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Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball

Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball

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Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball

3/5 (178 ratings)
627 pages
11 hours
Aug 3, 2010

Editor's Note

Inside baseball...

Pulitzer-winning journalist George F. Will goes deep into the heart of baseball, breaking it down into major parts — managing, pitching, hitting and fielding — and analyzing the heavy hitters of America's favorite pastime.


#1 New York Times Bestseller

"A delightful look at all the little things that make major league baseball a subtle spectacle." —Seattle Times

In his classic tribute to America's pastime, political commentator, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and lifelong sports enthusiast George F. Will travels from the baseball field to the dugout to the locker room to get to the root of the game we all love. He breaks down the sport to its four basic components, managing, pitching, hitting, and fielding, and analyzes the way four of its notables, manager Tony La Russa, pitcher Orel Hershiser, outfielder Tony Gwynn, and shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., approach the game. One of the most acclaimed sports books ever written, Men at Work is a revelatory, and often surprising, study of professional baseball.

Aug 3, 2010

About the author

George F. Will's column appears in more than four hundred newspapers nationwide. His work also appears biweekly in Newsweek. Will is a commentator for ABC News and the author of twelve books in addition to Men at Work. He was educated at Trinity College in Connecticut, Oxford University, and Princeton University. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1977. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Men at Work - George F. Will


As they were making their involuntary departure from the Garden of Eden, Adam remarked to Eve (or so it is said), Darling, we live in an age of transition. Of course, everyone everywhere always lives in such an age because change is life’s only constant. That has certainly been true of the nice slice of American life that is Major League Baseball (MLB).

In the twenty years since the first publication of this book, baseball has experienced many exhilarating improvements and some disorienting and dispiriting turbulence. Through it all, however, baseball has remained a gift that keeps on giving because it never stops surprising, intriguing and challenging its attentive fans. Its steadily thickening sediment of statistics and other layers of history invite fresh comparisons of contemporary players and their achievements with those of previous generations. And for baseball fans, who must be the most argumentative Americans, comparisons entail controversies, which are integral to the vibrant life of the game off the field and around the calendar. Furthermore, baseball retains its remarkable capacity for evolving new subtleties pertinent to the related skills of assembling a team and playing the game. And even in baseball’s third century, it has a beguiling ability to generate enchanting new quirks. Consider this actual event from a minor-league game: a team hit into a triple play without the ball ever being touched by a fielder. How? Think about it. But while thinking, read on. You will find the answer at the end of this introduction.

The continuing interest in this book twenty years after it was published is a tribute to baseball’s rich traditions and fascinating craftsmanship, and to the literacy—and numeracy—of baseball fans, who have an unslakable thirst for writings about the game. I am one of those fans, and in 1987 I wanted to read a book that, I discovered, had not been written.

As a columnist preoccupied with politics and cultural matters, my purpose in writing, more often than not, is less to say what I think about a particular subject than it is to find out what I think about that subject. As an amateur student of baseball, I wrote this book during the 1988 and 1989 seasons, not to say what I knew about baseball—which, I soon discovered, was not much—but rather because no one had written it for me. I knew that, in the words of Tony La Russa that serve as this book’s epigraph, There’s a lot of stuff goes on out there, during a game. I, however, could not see it.

Baseball, with the largest field of play of any sport other than polo, is the most observable of team games. The players—at most thirteen at any moment (and there are that many only when the bases are loaded)—are dispersed across a large and visually soothing green field. One can, however, observe something, be it politics or art or opera or baseball, without comprehending it. Like a novice visitor to a museum or cathedral, I needed a baseball docent.

Actually, I decided I needed four of them. Hitting, pitching, fielding and managing are the four basic elements of baseball competition. So in the winter months after the 1987 season, I set about deciding which four people would best serve to illuminate the four crafts and finding out if they would have the time and patience to do so.

Luck is an inexpugnable element of athletic competition; it was also a large factor in the creation of this book. It was my great good fortune that, as the 1988 season approached, baseball boasted four young, able, thoughtful, articulate and cooperative practitioners. Three were players still early in what then seemed to be promising careers. The fourth was a manager early in what has turned out to be a prodigious career.

Before 1988, Tony Gwynn, having completed the sixth of what would be his twenty seasons, had appeared in only 769 of the 2,440 games he would play. In 1984 and 1987 he had won two of what would be his eight National League batting titles. Cal Ripken had played 992 games, less than a third of his career total of 3,001, but of those 992, he already was in—here was a harbinger of something big—a consecutive-games streak of 927. In the winter of 1987–1988 Orel Hershiser was preparing for the sixth of what would be eighteen major-league seasons. His record with the 1987 Dodgers was 16–16, but the Dodgers’ owner, Peter O’Malley strongly recommended that I make Hershiser my subject. How right he was.

Gwynn and Ripken entered the Hall of Fame together in 2007. On induction day, the village of Cooperstown (population 2,300) had 75,000 visitors. At 4 p.m., immediately after the ceremony, I started my car, intending to drive back to Washington. Silly me. After sitting for two hours in congealed traffic a few yards from the Cooperstown Inn, where I had spent the previous two nights, I checked back into the Inn for another night. Six years into their retirements as players, Gwynn and Ripken could still draw a crowd. It was a satisfying inconvenience.

Today, Gwynn is head baseball coach at San Diego State University, where he was a basketball as well as baseball star. SDSU is a few miles from PETCO Park, the Padres’ new ballpark. He never played there, but another Tony Gwynn, his son, now is, as his father was, a Padres outfielder. Ripken has become a baseball entrepreneur. His many youth-baseball enterprises are countering the recent tendency of other sports, such as soccer and lacrosse, to poach young talent that belongs, or so I think, in baseball. Gwynn and Ripken, who gave fans so many imperishable memories, are now transmitting the culture of the game to a rising generation of players.

