Book Review: Men at Work – The Craft of Baseball

 When I picked up this book I was expecting some sort of management training text drawing on baseball for analogies. That was because I borrowed this book from the community bookshelf at work, which is stocked mainly with management, leadership, business, and IT-related books.

So let me begin by stating clearly this is not a business/management book. You might could make a case for it being a book on personal excellence, but that’s not really what this book is, either. “Men At Work” is a love poem. George F. Will, usually known for his political and social commentary, is also known for his passion for baseball, and that is what this book is all about. Will is sharing with us his passion for the sport.

As a baseball accolyte I was willing come come along for the ride. Baseball is a game simple in description, but deeply complex in execution. I had already sensed this after a year of watching my kids play in the local police sports league. I had no idea just how complex until reading this book.

Will examines baseball from four different perspectives; the manager, the pitcher, the batter, and the fielder (which in itself is an interesting order–top down, perhaps, instead of bottom up). Each section centers around one particular example of each role (Tony LaRussa, Orel Hershiser, Tony Gwynn, and Cal Ripken, Jr.), but also includes interviews from many other players, managers, commentators, and so on.  Not only do you get a solid feel for the intricacies and concerns of each position, you get a detailed view of the broad, rich tapestry that is baseball.

The book abounds with history. Baseball lends itself to historical examination perhaps better than any other American sport; not just because of the sheer length of that history, but because a baseball team’s season contains so many games–over 160, compared with 82 in an NBA season, or 16 in the NFL. And because baseball has been entwined in the American experience for so long, more Americans recognize the names of baseball greats more easily than most other sports.

Will dives headlong into the history, explaining many of the ongoing narratives such as designated hitters, the evolution of the strike zone, differences between the National and American Leagues (okay, I admit it, this was news to me), the “war” between pitchers and batters, and playing styles through the years. He also tackles some of the meaty ongoing debates, such as grass vs. astroturf, wooden bats vs. aluminum, whether players (and play) are getting better than their legendary counterparts or not, new ballpark design, and whether money is ruining baseball. Will, tongue-in-cheek, pretends to settle most of these conflicts, but I’m quite certain he is only serving up a solid defense for his opinions and resolves nothing for the truly committed fan.

The book is also repleat with statistics. Baseball is a game that lends itself well to statistics, and Will loves to quote them–far more than I enjoyed reading them. The die-hard fan will appreciate it, but I found it only occasionally interesting. Especially since Will himself continually points out how the statistics are usually only the beginning of the picture, not the the end; the launching point for the debate. No one statistic ever exists in a vacuum. A team may finish first in the league for home runs, but finish last in the league over-all. A pitcher may pitch a no hitter and yet get no strike-outs–an indication that his team is working just as hard on defense as he is.

I come out of the book with a greater appreciate for the richness of baseball and the level of excellence required to play in the major leagues, let alone to be one of the greats. I am now more of a Cal Ripken, Jr. fan than I was before. And I find myself wanting to watch baseball games.

If you have no interest in baseball at all, this book probably isn’t for you. If you’re curious about baseball and wanting to know more–perhaps even begin to understand the game better–then this may be the book for you. You will need to have a basic understanding of the rules and positions, first, though. And be prepared to spend time on Wikipedia looking up terms, as Will tends to throw them around as if you already know what he’s talking about. Be patient, and the depth of Will’s narrative will pull you in.

If you’re already a fan, this will be an engaging book for you. You may want to argue with Will from time to time, but you’ll appreciate his insights. You may even appreciate his statistical salvoes. You’ll find this book especially helpful if you’re a younger fan with the majority of your experience in the last twenty years.

Because that is the one drawback of the book–at least the copy I read: It was written in 1989. There are newer editions with a new foward, but unless he rewrites the book altogether you’re going to miss the majority of what has happened in baseball in the last twenty years. This includes the various steroids scandals, the establishment of a few more dynasties, and some additional game-changing players. I’m sure Will could write another book just on the last twenty years. And I’d want to read it.

My enjoyment of the book was not unconditional. I appreciated the depth of knowledge and the compelling stories making up the history of baseball and individual teams and players. But there were times I wished Will would go faster so I could get on with my growing pile of books to read. It’s telling, however, that I couldn’t just abandon the book. Perhaps it’s just because I knew that Will was saving Cal Ripken, Jr. for last, and Ripken is the closest I come to having a baseball hero. But it’s just as likely that I kept going for all the regular gems buried in the slag of statistics.

It’s a book I’m glad I’ve read, if for no other reason than being able to point out even more things to my kids next time we go to a baseball game together. It’ll give me more to talk about with true baseball fans. It will give me an excuse to pay a little more attention to baseball news. And should I find another George F. Will book on baseball I’ll probably pick it up. It’s still an interesting conversation, from an engaging conversationalist.