The success of the Nationals over the last year, not to mention the emergence of both Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper as two of the most recognizable faces in baseball, has led to plenty of increased attention and coverage of the franchise. That includes a just-published book by local writer Elliott Smith, whose "Beltway Boys: Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and the Rise of the Nationals" is now on the shelves and for sale on Amazon.
Smith, who grew up in Richmond, has been covering a variety of sports in the D.C. area for the last two years for multiple outlets, including the Associated Press and the Washington Times. He previously covered Seattle's pro teams for The Olympian newspaper. Oh, and he also was my colleague and editor at The Daily Northwestern many moons ago.
Since Elliott was kind enough to interview me during his reporting of the book, I thought it would only be appropriate to turn the tables and interview him about the process of writing it, about the mad scramble to update and finish the book while the playoffs were still underway and then to offer him a chance to make fun of me from my college days.
Enjoy the interview, and please check out the book. It's a great read! ...
MARK ZUCKERMAN: You've been in D.C. for a couple of years now, and you've covered all kinds of different sports. What made you want to write a book specifically about the Nationals?
ELLIOTT SMITH: Well, the way this all came about was, I was working Triumph (the publisher) on something else, and they said: "You're in D.C. Do you have any ideas about the Nationals?" This was probably May or so of last year. And I was thinking, this team has these two amazing players, and they're kind of on the cusp of things. Now, I had no idea last year was going to turn out like it did. But I think we all knew this team was definitely on the rise. So I thought it might be a good opportunity to kind of get in on the ground floor with that, talk about these two players and talk about how this team got built. And as the season progressed, you could see these guys excelling. Then you had the whole Strasburg situation, which was another compelling angle. So it just kind of all came together. Last season was an interesting season to take a look at, and to use that as a larger framework to talk about the history of the team.
MZ: Do you treat the book as a chronological account of what happened last season, or is it part of a larger story of the history of the franchise and baseball in Washington?
ES: I would say it's probably half and half. The way I look at it is, there's so many people who are just hearing about the Nationals, are just getting on the bandwagon. They made the playoffs last year, and I feel like people had little concept of the Nationals on a national level. Even here in D.C., you have die-hard fans like the ones that read your blog, but I think you could safely say the larger population here was casual at best. So what the book does is, it delves into the history of baseball in D.C., the Nationals franchise, a little bit of the "bad old days" that you're familiar with. Then it talks about Strasburg and Harper, their background. Then it gets into last year, in the context of both of those players, but also touching on a lot of the other guys who contributing. I kind of look at it as a great jumping off point about this team. We all know there's a lot more to be said about the Nationals if things go the way they should. I think this is a great entry point for people who are not 100 percent familiar with the team and who want to know more about the background of Strasburg and Harper and baseball in this town.
MZ: You've covered the Nationals for a couple of different local outlets, but the team didn't go out of its way to be accommodating with credentials and access for this book. How much of a challenge was that for you?
ES: It was a huge challenge. I guess I naively thought that they would be ecstatic that somebody was going to be writing a book about their franchise when, let's face it, there's not a lot of written material out there on the Nationals. So it was a challenge. I did understand where they were coming from, I guess, but it made me do a lot more research and do what I could to fill in some of the gaps that may not have been there if I had the complete access I was hoping for. I don't think in the end it hurt the book that much. I was able to do research, and obviously I talked to you and other people around the team. I think it all worked out in the end.
MZ: Just please tell me I wasn't your primary source of information for the book.
ES: I don't know if I can say that. I mean, you've been with the team since Day One. So what better source is there than you? But there are a lot of voices in there. I think the great thing about these two guys [Strasburg and Harper] is that there's been a lot of stuff written about them, so I was able to use a lot of that as background, plus what I was able to get directly from them. But you have to admit: You've seen pretty much everything with this franchise, so I think it was important to get you in the book.
MZ: How much did the way the season ended affect how you wrote the book, and much different would it have been if 1) Strasburg had been pitching in October, and 2) they had advanced deeper in the playoffs?
ES: It definitely would have been different. I kind of got the go-ahead to write the book in June, and I had a deadline of October 1. Which really gave me about three months to write a book, which is not a lot of time, especially for a first-time author. And obviously the Nationals, at that point, were steaming toward the playoffs. So I know that deadline wasn't going to work. So it changed, sort of, the end of the book. I was able to get the playoffs in. And I think it would have been open-ended as long as the Nationals had kept winning. Unfortunately, they did not, so it did provide kind of an ending point. But I think it also provides an ending point that is kind of essential to what I was saying before: We all know that this is just chapter one of this new outlook for this franchise. I think a lot of times, any team that goes through that successful arc always has that one defeat where they get knocked down before they get back up and learn how to win. So I think that was a pretty good ending, for the book. And I think it's a pretty good jumping-off point for the future. They've had that heartbreak. And you know going into this season that they want to do more than that.
MZ: If they do go deeper this season, reach the World Series or win it, what do you do? Do you write another book, or do you write an addendum to this one?
ES: That's a good question. We haven't really talked about that. We'll see how this one goes. Obviously if they go on and win the World Series and Bryce Harper's the MVP and Stephen Strasburg's the Cy Young and Davey Johnson wins Manager of the Year and goes out on top, it definitely seems like we could add on to this. I hope that happens, and I hope I get a chance to do that.
MZ: OK, now the most important question: Tell everyone what I was really like in college.
ES: Oh, boy. I feel like I should bring out the Penn State story, because that's probably my favorite Mark Zuckerman story of them all. Hmm, I'll tell your readers -- because as you know, I was your boss for a little while -- that obviously you were a very circumspect and talented writer. I never had to call you in and break down your stories or anything like that. But to your readers: Next time you see Mark, ask him about that Penn State road trip. That's when you'll get to see a different side of Mark, right there.
MZ: I've mellowed since then, I think.
ES: Yes. Fatherhood, marriage, all that stuff, has mellowed you since that fateful trip.