Hershiser had an excellent career, with 204 wins, 150 losses and an earned run average (ERA) of 3.48. His record was not luminous enough to earn him a place in the Hall of Fame, but it did include many good years and one of transcendent greatness. As luck would have it, that year was 1988, when he won the National League Cy Young Award with a 23–8 record and a 2.26 ERA. He set a record that still stands of fifty-nine consecutive scoreless innings and was the MVP of the World Series as he led the Dodgers to defeat Tony La Russa’s Oakland A’s. From this grateful author’s point of view, Hershiser saved his best for exactly the right season. Today, ESPN viewers get the benefit of Hershiser’s always-acute and often-acerbic baseball analysis. His is sports commentary for grown-ups.

My book’s fourth subject is still a man at work. After the 1987 season, La Russa’s ninth in a major-league dugout, he was a manager who, at forty-three, was still young relative to many of his peers. Nineteen of the other twenty-six managers were older. La Russa then ranked sixty-fourth all-time in games managed (1,276) and sixty-first in wins (648). By the end of the 2009 season, he ranked third in games managed (4,772), third in games won (2,552), and second in games lost (2,217). It is certain that La Russa will, in due time, have a bronze plaque in Cooperstown. By then, if he chooses, he will have surpassed John McGraw’s total of 2,763 wins as a manager.

He might choose not to. Chatting in the bowels of Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., on a late July afternoon in 2009, La Russa told me that he did not care about surpassing McGraw. Perhaps he meant that. He may well have meant it that day because it was a tiresome Monday. The Cardinals, then in the thick of a hotly contested National League Central Division race, were in town for only one game, a makeup of a regularly scheduled game that had been rained out a few weeks earlier. It was going to be a miserably humid—when it was not soggy—Washington night of more rain and rain delays. Under baseball’s unbalanced schedules, teams from one division are supposed to make only one visit to teams in other divisions, so umpires are reluctant to allow rain to cancel any interdivision games. Umpires would be especially reluctant to allow rain to cancel a one-game visit by a team trying to make up a previously rained-out game. La Russa knew that after rain delays and long after midnight the Cardinals would board a train for Philadelphia, where they would take the field not many hours after getting to bed early Tuesday morning.

Which is to say, that night in Washington, when La Russa talked about walking away from the game, was the sort of night that can concentrate a manager’s mind on the attractions of getting off the major-league merry-go-round and doing something else. La Russa mentioned that he might like to run a bookstore. I will believe it when I see it.

I do not think that, when push comes to shove, someone with La Russa’s competitive fire will bank his inner furnace before he ranks second only to Connie Mack, who holds the record for managerial wins with 3,731. That is, of course, one of baseball’s unbreakable records, as is Mack’s total of 3,948 losses. For fifty years, Mack managed the Philadelphia A’s—precursor of the Oakland A’s, who arrived on the West Coast after a thirteen-year sojourn in Kansas City. He was able to do that only because he owned the team.

Besides, although La Russa certainly could become a Hall of Fame-caliber bookseller, serving lattes and literature to discerning customers, he is a baseball connoisseur and everyday he comes to work he gets to watch Albert Pujols, who, before his career ends, will rank among the dozen or so best position players, ever. La Russa may not choose to manage all the way to the end of Pujols’s career, but not many people ever left a Frank Sinatra concert early.

We shall see. And speaking of seeing, since 1990 most baseball fans have been seeing their sport in better, more congenial, venues.

The three most important developments in baseball since the Second World War were social, legal and architectural, respectively. They were the coming of Jackie Robinson in 1947, the arrival of free agency after the 1975 season and the 1992 opening of Baltimore’s Camden Yards, construction of which began in 1989, the year the writing of this book was completed. The consequences of Camden Yards were important in the Will household: In August 1990, during construction, I proposed to Mari where home plate would eventually be. The place was marked by a cinder-block. Mari wore a construction worker’s hardhat. Very fetching. My wedding ring, which I designed, features the MLB logo. Romantic that I am, I wanted Mari to know that in my heart she ranked right up there close to baseball. I shall have more to say in a moment about romanticism.

The beneficent reverberations from Camden Yards are still being felt in the twenty-one cities where new ballparks have opened since it did.

Forward-looking scolds are constantly telling us that we cannot turn back the clock. Fiddlesticks. Camden Yards is testimony to the truth that we can and sometimes should do exactly that. With red brick and green-painted structural steel, Camden Yards made a retro look seem fresh. Since 1992, demolition has done the constructive work of scrubbing from the surface of America the blight of dual-use stadiums in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis. Dual use is a euphemism that describes concrete piles that were lousy places to watch both baseball and football.

It is a truism that we shape our buildings and then they shape us. The new ballparks are made for fans, and they make fans by bringing them closer to the action. I came to understand the importance of this in 2003, when I was a member of The Commissioner’s Initiative: Major League Baseball in the Twenty-first Century. Our panel’s assignment was to gather pertinent data about baseball’s fans—their preferences and complaints—and to recommend ways of making the fans’ experiences more satisfying. Our concerns ranged from the pace of play to new techniques and technologies for enriching television broadcasts of games. To me, the most illuminating datum we unearthed concerned another sport: whereas more than half of self-described baseball fans have attended a game in a major-league ballpark, 98 percent of NFL fans have never attended an NFL game. Granted, baseball fans have eighty-one chances a year to root, root, root for the home team, where NFL fans have just eight. Still, the fact that only 2 percent of NFL fans have felt impelled to set aside the bowl of Fritos, and get off their couches and out to the stadium, suggests that television makes NFL fans. Baseball fans are made by going to games, then television sustains their interest. This fact confirmed my longstanding belief that, whereas football is a spectacle, baseball is a habit.

