Did George Will's Men at Work anticipate baseball's statistical revolution?

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April 27 2010 2:15 PM

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Did George Will's Men at Work anticipate baseball's statistical revolution?

Men at Work by George Will.

It's a bit difficult these days to imagine a public intellectual—the kind of deep thinker who opines on financial regulation and the politics of Kyrgyzstan—writing a book about baseball. Soccer, maybe—novelists like Dave Eggers and Alexsandar Hemon will write about it on the least provocation, while New Republic editor Franklin Foer wrote a very good book on the sport and globalization. But it seems unlikely that Thomas Frank is going to write What's the Matter With the Kansas City Royals? any time soon.

This is probably George Will's fault. In 1990, the bow-tied pundit published Men at Work, a treatise on the inner workings of the national pastime. The book, one of the best-selling sports titles of all time, is often derided as fussy and overly intellectual. These qualities are parodied to great effect in the Saturday Night Live sketch "George F. Will's Sports Machine," in which Dana Carvey flummoxes Tommy Lasorda and Mike Schmidt by asking them what Willie Mays' over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series "was not unlike." The answer: "It was not unlike watching Atlantis rise again from the sea, the bones of its kings new-covered with flesh."

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A reissue of Men at Work on its 20th anniversary shows, though, that this parody elides Will's genius as a sportswriter. Easily caricatured as it is, Will's book holds up remarkably well. Far from being dated, Men at Work represents a way forward—a fine model for modern baseball writers aiming to make today's advanced statistical concepts approachable for an audience of casual sports fans.

The greater part of Men at Work consists of baseball men talking baseball. Will focuses on the four main aspects of the game through the lenses of four men who epitomize them, learning managing from Tony La Russa, pitching from Orel Hershiser, batting from Tony Gwynn, and fielding from Cal Ripken Jr. With better access to his subjects than ordinary sportswriters have, Will steps into the batting cage with Gwynn, takes in pregame meetings with La Russa, and sits next to Hershiser on a team flight during his record streak of 592/3 scoreless innings, watching unnamed Dodgers harass stewardesses.

In allowing these men to expatiate on the purported intricacies of the game, Will does a fantastic job portraying the charmingly delusional nature of high-level athletes and coaches. At one point, he allows La Russa to drone on for three pages about the eight possible plays he might call with runners at first and third. The manager actually throws himself down on a carpet to demonstrate how a runner on first should pretend to trip so as to allow the runner at third to steal home. This has probably never actually been done in a game, and one can only take it as proof of just how badly the Wile E. Coyote of major-league baseball needed the Pulitzer Prize-winner to think of him as a savvy strategic mind. (To La Russa's credit, it worked. "His conversation could spoil the creases in his jeans if they had creases," Will writes of the then-Oakland A's manager.)

But there's more to Men at Work than just making Tony La Russa look ridiculous. A lot of Will's material is terrific—learning how Gwynn reads a pitcher's delivery will change the way you watch the game, for one. Even more revealing than Hershiser's disquisitions on the subtle and artful nature of his pitch selection, though, are Will's own insights. After spending hundreds of hours reveling in the wisdom of baseball men, Will—a man who claims to have "tried to think through the DH controversy in the light of political philosophy, the queen of moral disciplines and the profoundest guide to the right way to live"—turns out to be, shockingly, a bit of a sabermetrician.

Coming to Men at Work 20 years after I first read it, this wasn't quite what I expected to find. There on the very first page, though, Will approvingly cites Bill James, described not as a computer geek or a stats guru or the resident of a dank basement but simply "the baseball writer from Winchester, Kansas." Over the next 300-plus pages, Will mocks the notion that you can tell much about a player from a few at-bats, notes that "won-lost records are not very revealing," chastises the reader who might think that batting average is a useful measure of a hitter's abilities, and muses about the effects of ballpark dimensions on statistics.

In an age when writing from admirable wonks like  Tom Tango and  Dan Szymborski fronts ESPN.com's baseball page, none of this is especially novel. But consider the alternative: In   3 Nights in August, Buzz Bissinger's book-length ode to La Russa, the old-school sportswriter writes that the "new breed" of statistically savvy baseball types could not "possibly love" the game. (Emphasis his.) It's impressive given Will's stature as an elder of the game—whenever commissioner Bud Selig draws up an august panel,  you're sure to find Will there—that he doesn't shrug off modern ways of thinking. Indeed, Will's thoughts on the larger issues surrounding the game wouldn't seem out of place on Fangraphs or Baseball Prospectus.

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