This winter I have made a specific effort to interview some prominent figures within NatsTown to provide this audience with a more in-depth perspective of the Nationals. In this vein I recently reached out to Mark Zuckerman, the original Washington Times beat writer for the Nationals and who now works at CSN Washington and NatsInsider.com to ask if he might join me for an interview: fortunately he said “Yes”. Merely a few days before departing for Spring Training, Mark was gracious enough to share some time with me this week to reflect upon last season and give a few predictions for the upcoming year. Below is the transcript of our conversation…
NatsGM: “Mark, thank you for allowing me to interview you again this offseason… You have written about the Nationals since baseball returned to Washington in 2005, what was it like covering a consistently winning team for the first time, and can you compare and contrast it with being on the beat of a struggling team?”
Mark: “It’s really amazing to think about how much has changed over these eight seasons since the Nats first arrived in town, so much of that change coming of course last season. Probably the most noticeable difference from my standpoint is the added attention on the team. For years, there might only have been three of us covering them on any given day: Barry Svrluga, Bill Ladson and myself. Now you’ve got more local outlets there every day, often multiple people from many of those outlets there together, plus national media members that are suddenly interested in the Nationals. It can be tougher to get one-on-one time with players, especially post-game, but I also think the added media pushes all of us to do better work. Competition brings out the best in everyone. The other really noticeable difference, obviously, is the fact I’m writing about far more wins than losses for a change, and games in August and September that used to mean nothing now mean everything. There’s nothing tougher than trying to come up with interesting stories during the second half of a 100-loss season. That’s not at all a problem on a 100-win team.”
NatsGM: “Was there a specific moment during the season when you personally knew that this Nationals team was very good? Was this the same moment that the team also realized they were good, or did you observe this for them at a different point during the year?
Mark: “I think the players all legitimately felt like they were a good team at spring training. Maybe they needed to get off to a good start to confirm it, but they genuinely didn’t seem surprised by any of it. I did think they had a chance to be a good team and to be in a pennant race, but I thought their best-case scenario was probably around 90 wins. Can’t say I ever imagined they could get to 98. But the way they played in April started to convince me they were legitimate, and once Bryce Harper arrived and quickly established he was ready to be a major contributor, I started to become even more convinced. I’m not sure there was one specific moment that I knew it for sure, but one that does stand out is the June sweep in Boston. I know the Red Sox wound up being a disaster, but at the time, it was pretty stunning to see how the Nats marched into Fenway Park, blew them away and left everyone in Boston realizing just how much better they truly were.”
NatsGM: “I know this incident was written about extensively at the time, but I was curious of your perspective during the Davey Johnson and Mike Rizzo argument in Philadelphia? Was it strange, awkward, uncomfortable, etc. or is this somewhat commonplace on the beat?”
Mark: “At the time, I honestly didn’t think that much of it. When you’re around these guys every single day and have the access we do, you see a lot of things and hear a lot of things that the general public never does. That said, it’s rare we get a chance to hear first-hand an exchange quite like that, moments after a game has ended, so it was kind of interesting to experience it. But I also knew it was a heat-of-the-moment thing between two really competitive guys, the kind of thing that probably happens way more often than most people realize, and the kind of thing that both guys would get over within minutes.”
NatsGM: “What is your favorite moment or memory from this past season?”
Mark: “Like I said, that series in Boston was pretty cool, especially the Friday night game when Stephen Strasburg struck out 13 and Bryce Harper put on a big-time show. Some other favorite moments: Harper’s debut at Dodger Stadium, which was just a remarkable game in a playoff-like atmosphere; John Lannan’s return from AAA to win the second game of the July doubleheader against the Braves, which was probably the first time all year I felt like the Nats were facing an absolute must-win game; the NL East clincher, which was the first time a team I’ve covered has ever had a champagne celebration; and of course Game 4 of the NLDS – I honestly believe the last few innings of that game, ending with Jayson Werth’s homer, will be remembered as the point in which D.C. became a baseball town. That game will resonate for years to come around here.”
NatsGM: “Transitioning and looking ahead a few weeks, I’ve heard anecdotes from beat writers in a previous generation that spring training used to be a dream assignment, as they would spend all day on the beach and write their column before dinnertime. Now with Twitter, blogs, and the instantaneous nature of news today, what is the spring training assignment like for you?”
Mark: “Ha. It’s far from a dream assignment anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still getting paid to stand in the Florida sunshine and watch guys practice, and that sure beats just about any other job on the planet. But in some ways, spring training is actually more stressful for me than the regular season. The days are long — I’m at the ballpark by 7:30 or 8:00 each morning and probably don’t leave until 6:30 or 7:00 each evening — there are a ton of players to keep track of, I need to produce a constant stream of blog posts, Twitter posts and now TV and radio segments. And then you add in all the driving across the state of Florida. Viera is a minimum of one hour from the next-closest Grapefruit League site (the Astros in Kissimmee) and the Nats regularly make trips in excess of two hours each way to Jupiter (Marlins, Cardinals), Lakeland (Tigers). That wears on us just as much (if not more) than the players, and that’s why we’re very interested to see if the Nats end up relocating to another town next spring.”
NatsGM: “I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you to make a prediction or two for the 2013 season. What is the Nationals final record in 2013 and which player has a breakout season?”
Mark: “Wow, I’m not sure I’m ready to put a hard number on it before I actually see any players in person in Viera. But obviously they’ve positioned themselves as well as anybody to win their division and make a legitimate run at the World Series. Part of me believes they can surpass the 98-win total from last year, but part of me also knows they could be hit with a couple of major injuries that could change that. As for a breakout season, I don’t know if it’s a cop-out to say Bryce Harper, but I do believe he’s going to put up huge numbers this season, perhaps even contend for NL MVP. But if that’s too obvious of one, I’ll also mention Ross Detwiler. I think what we saw of him last season (and especially in Game 4 of the NLDS) suggests that he’s poised to really take off and fully realize his potential this year.”
NatsGM: “Mark, thank you again for sharing some time with us and I want to personally thank you for all your hard work covering the Nationals beat each season. Your work is invaluable to Nats fans like me… Where can we continue to follow you?”
Mark: “Thank you for the kind words. You can find my work all over the place these days: on the web (CSNwashington.com and NatsInsider.com), on TV (Comcast SportsNet), on the radio (ESPN-980) and on Twitter (ZuckermanCSN).”
That was pretty cool… Thanks again to Mark for his time and for being a great friend to this website over the years. Enjoy your time in Viera!