It is a habit that, in the last twenty years, has become easier to acquire, as is attested by soaring attendance. In 1990, MLB’s twenty-six teams drew 54,823,768 fans, for an average of 26,046 per game. In 2009, in spite of a severe economic contraction, the thirty teams drew 73,418,528, for a per-game average of 30,311. One reason for this is improved competitive balance, as indicated by the fact that eight different teams won the first nine World Series in this century.

This improvement in competitive balance is partly a result of institutional changes in MLB. These include a competitive-balance tax on a few teams with payrolls above a high threshold, increased revenue sharing among the teams and a dramatic surge to MLB’s central fund revenues from advanced media, such as hundreds of thousands of fans watching games on their computers.

I played a small part in some of these advances, which were among the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Baseball Economics. Its four members were Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board; former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell; Yale University President Richard Levin; and me. The panel was created by Commissioner Bud Selig in 1998. Its report influenced the owners’ agenda in the 2002 negotiations on a new collective-bargaining agreement with the MLB Players Association.

It is likely, however, that even more important contributions to the competitive balance have been made by fresh thinking about some obvious—or so it now seems—truths about the game that have always been true but have not always been acknowledged or acted on by managers or general managers. Fresh thinking in dugouts about how the game should be played has led to fresh thinking in front offices about how to evaluate, price and assemble the fundamental asset of the baseball business—players.

The years since this book first appeared can be called, with some forgivable exaggeration, the years when baseball slapped its palm to its forehead and exclaimed, Come to think about it, baseball actually does have a clock—sort of. The clock has twenty-seven ticks. They are called outs. One object of the game is to slow down the ticking. Husband your outs because, as Earl Weaver has often said, If you don’t make the last out of the game, you never lose.

Weaver was the short, Napoleonic, often-irascible, sometimes-dyspeptic manager of the Baltimore Orioles. He was a scourge of American League umpires, one of whom said: When the bastard dies, they’ll have to hire pallbearers. Not true. His players may have fought him, but they also fought for him. He arrived at the Hall of Fame by getting them to October four times. He won 1,480 games—58 percent of all that he managed. He did so by practicing what he tirelessly preached: be stingy with your allotted outs because when you make three of them, you have to start all over again.

Today we know with marvelous precision—because baseball’s best and brightest have crunched the numbers—what Weaver learned by the osmosis that occurs when a smart man pays close attention to his craft. For example, we know that bunting is usually a bad idea because a team is 27 percent more likely to score a run when it has a runner on first and no one out than when it has a runner on second and one out.

Another example: When I was a bad-fielding and worse-hitting Little Leaguer, playing for the Mittendorf Funeral Home Panthers in Champaign, Illinois, in 1952, my coach reiterated that a walk is as good as a hit. He told me that because I had a much better chance of getting a walk than a hit. The last twenty years have seen a sharp devaluation of batting average as a gauge of player value and increased interest in on-base percentage and on-base percentage plus slugging percentage (OPS). This revision of standards makes sense because a walk is a result of a constructive at bat and because not all hits are equally valuable. The difference between a 0.275 hitter and a 0.300 hitter is, essentially, one hit every two weeks. The difference between a single and a home run is 270 feet—three bases. There is a reason why Henry Aaron, who when he retired held the record for setting the most records, is proudest of having the most total bases (6,856). Advancing runners, including oneself, is pretty much the point of baseball offense.

Some fans (and a lot more nonfans) complain that games have become slower. These critics have a point. The pace of the game would be improved if batters did not constantly step out of the batters box between pitches to take practice swings—good grief, they have been playing this game since T-Ball—and adjust their uniforms and tighten their batting gloves. (Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Hornsby, and everyone else who played before 1963 never wore those accessories.) It is, however, important to distinguish between the pace of a game and the length of a game. One reason games have become longer is that at bats have become longer—for good baseball reasons.

Hitters have become more selective, in part because they are more willing to walk to first base. Furthermore, the more pitches a starting pitcher throws, the sooner his team is apt to be forced to resort to its relief pitchers. Middle relievers—the bridges between starters and closers—often are middle relievers because they are not good enough to be starters or closers. Teams whose hitters consistently take pitchers deep into counts, and which push the opposing starter’s pitch count close to one hundred by the seventh inning, are the teams most likely to run their season win total close to one hundred.

Permutations of one word permeate players’ conversations when they talk about their sport of the 162-game season. The word—as both noun and verb—is grind. Players speak of the season as a grind. They praise players who are grinders—who bear down pitch by pitch, inning by inning, game by game. Grinding out stubborn at bats, grinding down starting pitchers, and walking to first—these achievements strike some people as unheroic and hence unworthy of admiration. Which brings me to the essence of this book.

When I publish a book—Men at Work was the sixth of my (so far) thirteen—the title usually is the last thing I consider. With this book, however, I had the title before anything else. I embarked upon this writing project with one certainty: baseball has had quite enough books of romance, nostalgia and gush.

Ballparks are not, in fact, cathedrals; they are places where work—demanding and dangerous work—gets done. The workers are not boys of summer because they are not boys; they are men—hard and disciplined by a profession that punishes laxity and is unforgiving of mistakes. My determinedly unromantic and unsentimental—but unfailingly appreciative and enthusiastic—way of thinking about baseball drew a good-natured but deeply serious rebuke from a learned friend. In an article written for the sober and intellectually formidable quarterly the Public Interest, Donald Kagan, a professor of classics at Yale, had the temerity to come at me from the right. Ouch.

