Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball – by George F. Will
It was twenty years ago that the public pool of baseball knowledge saw a 48-year-old journalist from Washington, D.C. do a perfect 10 dive off the high board and forever enrich the collective consciousness of baseball.
With his seminal book Men at Work, George F. Will gave baseball fans a chance to see inside the game through the eyes of three of baseball’s best players and one of its best managers of the late 1980s: Orel Hershiser, Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Tony LaRussa.
Twenty years since its initial release and widespread acclaim, the book is being re-released with a new introduction by Will, in which he touches on many of the things that have transpired in baseball since 1990 – the steroid scandal, discussions about how the game has slowed down to a miserable crawl, and the continued economic changes the game must address, to name a few. While impressive, it seemed to lose its luster by the time I got to the end of the book – a point I will touch on later.
As for the book itself, it remains untouched, appearing just as it did when it debuted in 1990. Will recruits the previously mentioned foursome to take him into the world of baseball, for as he often explained it in interviews, the book he wanted to read about baseball simply didn’t exist, so he decided to write it. With Hershisher as his guide for pitching, Gwynn for hitting, Ripken for defense and LaRussa for managing, as well as a strong roster of other players, coaches and broadcasters, Will shatters the perpetual notion that baseball is slow and dull, by showing the myriad of situational possibilities that a player and manager must consider and address on each and every pitch.
Men at Work remains today the same hard, honest look at the copious amount of labor that goes into being skilled at the craft of baseball. Yes, there is a romantic side to the game, as Will, like the majority of his readers, will never truly understand and appreciate the combination of work, luck, talent and good circumstance that results in a player ending up on a Major League field, let alone in a record book or enshrined in the Hall of Fame. In fact, I often think many players don’t appreciate the equation that must occur to produce a big league career, but that is another topic for another time.
Will is not shy to admit that baseball is a glorious game, but he is just as forthcoming with the many pitfalls that players and managers must avoid in order to be great at it – and it is those pitfalls that seem to create the chasm that separates fans from players and results in what I occasionally see as boorish behavior by fans at baseball games. He reminds us that the game looks easy from the stands because those who are on the field make it look that way. For the common man, to stand in the batters box against Tim Lincecum, or have a ball hit to our right at shortstop and have to make the throw across the diamond would allow us to see the game in a completely different and more appreciative light.
What amazes me is that with Men at Work so readily available to the baseball fan for 20 years, there appears to be so many people that haven’t read it. I’ve never done a formal poll as to this, but after reading this book, it seems impossible that one could be an obnoxious, boorish fan. That’s not to say that you can’t be passionate, or even vocal at times when something doesn’t go your way, much like you would at the office or at home. But anything beyond showing signs appreciative support for a hard and hopefully productive day at the office seem beyond me.
Having grown up a baseball fan but not being blessed with the talent to play it well let alone the opportunity to even try, I have attempted to understand the game as best as possible instead. That is the reason for this site, as well as BaseballOnMyBrain.com, and why I go to and watch as many games as I can, hoping to chip away at the granite slab that is baseball knowledge. As Will reminds the reader throughout the book, this is best done with a small chisel as opposed to a massive sledgehammer. It takes time, patience and practice to become just moderately well-versed in the game, and even at that point one should not refer to them self as any kind of an expert. Not once in the book does Will hit you with a sledgehammer of insight or opinion, but rather offers up a steady stream of bite size pieces of fact, insight and opinion from those who get to work between the white lines.
Make no mistake – Men at Work is a heavy book, laden with ideas to digest and process. But for any one with an interest in baseball, it is something you really must read and think about if you want to develop in your knowledge and appreciation for the game.
As mentioned earlier, while there is gold in the new introduction to the book, it seems that the real mine of opportunity for Mr. Will to further educate the baseball world lie in the opportunity to rewrite the Conclusion, titled “Maybe the Players Are Livelier.” In the introduction, he already names the four subjects who would comprise the cast of Men at Work 2.0 should it ever come about: Tim Lincecum, Albert Pujols, Chase Utley and Mike Scioscia. To see that he has already pondered the thought is exciting, although the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that in many ways, a second version isn’t really needed. The only thing I would really like to see, and Will admitted he left out during an April 2010 interview on MLB Network, was a section on the catcher. If you’ve followed my writing you know I have a strong bias for catchers, and once again, they get left out of the story, just like Paul Revere’s horse gets left out of that great tale.
What makes Men at Work so incredibly valuable to baseball fans is that 20 years later, it’s almost impossible to tell that it wasn’t recently written. While LaRussa is still managing, all three players have retired, records have changed and stadiums have come and gone, but the core lessons and insights about the game are just as relevant now as they were then. There were numerous times I forgot that I reading about baseball in the late 1980s, because while the names may change, the fundamentals of the game do not. There were power hitters back then as there are now, as well as singles hitters, base stealers, hard throwing pitchers and junk ballers, and every other characteristic you could label onto a player.
With a list price of just $14.99, there is no reason this book shouldn’t be read by any and every man, woman and child who labels themselves a baseball fan. You will certainly end up a more informed fan who will be able to go to the ball park or turn on the TV and see the game of baseball in a more educated and appreciative way.