Monday, February 16, 2009

A Bouquet for Chico

My track record has been to nitpick the Washington Post to death (ok, mostly Boz, whom I think should be exposed to an especially high degree of scrutiny given his prominence), but I think it's past time to recognize a rising star in the Nationals media galaxy, Washington Post beat writer Chico Harlan.

As most of you know, Harlan took over the Nationals beat last summer when Barry Svrluga was shifted over to cover a certain Maryland sports franchise with a racist nickname. Like Svrluga, Harlan had never covered baseball day-to-day before taking over the Nationals beat, and for both of them the learning curve was evident in their first months on the job.

Harlan however has one thing going for him that few sportswriters do: dude can write. I don't mean that he can get the nouns and verbs to agree most of the time; Harlan has an unusually strong ear for narrative, setting, character, and the rhythm of good prose. I almost added "for a sportswriter," but I don't want to damn with faint praise.

Whether it's a function of declining newspaper revenue, the MTV-ization of our culture, the increasingly corporate slickness of major team sports, or something else, the "sportswriter as storyteller" is a nearly dead art form. Most sports coverage today is unimaginative and formulaic. And worse yet the formula is a tiresome, egotistical blend of Boomer Esiason's know-it-all bluster and Tony Kornheiser's relentless "look at me, mom!" need to be noticed.

Harlan is emerging as a rare diamond in the rough who understands that an effective narrator is an astute observer of the story, not a noisy actor in it, that subtlety can be a virtue, and that human drama is rarely rendered in absolute black and white but more often in complex shades of gray.

Harlan last season showed off his feel for the moment in his gamers, but it's in his feature stories where his talent really shines. Recent highlights include his profile on Stephen Strasburg and this historical piece on Washington Senators spring training baseball, but regular readers of the Post's Nationals coverage know that there are many more.

Harlan is even starting to show some stat-head tendencies. Check out this post. Not only does he recognize the primacy of OBP, he ponders Adam Dunn's "three true outcomes" tendencies, and even drops in a Dewan plus-minus fielding rating. Pretty soon he's going to be slipping in wOBAs, WPA/LIs, and even a tRA* or two.

Yeah, he still for some reason worships at the alter of batting average. At some point I think we'll persuade him of the obsolescence of this stat, created in the dead-ball era when pitchers pounded the strike-zone with a tobacco-soaked, shot-like ball, resulting in few extra-base hits and fewer walks. (You didn't think I'd get through a whole post without at least some nit-picking, did you?)

But bottom-line, Harlan is one of the more talented people associated with this team. I'm hoping for a good year from Shawn Hill and a great one from Nick Johnson and maybe even 75 wins, but I'm absolutely banking on a full year of strong gamers and outstanding features from Chico Harlan.


MikeHarris said...

Chico's what he is because he had a great intern mentor back in '02 who put him on a path to greatness.

Ah, but truth be told, despite that career blip for him, the one thing Chico has going for him (besides the talent) is he'll work. And work and work and work. He has an old-timers work ethic.

I wish the Post was in position to double-staff the Nats. Let someone else handle the nuts and bolts and have Chico do the long form. Then you'd see some serious stuff. But those days, sadly, are long gone for newspapers.

Positively Half St. said...

I agree that Chico makes up some for the lack of resources the Post puts into the Nationals. He is a good writer, and is creative with the Nationals Journal blog. It is comforting to read at least one positive comment on the Post's coverage. The complaints about it take away some from what should be one of the best reasons to read a newspaper each morning.

Hendo said...

Well said. Chico's feature yesterday on Johnson and Eckstein showed particular insight and sparkle. Not even a year into the job, he's really stepping up.

John O'Connor said...

Syracuse grad. What did you expect?

He was great covering basketball for The Daily Orange when in college.

WFY said...

Chico overdid it trying to be snarky on Nationals Journal last summer, but when he plays it straight he is getting to be pretty good. He did a good job covering Penn State for the Post-Gazette, even breaking "the JoePa kicked the administration out of his house when the wanted to set a retirement timeline" story.

In terms of expanded coverage, my hope is that Barry Svrluga gets bumped up to columnist sooner than later. He could be the all-purpose columnist that the Post needs. Svrluga covered the Nats, the Redskins, plus college hoops and previously the Carolina Hurricanes. That kind of resume screams columnist to me.

dcbatgirl said...

Nice job, FJB.

Add my voice to the chorus ... love Chico's writing, especially his features.