The gravamen of Kagan’s elegant George Will’s baseball—a conservative critique, (Fall 1990) was that my title, Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball, was ominous. His forebodings were confirmed when he reached my judgment that games are won by a combination of informed aggression and prudence based on information. Kagan charged that I said as little as possible about physical ability and natural talent, stressing instead the role of mind in the competition. This, he wrote, is the fantasy of a smart, skinny kid who desperately wants to believe that brains count more than the speed, power and reckless courage of the big guys who can play. Well…

I may be puny, but my argument, which Kagan misstated, is not. I do not deny that extraordinary (literally: not ordinary) physical ability and natural talent are prerequisites for playing baseball at the major-league level. But neither do I believe that those gifts are sufficient. The history of baseball is littered with stories of failures by players who thought that their natural physical endowments would be sufficient.

There are seven hundred and fifty players on the thirty Major League teams’ twenty-five-man rosters. There are a lot more than seven hundred and fifty physically gifted natural athletes. I nowhere argue, and do not believe, that brains count more than speed, power and courage. I do, however, believe that brains matter too.

Kagan wrote that today’s game is much more boring than the lost grandeur of baseball in the 1950s, when the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers challenged the supremacy of the New York Yankees, who ruled the baseball world as the Olympian gods ruled theirs. Gosh, yes: in 1951, all three New York teams finished first, as the Giants and Dodgers ended the regular season tied. But for those fans who did not live in New York—bulletin for Kagan: the vast majority of baseball fans have always lived elsewhere—New York’s dominance of the game was not so swell.

Kagan’s roseate reveries about baseball in the 1950s were, apparently, undisturbed by the fact that in 1958 the Dodgers and Giants decamped to California because New York fans, oblivious to the grandeur of it all, were not making the turnstiles hum. In 1955, when a wonderful Dodger team defeated the Yankees for the franchise’s first World Series win, attendance at Ebbets Field during the season averaged a paltry 13,423 a game, a lower average than the team with the worst attendance in 2009 (Oakland Athletics, 17,392). And in 1958, when the Yankees at last had the city to themselves, their attendance declined. The baseball that enthralled Kagan was driving fans away by the millions, even in New York.

But what made Kagan most cross was his judgment that, in the choice of my four subjects, and especially in my selection of Tony Gwynn as my hitter, I was celebrating the antihero at the expense of demigods. An antihero, Kagan argued, is someone who knows his limitations and accepts them, who shuns the burden of leadership, who goes his own way and ‘does his own thing.’ But acknowledging limits is, surely, the essence of conservatism (and of realism, which conservatives consider much the same thing). And is facing facts, such as the reality of limits, incompatible, as Kagan suggests, with leadership?

Besides, what is leadership in baseball? It is real, but it is limited by the nature of the game. Unlike in football, where the quarterback starts almost every play with the ball in his hands, in baseball the defense (the pitcher) initiates the action on every play. Furthermore, in football you can give the ball to the same running back one down after another. In baseball, a hitter, no matter how heroic, gets only one of every nine of his team’s at bats. A Tom Brady or LaDainian Tomlinson can take over a football game; a Kobe Bryant or LeBron James can dominate a basketball game. No one except a pitcher can take over or dominate a baseball game.

Kagan was particularly displeased by my saying (see pages 168–169), ‘Stay within yourself is baseball’s first commandment.’… A player’s reach should not exceed his grasp. Kagan wrote, If Mighty Casey came to bat at a crucial moment today, George Will would want him to punch a grounder through the right side to move the runner to third and leave things up to the next batter. Speaking for George Will, on whose thinking I am world’s foremost authority, I say: not necessarily. The heavy hitters do have heavy responsibilities. Nevertheless, they have a responsibility to stay within themselves. If Mighty Casey, instead of swinging for the fences and striking out (stranding two runners, not the one Kagan indicates), had hit a scratch single, he would have earned no praise from Kagan, but there might have been, at the end of the game, joy in Mudville.

It is—and I mean this—a pleasure to be taken to task by a reader with Kagan’s intellectual weight and wit. My intellectual spanking, although undeserved, felt like a compliment. It is also an honor to baseball that it can engage the mind and passions of such an admirable man. However, this too must be said: Kagan says his idea of a hero is Roy Hobbs, who performed what Kagan calls magical feats as the protagonist of Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural. But Hobbs is fictional. Gwynn is real, which is a virtue when there is work to be done.

Alas, let us get back to the fact that the enjoyment of any sport is enhanced by knowledge of its nuances. This is especially true of baseball. The pleasure a baseball fan derives from following the sport is, to an unusual degree, a function of the engagement of the fan’s mind as well as of his or her eyes. The barely controlled—and sometimes uncontrolled—violence of the NFL, the kinetic energy of the collisions between cat-quick 300-pound linemen and running backs who are as big as linemen were a generation ago is spectacular. Football fans can relish it while understanding next to nothing about the complexities of the thinking—and there is a lot of it—that, on every play, sets twenty-two men in choreographed motion. The beauty of the astonishing balletic grace of the NBAs big men—and almost all the supposedly small players are much bigger than almost all NBA fans—pleases the eye even if the mind does not understand the plays and game plans that the players are executing. And there is another way in which baseball is different: statistics enhance the fans’ enjoyment. Most baseball fans who are more than merely lukewarm in their interest will recognize these numbers:









Such fans will know that those statistics represent, respectively,

The number of games Cy Young won

Ted Williams’s batting average in 1941, when he became (so far) the last .400 hitter

The number of consecutive games in which Joe DiMaggio got hits in 1941

The number of home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927

The number of home runs Roger Maris hit in 1961

Bob Gibsons ERA in 1968

Rickey Henderson’s single-season (1982) and career stolen-base records

Now, present the following numbers to even an intense NFL fan:











I would wager dollars against doughnuts that not many self-described NFL fanatics will know that those numbers represent

