has been interesting, but at the same time this franchise has such a long way to go. The Ballpark (New Nationals Park) was a huge step. But, we are already seeing that the ballpark does not solve all your on-field problems. So, they are playing good baseball now (Reminder again—this interview took place on Friday May 2nd). I didn’t think they were a 5-15 team. I thought that was a very surprising start. The Franchise looks like it is now on solid footing. This is a real ballpark. It’s very, very nice. The players are immensely happy about it. But, it’s equally amazing how quickly you move on to what’s next? Who do they (The Team) bring in? How do they go about adding more star caliber players?”
Did RFK Stadium actually hinder the team’s development or was it just in their minds? (SBF)
“It depends. I think it could have, as RFK made it hard for the team to sign major free agents to come to Washington. But if you look at it, as we have seen, many, many times—that was not part of The Plan out of the gate—anyway. I think the way The Lerner’s and Jim Bowden were going to go about this—is by doing what they are doing right now. They are building the farm system and they really did ratchet up the scouting. And that development was immediately shown in the draft last year."
“When the team was still at RFK, I think that was used as a crutch. Now, the next step would be to use the revenues produced here, and they are going to make more money here, and put it back into (Team) payroll.”
The players bitched about RFK—fences too long, shoddy field. Have you heard any comments or complaints from the players of Nationals Park? (SBF)
“They haven’t because I don’t think you have seen the number of balls hit to the warning track. The obvious ones at RFK where you just say: ‘Well, that would have been out at Philly.’ I just don’t think they have hit the ball well enough to be complaining about the fences. But (Austin) Kearns did hit a ball to right center a few days ago that he hit pretty well—about as well as he could hit it the opposite way. But that is a 14-foot wall and it’s pretty deep. Everybody seems to think the ballpark plays fair—slightly in favor of the pitchers. But, I don’t believe this teams offensive start has anything to do with the dimensions here.”
I have asked Bowden this question, but either he doesn’t really address an answer or respond. Does he favor Cincinnati Players from his past? And, is it a fair question? (SBF)
“Yes, it is a fair question, because of the number of guys he has here—even on the coaching staff and front office. He also has Lenny Harris down in the dugout as Hitting Coach. Harris knew Jim from Cincinnati as well. Last spring, Barry Larkin—who played with Austin Kearns in Cincinnati said it best: ‘Let’s stop putting expectations of .300, 30 Homer and 100 RBI’s on the guy, because his record does not show that is what he does.’ His record also says he doesn’t hit .194 either. He usually hits around .260--.265 and he has a little bit of pop—but not 30 Homer Pop."
"Bowden will have that label because he made that big deal to get two guys he was very excited about getting (Kearns & Felipe Lopez) as well as the little pieces he has picked up. I don’t know if it’s favoring, but maybe just familiarity. He knows exactly what he is going to get. I just don’t know if I would call it favoring.”
Although some have stated if a player was already on the roster before he became General Manager—they may not be his favorites because he did not personally scout or draft them. (SBF)
“I don’t know if that is fair either because he loves Shawn Hill. He knows exactly what his potential is. He has no problem with Nick Johnson and his on base percentage. If Ryan Zimmerman had been here beforehand—Jim would have not been foolish enough to say ‘we don’t need him.'(Both of us chuckling) So, I understand where the criticism comes from, but I know Jim well enough to know that he doesn’t sit there saying: “Oh, Cincinnati—Yes! Cincinnati—Yes!”
Bowden does have a lot of detractors. You find him good at his role? (SBF)
“We are not into the opinion thing. But, we have chronicled his moves—move by move. They kind of speak for themselves. And I think you will see more moves as these draft classes get closer and closer to The Majors. But keep in mind—he is not in complete control of what he does with the roster. The Nationals are going by a very specific plan, step by step. Any General Manager of any team would want more payroll and more ability to pickup great players. People above him are preaching patience. It’s a little harder for him.”
How was Frank Robinson compared to Manny Acta as manager? (SBF)
“You know, I love dealing with both of them in different ways. Frank to those on the outside seemed like a hard ass—and he was. But, this is the part where you feel like a kid. You could show up to the park every single day (as a reporter) and sit down with a Hall of Famer. Frank was great—particularly on the road—sitting in his office and telling stories. And he was not afraid, and this was always good for writers, to criticize his own players and publicly—if he felt it was warranted. So, if you are rooting for good stories that make good copy. Frank was always good story.”
“Manny is younger, more vibrant, doesn’t have the history as a player. So, he has to establish his credentials in a different way—both with his players and the media. One super energetic guy and genuinely friendly person. He sets a real nice tone for this franchise and everybody who deals with him.”
I always got the impression from Frank Robinson that if he could help you in any way—he would—as long as you were willing to learn? (SBF)
“Yes, that is true. Like I said, his image as a hard ass was a little bit overplayed. I always found him approachable. He loved talking baseball. He LOVED TALKING BASEBALL.”
Obviously, you have seen many moments in this franchise’s history in Washington, and I would say Jose Guillen’s Home Run against The Angels in Anaheim the very night Frank and Mike Scioscia got into that great argument was one of the most memorable. (SBF)
“That one is right up there. I still have the tape of Guillen calling Mike Scioscia ‘A Piece of Garbage’ the next night—which is one of the BEST POSTGAME QUOTES EVER!! (Both of us laughing). Jose Guillen is perhaps not a good teammate, but he was great to cover because he was a story more often than not.”
“I would put that moment right up there with Zimmerman’s walkoff home run against The Yankees. The biggest baseball crowd in DC History, Father’s Day, against the most storied franchise in the game. And the one guy who is supposed to carry this team into the future—comes up with his first walk off hit as a National. It seems now like Ryan has had so many more. In fact, I remember telling people that day, there was enough juice in the park that Washington felt like a baseball town.”
“So, those two are almost a toss up in my mind of memories.”
Since you brought up his name—was Jose Guillen the diva player so many said he was? Was he difficult to deal with? (SBF)
“Absolutely yes. He’s a guy who spends a lot of time in the manager’s office, high maintenance. He is very interesting because he talks about guys being committed to winning, guys playing hurt and all that kind of stuff. But, he doesn’t always look inward and evaluate his own performance in that regard. People say this in this game and it’s true: ‘There is a reason guys have been on 10 different teams.’ I don’t even recall now how many Guillen has played for—as I have lost track—something like 10 teams in 11 years.”
“He was enormously fun to cover, but I don’t think he is enormously fun to manage. (Chuckling) And those are two different things.”
That concludes Part One. Tomorrow, Barry and I will chat about Livan Hernandez, Team Chemistry, covering a team full time--with your competition standing by your side, among other topics as My Conversation With Barry Svrluga concludes.