The Rev sent me the reissue of George F. Will's Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball to review last spring, and needless to say I'm a bit late on that deadline. I realize there are many other HHers who are more qualified than me to do a proper analysis of it and its historical context, but that's why this is a blog and not a magazine. And I was a bit concerned that perhaps Men at Work wouldn't stand the test of time, like listening to the band Men At Work in 2011. After all, I had never read the book the first time around.
But reading Men at Work last summer was joyously inspiring during a season of uninspiring and uninspired play by our Angels.
Many of you have undoubtedly read this book before, but for the rest of you, the book examines, in four sections, the fundamental elements of baseball through the eyes of those who were doing it well in 1988 and 1989: The Manager, Tony La Russa; The Pitcher, Orel Hershiser; The Batter, Tony Gwynn; and The Defense, Cal Ripken.
By today's standards, Will's immersion into the minutiae of each of the disciplines is nothing new. Access to this kind of statistical analysis and first-hand theory is an everyday luxury in the Internet era. But he makes some prescient conclusions considering the time in which the book was written. For example, he says that Hershiser's success is less a factor of his Win-Loss ratio than his WHIP-probably not a majority opinion in 1990. Will also concludes that Hershiser's ability to pitch successfully in his 30s is because he uses his mind to conserve muscle. In the pitch-count era this is common knowledge, but not in the day of the flamethrowing pitcher. Unfortunately, at times Will makes some errant predictions, such as when he says that hard-throwers like Roger Clemens won't pitch well in their 30s. Wrong about Clemens, but that's also another debate entirely as to how he achieved that.
In the Manager chapter, Will describes La Russa as "a voracious gatherer of information," a sleuth who will call friends on other teams in order to squeeze out information on an upcoming opponent. It was fun to read about how competitive managers can be, given their stoic public face. La Russa made Will remove a paragraph regarding La Russa's "pilfered information," possibly from stealing signs. When Will tried to convince him that the paragraph actually made him look good, La Russa balked because "The way a manager looks good is by winning games. That detail might cost me a run."
Will also talks about a "new" park factor in evaluating defense. Again, nothing new to us, but in 1990 this might have seemed like the musings of a stat-nerd's obsessions at the end of a PBR-infused rant, instead of a nationally-syndicated columnist letting the facts lead him where they may.
The chapter with Tony Gwynn is almost mind-boggling. Will observes Gwynn's tireless work routine and listens to his non-stop self-criticism. Before games or after games or both, Gwynn takes hack after hack in the cage, calling out situations so he can change his swing depending on the men on base, the outs, and the count. After a game he talks about flaws in his swing because he hit a home run. Gwynn was hitting .360 at the time.
In the new introduction, Will calls baseball fans "the most argumentative Americans," and I don't think anyone here on HH will deny that. He revels in the game's nuances, saying, "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." Even though his 1990 conclusion laments that baseball is "perhaps too orderly for the episodic mentality of television babies," in the reissue he concedes that the pace of the game could be improved. Maybe he's seen the TV ratings numbers.
Will says in the introduction to the reissue that if he had to write the book now (pre-2010 season), the manager he'd choose as his subject would be Mike Scioscia. Perhaps it's fortunate that I missed my deadline last year, because I wonder if the Angels' faithful or even Will himself might not agree with this choice, given the apparent increase in Sosh's questionable decisions last season and the measurable increase in fans' distrust of him, at least here on HH.
Instead of seeming like a stale, Men At Work-esque throwback to irrelevance, Men at Work is maybe like discovering Led Zeppelin nowadays. Some of Will's methods now seem at times traditional and outdated (reliance on batting average, etc.), but most of his conclusions seem right on in 2011. Riff-rock is nothing new these days, but the bands who did it right can still deliver substance, decades on.