Emmitt Smith’s career record for the most yards gained rushing

Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record

Brett Favre’s record for career passing yards

Dan Marino’s record for single-season passing yards

Brett Favre’s record for most touchdown passes in a career

Tom Brady’s record for most touchdown passes in a season

Jerry Rice’s record for most career touchdowns

LaDainian Tomlinson’s record for most touchdowns in a season

Morten Andersen’s record (he was a kicker) for most points scored in career

LaDainian Tomlinson’s record for most points scored in a season

There is a reason why baseball fans are more likely than football fans to be acquainted with the most important records in their favorite sport. The reason is not that baseball fans are, in general, more intelligent and thoughtful, although I suspect that they are. Rather, the most important reason that statistics generally mean more to baseball fans than to their football counterparts is that baseball is a cornucopia of especially revealing data. It is so because it has uniquely measurable conditions of competition. It has a symmetry that baseball writer Alan Schwarz calls in his book The Numbers Game a double-entry personality. Every hitting event is, as Schwarz says, part of a pitcher’s record and every pitching event part of a hitter’s record. Which is why no other team sport leaves such a satisfying statistical residue of coherence. A ten-yard run by a halfback or a point guard’s breakaway layup cannot, Schwarz acutely notes, be assigned against any particular defensive player…. Baseball, however, is the most individual of team sports: in perfectly discernible packets the game reduces to one batter versus one pitcher, with each assuming responsibility for the other.

I dwell here upon statistics, and their special importance in the savoring of baseball, because about a dozen years ago—1998 stands out as the year when numbers suddenly became garish and, strictly speaking, incredible—it became clear that chemistry was disrupting the game’s treasured arithmetic. The twenty years since the publication of this book will be remembered as two decades tarnished by steroids and other performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). It is to be hoped that, from today forward, this era will be remembered as the steroid parenthesis in baseball’s history—a closed episode.

Until the PED epidemic, fans had the relatively uncomplicated pleasure of making meaningful comparisons between players from different decades. This was possible because modern baseball, meaning the game since 1900, had only had two distinct eras, the dead-ball era, which ended around 1920, and the lively ball era since then. Now fans must make another calibration when comparing players’ achievements: is a particular achievement suspect because it occurred during the last decade of the twentieth century or the first decade of the twenty-first?

Some people say that baseball’s record book should be flecked with asterisks denoting suspect numbers. That is not necessary. The only people who care deeply about baseball statistics are baseball fans, and they know how to read the record book. They know, for example, that something odd happened—probably to the ball—in 1930 (see page 134) and they turn a jaundiced eye on the gaudy batting numbers of that aberrant year. They will do the same for the parenthesis period.

Because baseball is held to higher standards than other sports—for which compliment, baseball should be proud—the problem of PEDs is thought to be primarily a problem in baseball. This is not true. Perhaps no sports have been as perversely affected as bicycle racing and track and field, where many recent achievements have been tainted. It was, after all, a track coach who blew the whistle that announced the arrival of the BALCO scandal that soon ensnared Barry Bonds. And only the incorrigibly innocent can believe that some remarkable recent changes in football are unrelated to chemistry.

In 1966, coach Bear Bryant’s University of Alabama football team went 11–0 and won the Sugar Bowl. Only nineteen of the ninety-two players on this powerhouse weighed more than 200 pounds. The two heaviest players weighed 221 and 223, respectively. The quarterback weighed 177 pounds. Today, it is not unusual for the linemen on a good high school team to average 250 pounds or more. Today, a 213-pound running back in a big-time college-football program would be considered cute and plucky. Today, a 175-pound quarterback would have to be thin as a blade of grass : most quarterbacks now are well over six feet tall because they must be able see over linemen who are often at least six feet five inches tall.

In 1980, only one NFL player weighed more than 300 pounds. By 1994, 155 did. By 2004, there were 370 players over 300 pounds—and ten over 350 pounds. By 2005, thirty of the thirty-two teams had offensive lines whose members averaged at least 300 pounds. One line averaged 323 pounds.

For a number of reasons, the most important of which is better nutrition, the human race has been becoming bigger for a long time. You know this if you have visited the Tower of London and seen there the suits of armor, which seem to have been made for children but in fact were worn by adult warriors. Surely, however, the rapid increase in the size of football players cannot be entirely explained as a result of smarter eating and better training.

It is more than merely possible to hope, it is reasonable to believe, that baseball has now closed the PED parenthesis that has blighted the game. That judgment must, however, be—if you will pardon the expression—asterisked for this reason: The financial rewards that accrue to athletic excellence are already enormous, and as our increasingly affluent society increases its leisure time and discretionary income, those rewards will increase. As they do, so will the incentives to cheat. This means that baseball probably is condemned to an unending competition between the bad and good chemists—those who concoct new PEDs that cannot be detected and those who devise tests to detect them.

Still, as the financial rewards for athletic excellence increase, so do the financial costs of being caught cheating and being suspended without pay or permanently banished. And the shame that attaches to cheating, at least in baseball, can be a powerful deterrent—can be. That depends on baseball fans caring about more than winning. It depends on them caring about winning the right way.

The moral price of PEDs is that performance is devalued by being enhanced. The conditions of competition change, stealthily and unequally. Lifting weights and eating spinach enhance the body’s normal functioning. But many chemical infusions cause the body (and the mind) to behave abnormally, while jeopardizing the user’s physical and mental health.

Chemical cheating will be decisively routed when fans become properly repelled by it. They will recoil in disgust when they understand that athletes who are chemically propelled to victory do not merely overvalue winning, they misunderstand why winning is properly valued. Professional athletes stand at apexes of achievement, but their achievements are admirable primarily because they are the products of a lonely submission to sustained discipline of exertion. Such submission is a manifestation of good character. An athlete’s proper goal is to perform unusually well, not unnaturally well. Drugs that make sport exotic by making it weird drain sport of its exemplary power. That power draws people to be spectators of excellence. Drugs that make sport a display of chemistry rather than character degrade sport into a display of some chemists’ virtuosities and some athletes’ degenerate characters.

