By Jesse Dougherty
Simon & Schuster. 307 pages.
BUZZ SAW: The Improbable Story of How the Washington Nationals Won the World Series will allow Nats fans to relive a dream season that saw their team go from a dismal 19-31 to defeating the Houston Astros in the World Series. Written by Jesse Dougherty, the Nats beat reporter for the Washington Post, BUZZ SAW is a compelling account of how a team of viejos came together.
It’s a quintessential baseball story with tough-as-nails players (Max Scherzer pitching the day after he broke his nose and later in the World Series while dealing with neck spasms); talented youngsters (Vîctor Robles and Juan Soto); a committed dad and underdog Tommy John survivor (Daniel Hudson); a politically active closer (Sean Doolittle); a manager struggling with health issues on top of the stresses of a season (Dave Martinez); a front office determined to banish the ghost of Bryce Harper and win (while staying under a self-imposed salary cap); and a team that won the World Series by defeating what we now know was a sophisticated cheating system.
Perhaps most interesting, the Nats exploited an unusual market inefficiency: They liked each other. As Dougherty puts it:
There is no way to quantify chemistry, its effect on results, or if it has a tangible effect at all. That’s why, in the age of advanced analytics, it is often supposed that being a good person, and fitting into a room, is squeezed out of the winning formula. It’s not that teams are trying to fill their rosters with jerks. It’s just that clubs that run on numbers, and numbers alone, may overlook the benefit of everyone getting along.
My interest in reading BUZZ SAW was twofold. First, I wanted to know what former Rockie Gerardo Parra had brought to the Nats (and taken from the Rockies) in terms of clubhouse culture; second, I was curious to learn how a team with excellent chemistry worked, especially after a Rockies off season defined by a standoff between Nolan Arenado and Jeff Bridich.
Some Literary Criticism
When a literature major writes a book review, she’s going to explore how the text works, so skip this section if that’s not your thing.
BUZZ SAW is a well told story structured chronologically with each chapter veering into a behind-the-scenes look at a relevant player when he was key to the team’s ability to keep its mantra of “Let’s go 1-0 today.” So, for example, in the June 19 chapter (“Posting,” which covers the period when Max Scherzer broke his nose during batting practice), Dougherty tells the story and then explains why Scherzer was so important to the Nationals and turns Mad Max into a more complex character. Plus, it further invests the reader in Scherzer as a key player in the narrative.
Even though I knew what was going to happen, I found BUZZ SAW to be utterly engaging, at times heartbreaking, and always intimate. That’s good storytelling.
There’s one minor problem. Late in the book, Dougherty inserts into a very long paragraph a hurried discussion in which he summarizes the consequences of the Astros cheating. He mentions the whistleblowing The Athletic article, outlines the suspensions, and quotes from Rob Manfred at length. The paragraph feels wedged into a completed book (which it probably was, given the timing of MLB’s report). Dougherty’s story would have been better served had he allowed himself a more leisurely discussion in an epilogue. But that’s a small complaint in what is otherwise a very well done book.
Well, there’s one other thing, which is that Dougherty sees Anthony Rendon as superior to Nolan Arenado: “Arenado’s statistics sagged when he played away from Coors Field, the Rockies’ hitter-friendly ballpark.” So. Much. #Coors.
The Parra Effect
Rockies fans generally assume that the team lost the most when deciding against re-signing DJ LeMahieu and Adam Ottavino. Perhaps Gerardo Parra was equally important.
Team chemistry and the value of “good clubhouse guys” are difficult to measure. Russell A. Carleton has thought about it a lot and asks this question: “Maybe he’s the kind of guy who is at best a replacement player and everyone else views him as a wash-up. He’s going to be slotted for the 25th spot on the roster. But if he can hold down replacement level in 200 PA and provide a win’s worth of value behind the scenes, isn’t that more than most teams get out of their last roster spot?”
This brings us to Gerardo Parra, who joined the Nats on May 11 at Martinez’s insistence. Parra, along with friend and fellow Venezuelan Aníbal Sánchez, began making the Nationals’ clubhouse more fun with dancing after home runs, group hugs, wild sunglasses, and, yes, “Baby Shark” (a song Parra debuted as his walk-up song on the day Scherzer pitched with a broken nose).
This paragraph stands out;
Through eleven years in the majors, and hundreds of interviews in his second language, Parra had nailed down a way to explain the game’s unpredictability. Two words could sum up a bad slump, a hot streak, an odd statistic, or even the weirdest plays. Parra would curl his lips a bit, squint his brown eyes, and say, “That’s baseball.” That was it. If he stayed happy, and that made his teammates happy, and that helped everyone go home happy, regardless of the results, he’d do anything to sustain that.
Surely, he picked up “that’s baseball” from Bud Black given that’s it’s long been his go-to line.
An additional—and key—Parra contribution was his helping the Nationals create a culturally welcoming clubhouse:
Spanish bounced off the walls, from Parra to Soto and even Dozier, a near-fluent speaker after teaching himself through conversations and Rosetta Stone. Reggaeton and Mexican pop hummed out of a speaker by Sánchez’s locker. DiPuglia had never before seen American players cede the room, much less the music, to Washington’s pack of Latin Americans. Not like this.
Here’s Dougherty’s description at the end of BUZZ SAW: “There was Gerardo Parra, Baby Shark, who joined in May, right off the scrap heap, and changed the clubhouse culture.”
From all indications, this was largely missing from the Rockies in 2019. Although they should not have re-signed Parra in 2019, they needed a better plan to replace what he took with him.
The Rockies’ Clubhouse Culture
In early September, Nick Groke asked a question that had dogged the Rockies since a spring training that saw them without clubhouse leaders Carlos González and LeMahieu in addition to Parra: “Do the Rockies Have a Fun Problem?” Here’s how Groke put it:
When the club decided to let Carlos Gonzalez and Gerardo Parra walk into free agency, they underestimated the loss. If their statistics lacked last season, their influence didn’t. Gonzalez, especially, worked as a counterweight to the grinder culture at the core of Colorado’s clubhouse.
Since Todd Helton’s time with the team, and especially through Tulowitzki’s time with the team, the prevailing attitude among the team’s leaders was to put your head down, keep quiet and work. And if a losing skid came, the remedy was only to work doubly or triply hard. Grinding, though, can grind a team to a nub.
That’s why the Rockies had Ryan Spilborghs to balance Helton and Jason Giambi to even out Tulowitzki. This season, they had no one willing to speak up for fun.
Hence, “Las Cucarachas,” Yonathan Daza’s creation that spread late in the season through the team’s young Latin players. Granted, winning cures all ills, but it’s impossible to wonder if the downward spiral driven by poor pitching wasn’t exacerbated by a clubhouse unable to keep the team loose.
Moreover, if the Rockies were able to resolve their clubhouse issues—and Patrick Saunders suggests that they may have, writing, “Rockies’ strong Latino contingent provides the team with culture, energy and plenty of talent”—it was probably undercut by Jeff Bridich’s off-season conflict with Nolan Arenado. A disagreement between the front office and the face of the franchise is hardly conducive to an atmosphere that builds the trust necessary for a winning team. In contrast, Dougherty makes clear that the Nationals trusted each other completely.
That Gerardo Parra, citing a Bud Black aphorism (“That’s baseball”), changed clubhouse culture suggests he took from the Rockies lessons they are still learning for themselves.