Tuesday, January 18, 2011

George Will: Men at Work

It took me almost a month to read George Will's classic baseball book "Men at Work," and I can't really explain why. It's a well written work, and I'm starved for baseball. Maybe that's exactly why- I'm starved for baseball- jonesing, even- and had to make this one last. If you're a baseball fan, this is a must-read, if you haven't already read it. If you're my age, you probably haven't read it, you've probably read Michael Lewis' "Moneyball" (which appears not to have a website to link to)- the story of Billy Beane's A's and the importance of sabermetrics. "Moneyball" was a great read, and enhanced for me because it was about My Team- it was so cool to see the players come up after reading about their signings- and George Will's classic was even better because it was about My Team in the late '80s, as well as being the unintentional prequel of Moneyball. (Obviously not, but reading them in the reverse order, decades apart, had that affect.)

I recently had a conversation with a friend who is an avid Warriors fan (poor guy) where I made the (to me) blatantly obvious statement that baseball is a Thinking Man's sport, which is why a) I like it and b) I like it more than basketball. Basketball is growing on me, but it's just not the same. It's fast and furious (except for all those stupid time outs), but it's more about sheer athletic prowess than brains. My friend was shocked, and seemed to truly believe that basketball is also about brains, especially on the court. There are just so many MOVES, he exclaimed! I couldn't even begin to argue with him. He obviously hasn't read George Will. I'm not going into Will's politics (when I first realized he wrote this book, I almost passed it up), but how can you resist this? There is, he writes
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.
I'm not trying to get all sentimental here, but I have written about baseball as an American religion, and I think Will persuasively argues about baseball as American religion, at least in the civic sense. Baseballs practitioners are citizens in the best sense, and its fans are the followers, the analysts.

The book is divided into four parts which both compliment each other and serve as arguments against each other: the manager- Tony La Russa, the pitcher- Orel Hersheiser, the hitter- Tony Gwynn, Jr, and the defender- Cal Ripken. Each man is someone who represents to Will the pinnacle of the thinking man in his respective category. And in each section, Will portrays the manager, the hitter, the pitcher, and the defender as the most important and the most discounted part of the game, while also insisting that they must all work together for a team to succeed at all. In the end, Will comes down on the side of "small ball"- speed, defense, and pitching: for baseball to be baseball, bats must stay wood (interesting that this debate is coming up again with even more shattering bats than when he wrote in 1990), runners must keep running, and homeruns and big innings should be secondary to taking the game 90' at a time and holding the team to 3 outs an inning. Writing before everyone was juiced, Will writes
Ruth was a wonder, but he was more a harbinger than an aberration. The home run was here to stay, which was fine. What was not fine was that home runs began to drive out other forms of offense. When home runs became the center of baseball's mental universe, the emphasis shifted away from advancing runners. The new emphasis was on just getting runners on base to wait for lighting to strike.
This kind of ball devalues the whole game: sit around and wait means that the rhythm is broken. Base runners don't run, fielders don't field, pitchers don't pitch. The subtlety is gone. Sure, it brings in money as fans like the Big Stuff, but it takes out the brains.

Will wrote "Men at Work" before the advent of sabermetrics but was still all about statistics. (Interestingly, the A's "style of play" was already in business, long before the Beane era- I had forgotten about this. I shouldn't have- this was Rickey time, after all. On the other hand, it was also the Bash Brothers, which is probably why everyone forgets that there was something besides home runs going on- pitching and defense.) Even with all his focus on numbers, Will knows that "Part of baseball's charm is the illusion it offers that all aspects of it can be completely reduced to numerical expressions and printed in agate type in the sports section." Each of the men that he profiles are sublimely focused on studying the stats, studying the men they will face on opposing teams, history, research, etc. But Will also knows that luck is involved, that artificial turf can cause things to play differently- that there is a human factor. It comes down to 90 feet, which is a long enough time for anything to happen. He quotes Red Smith:
Ninety feet between bases represents man's closest approach to absolute truth. The world's fastest man can not run to first base ahead of a sharply hit ball that is cleanly handle by an infielder; he will get there only half a step too late. Let the fielder juggle the ball for one moment or delay his throw an instant and the runner will be safe. Ninety feet demands perfection. It accurately measures the cunning, speed and finesse of the base stealer against the velocity of a thrown ball. It dictates the placement of infielders. That single dimension makes baseball a fine art...

I've written before about emotions in baseball. Will also has a theory about this, which I find plausible. It's not done, he believes, because the game is both humbling and quick to change. "The exultation of success is going to be followed in short order by the cold slap of failure. Any team's success. Anyone's success. So why get high when a low is just around the corner? Baseball is a life best lived in an emotionally temperate zone." He backs this up (though much later in the book) with statistics: No team improves their record three years in a row. Only the A's had played in two consecutive World Series when Will wrote the book in the 10 previous years. It's a "mild roller coaster," he writes. I'm not fully buying this explanation, though. It's very clinical, and prosaic, but it's also very much an "easier said than done" kind of thinking. Sure, the ups are followed by downs and visa versa, but can a baseball player, a man who works at serious play, really tell himself that when he concentrates every day for 9 straight innings on something that the whole world is watching? That is his life? I'm just not sure. Will also discusses how the life of a baseball player, his career, is a shortened life, which occurs in public: "The decay is chronicled and monitored by millions of people." Not easy to just say, oh well, it will get better.

On the other hand, I do agree with Will's assessment that baseball is a cheerful business. An optimistic one. While Will writes that we baseball fans love to complain and nitpick on what is a remarkably hard profession, we are also optimistic. Year after year we root for teams that can't or don't win, complain that they barely win more than half of their games, and yet continue to do it again. I know I do. We are fans of an optimistic sport. The players go out there again. Hitting .300 is considered great, and that means (Will reminds us) that the hitter misses the ball 7/10 times. That's not so good in any other circumstances. But baseball fans cheer for it. We are cheerful, whiny optimists. Read this book, during the off season. Make your winter.