As I said above, I began writing Men at Work as a guidebook to the craft of baseball. It was not until I was done writing that I realized that the book had acquired, for me at least, a moral dimension. It had become an illustration of two of my most deeply held convictions: Character is destiny. And people of good character demonstrate in their daily lives the fact that, by being attentive to the small details of their vocations, big problems can be largely banished.

I am not conflating craftsmanship and character; a craftsman can be an unsavory person. I am, however, emphatically saying that there is an ethic of craftsmanship. G. K. Chesterton, with his penchant for paradoxes, had a point when he said that anything worth doing is worthy doing badly. He meant that anything worth doing is worth trying to do, even if you cannot get the hang of it right away. (Brain surgery? Financial counseling? Piloting airplanes? There are exceptions to Chesterton’s axiom.) But there is an ethic of craftsmanship—the moral imperative to respect standards. It is said that being moral is doing the right thing when no one is watching. The categorical imperative of the ethic of baseball is playing conscientiously, even on a muggy August night in front of a small crowd when neither your team nor the one you are competing against is going to place in October. Sport is play, but play has a serious side. It can elevate both competitors and spectators. PEDs divide a sport in two ways. They separate the cheaters from the honorable and admirable competitors. And cold, covert and unfair alterations to the conditions of competition divide the competitors from the spectators, draining sport of its value as a shared activity for a community.

If I could wave a wand and wish one thing for each fan it would be that he or she could just once stand in a batter’s box and see—and hear the sizzle of—a major-league fastball passing close by. Or have a major leaguer’s ground ball hit sharply to their right at shortstop and then have to make the long throw to first. Everything is more difficult than it looks. There is no greater testimony to major leaguers’ skills than how easy they make things seem.

As an introduction to such excellence, this book is, of course, no substitute for standing in a batters box, sixty feet six inches from Tim Lincecum. Still, if this book has enhanced some fans’ enjoyment of the great game, it has served a purpose beyond the original one, of enhancing the author’s enjoyment. It certainly has found a large readership: It was on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty-seven weeks, nineteen at the top of the list. It has been in print ever since and now may be the best-selling baseball book ever. But the writing of Men at Work was not done by a man at work. Nothing that was so much fun should count as work.

I am often asked which four players I would choose as my subjects were I going to write Men at Work today. My answers are as follows:

Hitter: Albert Pujols. He gets on base so many ways and then further distinguishes himself from almost everyone else by running the bases with a rare brilliance. Because he is willing to walk to first base, he needs only to swing at the one hittable pitch—at most—he sees in an at bat. And he usually hits it hard. A ferocious competitor, even in early spring intrasquad games, he is a study in fidelity to baseball’s uniquely demanding ethic of maintaining intensity for six months.

Pitcher: the Giants’ Tim Lincecum. He stands five foot eleven and weighs 170 pounds. Which is to say, he is about the size of Whitey Ford, the Yankee Hall of Famer (five foot ten). Before Lincecum came along, it had become conventional baseball wisdom that, were Ford a high school senior today, no team would draft him because he would be considered too small. Lincecum vindicates Bill Veeck’s judgment that baseball’s appeal is bound up with the fact that it is a game you can play even if you are not seven feet tall or seven feet wide.

Fielder: Phillies’ second baseman Chase Utley. Like Cal Ripken, he is such a potent hitter that his defense does not get the attention it deserves. But as was the case with Ripken, when you combine the runs Utley’s defense prevents with the runs his offense produces, you have a remarkable baseball force.

Manager: the Angels’ Mike Scioscia. As a catcher during his playing days, he had the game in front of him. He still does. It was another catcher, Branch Rickey, who, long after he stopped catching, said that luck is the residue of design. Scioscia, like all good managers, understands that, and this truth: the harder you work, the luckier you become. Turn to page 158 for a glimpse of Scioscia as a Dodger and as a manager in waiting.

There is so much talent on the field and in the dugouts these days that knowledgeable people could reasonably pick four or more other players or managers for a Men at Work 2.0. And it is a wonderful certainty that twenty years from now, in 2030, when I am in the bleachers resting my eighty-nine-year-old chin on the crook of my cane and watching players who in 2010 were in grade school, some of those players will be worthy of the kind of admiring attention I was privileged to give to the four subjects of this book.

Answer to the triple-play puzzle: With runners on first and second and no one out, the batter hit an infield pop-up. The umpires invoked the infield-fly rule, so the batter was out. The oblivious runner on first roared past the runner who had been on second and was called out. The falling pop-up hit the runner who had been on second, so he was out. You see? It was as simple as one, two, three. Baseball often is that simple. But not always.


December 2009


The Hard Blue Glow

A few years ago, in the Speaker’s Dining Room in the U.S. Capitol, a balding, hawk-nosed Oklahoma cattleman rose from the luncheon table and addressed his host, Tip O’Neill. The man who rose was Warren Spahn, the winningest left-hander in the history of baseball. Spahn was one of a group of former All-Stars who were in Washington to play in an old-timers’ game. Spahn said: Mr. Speaker, baseball is a game of failure. Even the best batters fail about 65 percent of the time. The two Hall of Fame pitchers here today [Spahn, 363 wins, 245 losses; Bob Gibson, 251 wins, 174 losses] lost more games than a team plays in a full season. I just hope you fellows in Congress have more success than baseball players have.

The fellows in Congress don’t, and they know it. There are no .400 hitters in Washington. And players in the game of government are spared the sort of remorselessly objective measurement of their performance that ball players see in box scores every day. But Washington does have lots of baseball fans. In October, 1973, Potter Stewart, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and avid Cincinnati Reds fan, was scheduled to hear oral arguments at the time of the Reds-Mets play-off game. He asked his clerks to pass him batter-by-batter bulletins. One read: Kranepool flies to right. Agnew resigns. (Baseball also holds the attention of people at the other end of the system of justice. When Richard T. Cooper, a murderer, was on the threshold of California’s death chamber, his final remarks included: I’m very unhappy about the Giants.)

