Commentary Magazine


Men at Work, by George Will

Intellectuals and would-be intellectuals cannot seem to leave baseball alone. They try to play it in their childhood and youth, then they give up and chronically think, talk, dream, and write about it for the rest of their lives. The trouble with this bench-bound, potbellied tribe is that they continue to pay romantic attention to a game long after they should have grown up.

Not that George Will is blatant about his romanticizing. On the contrary, he starts by announcing that major-league ball is a serious business. An “intelligent fan” has to be aware of this. And why be an intelligent fan? Because, Will writes, being one “is an activity, a form of appreciating that is good for the individual’s soul, and hence for society.”

Himself a fan since before he started wearing glasses, an ex-philosophy instructor and now a famous columnist and TV commentator, Will fulfilled anAmerican boy’s fantasy in order to write this book. That is, he played hooky from his Washington beat for much of the 1989 season, hanging aroundinstead in dugouts and airports with four craftsmen whose business it is to play baseball for a living. And they play it very well—the manager featured in Will’s book is the Oakland Athletics’ Tony La Russa, and the equally perfectionistic and devoted pitching, hitting, and defensive aces are Orel Hershiser of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres, and Cal Ripken, Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles.

“Nice guys,” Leo Durocher said, “finish last.” What Will most admires in his heroes, and what he would like his readers to learn a lesson from, is that without resorting to nastiness, they win more often than not, and this thanks not so much to the physical gifts which in the majors are taken for granted as to a correct attitude toward their workand, by analogy, to life in general. Will’s ballplayers, none of whom lacks some sense of humor, are described as perpetually sober. No booze, no drugs. They hone their skills without let-up, they constantly think, anticipate, analyze, attend to details. They take every lawful advantage, plus a few in the shadow zone, and when they lose a game they do not allow themselves to be undermined. No, they perform cool post-mortems, the more excellently to play again.

As for their game, though it could not be more competitive, it is not brutal like the football Will despises. Rather, it is a virtuous, elegant, non-bloody equivalent of war:

La Russa wants the other team to look out from its dugout “and get real bad vibes” about his team’s physical and mental aggressiveness. He wants them to be saying, or at least thinking, “Oh, man, do you see those A’s, with all that talent, they’re not just out here letting the numbers fall into place. Did you see that slide into second base? He just knocked our pivot man into left field. Did you see the way José handled that two-strike situation, the way he spread it out, put the ball into play? See what McGwire did? They’re down by three runs so he took the 2-and-0 pitch. See McGwire take the ball to right field with a runner on second base?” La Russa says, “That’s what happened last year. I had managers tell me, ‘I hate to say it, but your club is fun to watch.’ ”

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As this passage suggests, George Will’s book is not for Central European intellectuals, women, or anyone else who failed to learn in childhood how a pivot man functions. Will assumes a familiarity with such fundamentals—and to judge from his book’s position atop the best-seller list, he made a shrewd assumption. There are obviously masses of Americans, not eggheads, who not only care about baseball but do not have to be told why it is good to take the ball to right field with a runner on second base. They have responded by making a hit of this book, even though Will is a man with a reputation as a syndicated killjoy, and a literate one at that.

In a previous book George Will wrote: “I trace the pedigree of my philosophy to Burke, Newman, Disraeli, and others who were more skeptical, even pessimistic, about the modern world than most people are who today call themselves conservatives.” While Ronald Reagan, the man whom Will backed for President in 1980, might declare that it was morning again in America, Will himself has never publicly succumbed to such optimism. Not that he is grim on TV or in his columns—actually, he is usually bright—only that he does try to keep his view “skeptical, even pessimistic,” as if he were some kind of European.

This, however, is tough to do when you are mining lodes of statistics to prove that the Great American Pastime is being played on a higher and better level than ever before. In fact, everything about Men at Work is optimistic and cheerful. On the whole, and especially compared with other writers on baseball, Will does shun both shagginess and lyricism. But his basically romantic feelings cannot be denied—he himself, having first denied them, calls baseball “a game that brings out the romantic in the best of its fans.”

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First and foremost, Will is a romantic in his unreserved admiration not only for the stars like La Russa but also for the troopers who will never be in any Hall of Fame or earn a million. He admires these men not so much for their skills as for their attitude, their philosophy, which is one of devotion, never fanaticism—the one ballplayer Will disapproves of is the disgraced Pete Rose, whose “admirable intensity” became, even before his banishment for betting and his being jailed for tax evasion, a “disfiguring obsession.”

Second, it takes a romantic, or at least someone with a defect in the tragic sense of life, to argue that baseball today is better than it was when Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams were in uniform. Third, it is nothing short of romantic to justify today’s salaries, as Will does, on the ground that “money attracts talent” and that major-league ball is “a model of a good society, where . . . excellence is rewarded.” Admittedly, unlike in publishing, where bad books are tending to drive out good on account of the bottom line, baseball is still, as Will says, “the severest meritocracy.” Yet Di-Maggio and Williams did what they did for a measly $100,000 per season. And lesser men, no doubt foolishly, used to play for much, much less, played in fact more for love than for money. In those days, was the game, the business, not such a good model for society, or has America itself gone into a slump?

Will understands that it has. He would otherwise not have had the excuse to hang out in good conscience with La Russa, Hershiser, Gwynn, Ripken & Company. “A nation’s preferred forms of recreation,” he asserts, “are not of trivial importance.” Granted. But what about a nation’s preferred means of traveling to and from such recreation, or of viewing it from its living rooms? What if Mazdas and Sonys are preferred by Americans over red-white-and-blue products?

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For will, this is a problem and a symptom of decline about which he is both serious and explicit. “My interest in writing this book,” he concludes, “has been to have fun exploring the spirit and practice and ethic of something fun, sport. But I cannot forbear from drawing a lesson.” Americans, he urges, should not just enjoy the best ballplayers but follow their example. “If Americans made goods and services the way Ripken makes double plays, Gwynn makes hits, Hershiser makes pitches, and La Russa makes decisions, you would hear no more about the nation’s trajectory having passed its apogee.”

A fan of Men at Work is entitled to wonder. After all, if America’s place in the industrial and financial sun has been elbowed into by the putative losers of World War II, it is mainly—is it not?—because of the genius of the Japanese and Germans. And even if Americans could be persuaded to take their cue from their all-stars, and work, hustle, and invent like Victorians, they probably could not bring back the days when the U.S. was alone in the world. At best, America would become somewhat more competitive.

Even to achieve just that, it would first be necessary to enforce a standard of universal literacy—which would certainly be no fun. Will’s ballplayers are probably smart enough to understand this, if not to put it into words. Poor La Russa and the others, in fact, must have been depressed to learn from Will that the future of their country rides on its willingness to adopt them as role models. Once upon a time there were plenty of politicians and businessmen, soldiers and priests, scientists and even artists, with enough of the right stuff to serve this purpose. If America has come to the point where its children have only latter-day Babe Ruths to emulate, then the implications of our current number-one nonfiction best-seller are pessimistic enough to give Burke, Newman, and Disraeli pause. Or did Will, originally a fan of the Chicago Cubs, not intend to be taken quite so seriously?

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