July 19, 2019

Baseball’s Craftsmen

June 2, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

George F. Will’s “Men at Work” is a classic. Twenty years after the book stood at No. 1 on the NYT Bestseller list for 19 straight weeks, it’s back as a re-release. This week, for those of us who were too young to appreciate it the first time around, let me shed light on what you will find in this acclaimed book.

1. Will divided his study into four parts – managing, pitching, batting and fielding – which he observed through the eyes of Tony La Russa, Orel Hershiser, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr.

Step into Tony La Russa’s manager’s office in the midst of the A’s 1988 American League Championship season. Often there is a decent amount of levity in the locker room but not today. “To get that advantage, a manager must fret constantly,” Will writes. “On a sunny May morning in Baltimore, La Russa is eating breakfast abstemiously, as is his wont, on fruit and cereal and nothing else. He is thinking worrying, naturally; for him, the distinction between thinking and worrying is a distinction without difference – aloud.” (Men, 37)

Hurler Orel Hershiser left La Russa and the A’s unsettled at best when the teams met in the World Series later that year. “Weâ’ve got a problem,” La Russa told Pitching Coach Dave Duncan. “Just the way he was going about his business, competing, paying attention, his sense of what the situation was. He reminded me of Tom Seaver, the smartest pitcher I have ever been around.” (77)

Tony Gwynn worked and worked, then he worked some more for his success. During the first days of the 1989 season, Gwynn spent so much time using the new batting room that a teammate said, “He wants the hits to land and spin a certain way.” Will wrote, “The room is not a restful place to be. The pitching machine, with its cranking, clanking arm is noisy. The crack of the bat on a ball, so pleasant in the open air, is a jarring concussion in the concrete enclosure.” (163)

Ripken was equally meticulous. “When (opposing hitters) get on base, I try to find out what kind of stuff they think our pitcher has,” he said. That way, he knew how to defend. (257)

2. For as much as the game continues to change, statistics are a big reason why it will always be America’s pastime.

The numbers 511, 0.406, 56, 1.12 and so on ring a bell in the baseball fan’s mind. Those are historical statistics that one would be hard-pressed to find equivalents for among other pro sports, the author argues. The reason is because baseball gets to the root of competition. Will cites baseball writer Alan Schwartz: A 10-yard run by a halfback or a breakaway layup cannot be assigned to any particular defensive player… [Baseball] reduces to one batter versus one pitcher, with each assuming responsibility for the other. (xxiv)

3. In between views on the four core subjects, Will weaves plenty more fascinating observations.

“There is evidence that umpires give the best batters a smaller strike zone than other batters must cope with, and give the best pitchers bigger strike zones to throw to.” Pitcher Jack Morris agreed with Will’s premise. “When Carl Yastrzemski was up, if Carl did not swing, it was not a strike. And I mean to tell you, I threw balls right down the middle of the plate, belt-high, and you could not doubt it, but if Carl didn’t swing, it was not a strike.” (174)

In case you are wondering who Will would choose today for his subjects – Albert Pujols, Tim Lincecum, Chase Utley and Mike Scioscia.

Sam Miller is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. During the 2009 season, Miller served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.

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