Because baseball is a game of failure, and hence a constantly humbling experience, it is good that the national government is well stocked with students of the national pastime. There also is a civic interest served by having the population at large leavened by millions of fans. They are spectators of a game that rewards, and thus elicits, a remarkable level of intelligence from those who compete. To be an intelligent fan is to participate in something. It is an activity, a form of appreciating that is good for the individual’s soul, and hence for society.

Proof of the genius of ancient Greece is that it understood baseball’s future importance. Greek philosophers considered sport a religious and civic—in a word, moral—undertaking. Sport, they said, is morally serious because mankind’s noblest aim is the loving contemplation of worthy things, such as beauty and courage. By witnessing physical grace, the soul comes to understand and love beauty. Seeing people compete courageously and fairly helps emancipate the individual by educating his passions.

Being a serious baseball fan, meaning an informed and attentive and observant fan, is more like carving than whittling. It is doing something that makes demands on the mind of the doer. Is there any other sport in which the fans say they take in a game? As in, Let’s take in a game tomorrow night. I think not. That is a baseball locution because there is a lot to ingest and there is time—although by no means too much time—to take it in.

Of all the silly and sentimental things said about baseball, none is sillier than the description of the game as unhurried or leisurely. Or (this from folks at the serious quarterlies) that baseball has the pace of America’s pastoral past. This is nonsense on stilts. Any late-twentieth-century academic who thinks that a nineteenth-century farmer’s day was a leisurely, unhurried stroll from sunup to sundown needs a reality transplant. And the reality of baseball is that the action involves blazing speeds and fractions of seconds. Furthermore, baseball is as much a mental contest as a physical one. The pace of the action is relentless: There is barely enough time between pitches for all the thinking that is required, and that the best players do, in processing the changing information about the crucial variables.

In a sense, sports are not complicated. Even the infield fly rule can be mastered, in time, without a master’s degree from MIT. The object of a sport can be put simply. You put a ball in an end zone or through a hoop, or you put a puck in a net, and prevent the other fellows from doing so. Sports are not complicated in their objectives, but in execution they have layers of complexities and nuances. There is a lot of thought involved, however much many players deny or disguise that fact. When Dizzy Dean heard, before the 1934 World Series, that the Tigers’ manager, Mickey Cochrane, was conducting a series of team meetings, Dean said, If them guys are thinking, they’re as good as licked right now. (The Cardinals beat the Tigers in seven games.) But even in his era Dean was one of baseball’s cartoon characters, a caricature sent up from central casting, a Ring Lardner creation come to life. And certainly Dean bore no resemblance to most of the men who rise to the top of today’s baseball and stay there for a while.

It has been said that the problem with many modern athletes is that they take themselves seriously and their sport lightly. That can not be said of the men discussed in this book. This book treats the elements of the game by examining four men in terms of functions dictated by the order of the game. A manager assembles a team, trains it, devises a lineup for a particular game and controls his team’s conduct during the game. A pitcher throws the ball, a batter hits it, a fielder handles it. During the time I was writing this book I attended games and conducted interviews in 11 major league cities, from Canada to Southern California. I liken the experience to being guided through an art gallery by a group of patient docents who were fine painters and critics. Such tutors teach the skill of seeing. To see, to really see what a painter has put on canvas requires learning to think the way the painter thought. My baseball guides have been players, managers, coaches, front office personnel, writers, broadcasters and others of the small community of baseball.

Many players do not practice what they preach. They preach a simplicity sharply at odds with their real attention to the fine points. A pitcher will say, I just try to move the ball around and throw strikes. A hitter will describe himself as of the see ball, hit ball school. But when players are prompted to talk about what they do, the complexity emerges. Baseball is an exacting profession with a technical vocabulary and a distinctive mode of reasoning. It involves constant attention to the law of cumulation, which is: A lot of little things add up, through 162 games, 1,458 innings, to big differences. A 162-game season is, like life, an exercise in cumulation.

It was an architect who said that God is in the details. It could have been a professional athlete, particularly a baseball player, most likely a catcher. Catchers, who have the game arrayed in front of them and are in on every pitch, not only work harder than other everyday players, they are required to think more. Ten of the 26 major league managers on Opening Day, 1989, had done some catching in their playing careers. It was, naturally, a catcher (Wes Westrum of the New York Giants) who said that baseball is like church: Many attend but few understand.

Rick Dempsey, a catcher, is the sort of player whose natural skills were never such that

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What people think about Men at Work

178 ratings / 11 Reviews
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  • (4/5)
    Who would have thought one of the coolest, oddest baseball books ever written would be authored by a super-conservative Washington Post opinion columnist. At one point Will explains Bill James' theory that Napoleon invented relief pitching; that's when you know you aren't reading an every day baseball book.
  • (5/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    Originally seen on my book blog

    Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.

    Before I dive into the review of the book, I should mention that this is not a book for someone that isn’t already an active fan of baseball. This is not a book to read if you are trying to learn about baseball. You will get utterly confused by the baseball language in the book and will probably drop it. I had to read it slower than I would normally so I could take time to picture certain things in my head while I was reading. This book is more for the fans that already love the game and want to see it from the perspective of four important Baseball People.

    I gave this five stars from the beginning. It never went down from five stars and it never disappointed me. Will wrote this book in a way that made sense. There are four “chapters” in the book. The first is “manager” the second is “pitcher” the third is “hitter” and the fourth is “defense.” He had one man that is important to each of those categories and the chapter focused on them.

    I said that this book wouldn’t be as enjoyable for someone that isn’t an active fan because it’s a tag bit outdated. This book was published in 1991. To put that into perspective, there are five current major league players that were born after this book was published. If someone is not an active fan, they may not know a lot, or have even heard, of the men mentioned in the book. That’s no fun for readers.

    The manager that the book focused on was Tony La Russa. La Russa is the third winningest manager in MLB history. Obviously, Will did not know it at the time but he picked the best man for the book. La Russa mentions different styles of play for every different pitch and every different batter. As fans, we don’t see all the work that managers have to do before, and during, games. After reading this book, I appreciate managers even more now.

    But this book is not only La Russa talking about how he’s going to have his outfielders lined up against a power hitter with a runner on second (they go into detail about these types of things), it’s also a book about the awesome history of baseball. Things that I wouldn’t know if I hadn’t have read this book. Every chapter has a lot of quotes and stories from the man that the chapter is centered on, but it also has a lot of stories about history. And awesome quotes.

    “Baseball is not, like basketball or hockey or soccer, a game of steady flows. Rather, it is an episodic game of explosive exertions.”

    When it’s put like this, it makes perfect sense and makes me love baseball a little more.

    And then, there is Orel Hershiser. Hershiser was one of the best pitchers in the early 90s and was also a great choice. I liked being able to read about pitching when it was coming from him. I also didn’t realize how many thoughts they have on the mound. They need to have great memory to remember how they got hitters out the last times and what pitches the hitters don’t like.

    “Control without stuff is far better than stuff without control.”

    An important thing to live by if you’re a pitcher.

    For hitters, Tony Gywnn was the main guy. This was probably my favourite chapter to read. Hitting mechanics are difficult and frustrating at times, but when they are explained by a great hitter, it’s a fun read. Gywnn and Will did a great job of making it understandable while also explaining the important parts of hitting. This chapter also talked a lot about the history of bats, home runs, and hitters slumps.

    I found it hilarious and ironic that I read stories about corking the bat and doctoring the baseball while the whole Michael Pineda pine tar fiasco was happening.

    The last chapter is about the most underrated part of baseball: defense. It should be obvious that Cal Ripken was the focal point of this chapter. At this point of the book, they had no idea that he would break “The Unbreakable Record” of most consecutive games played. If anyone is going to teach me more about defense, I would pick Cal every day of the week. After reading this chapter, it really hit me that defense is still not seen as important- not important enough in my opinion. Sure, we have guys that are great at defense, but not many of them are known for their defense only. The only person that comes to mind is Andrelton Simmons.

    This book is a must read for all baseball fans. Even though it’s old, there are still so many good stories in this book.

    When I finished the book, I thought of who the four men would be if this book was re-written this year.

    Manager: Terry Francona

    Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw

    Hitter: Miguel Cabrera

    Defense: Mike Trout

    1 person found this helpful

  • (3/5)
    A strange thing: I liked this book a lot when I first read it, back when it was first published. Not so much today; too long, and unfocused. There's lots of stuff here, but all in all it's just stuffed.
  • (4/5)
    In a time when most of the sensations in baseball are about cheating, doping, and other misbehavior (on and off the field) it's refreshing to hear George Will's take on four well-known and admirable figures in the sport. Excellent reading by Bob Costas, though he sounded a bit hurried in places. Perhaps he, too, felt that the abridgement of a substantial book to two cassettes was too short!
  • (4/5)
    I like books that treat sports as a serious subject. I guess there is always the danger of over intellectualizing the subject but more than any sport I think baseball has many layers that make it more complex than most people realize. George Will did a pretty good job of striking the right balance writing about the nuts and bolts part of the game and the more entertaining aspects. For any baseball fan this would be a great read.
  • (4/5)
    Absolutely a terrific addition to any baseball addict's library. Packed with statistics, expert observations, and wry humor (even a mild political poke or two), George Will's Men at Work was a fine tribute to the men who play and work at major league baseball. Now I know a lot more about what it takes to get to the Bigs - and more importantly why some fine athletes are able to stay, and others just can't make it. Will follows thinking managers (Tony LaRussa), pitchers (Orel Hershiser), hitters (Tony Gwynn), and fielders (Cal Ripken, Jr.). Their insights into the game are worth the price of admission. Will's insights are a bonus. The only quibble I have is the author occasionally goes deeper into the statistics than I care for. Otherwise, a delight.
  • (5/5)
    Outstanding essay on the sport of baseball by one of America's better columnist, George F. Will. This book is filled with humorous stories, baseball history, and numerous quotations, as it focuses on four key aspects of the game of baseball (and the men who "work" at this game): Hitting (Tony Gwynn), Fielding (Cal Ripken, Jr.), Pitching (Oral Hershiser), and Managing (Tony LaRussa).
  • (5/5)
    Amazing that for a man who is wrong about everything else in his life that he got this one correct.
  • (5/5)
    This was one of my favorite books when I read it in 2007. Will examines in depth the strategies used in baseball through the eyes of the manager (Tony La Russa); pitcher (Orel Hersheiser); batter (Tony Gwinn); and defense (Cal Ripkin). Using this ploy of viewing baseball from four points of view shows just what a fascinating, complicated game it is. Every aspiring baseball player should read this to see what kind of preparation should be done before the game starts. It has deepened my understanding of the play on the field and I’m enjoying baseball more than ever now. It was also fun to relive some of the great plays of the late 1980’s through Will’s analysis.
  • (4/5)
    I don't like George Will's policies and I don't particularly like baseball, but George Will brings the game enough alive in this book that you find yourself turning an ear to a game that may be playing in the next room.
  • (4/5)
    Practical, down-to-earth analysis of the different aspects of playing baseball. Will's tendency to pontificate is held in check here by the presence of Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken, Orel Hershisher and Tony LaRussa. As intelligent as baseball books get.