The Crackle Wonders: George Will

Justin April 16, 2010 0

Yes, that George Will.

He was educated at Oxford and Princeton, taught at Harvard, won a Pulitzer Prize, and has received more than a dozen honorary degrees. He’s a noted scholar, author and social commentator, and now, he’s the subject of a SportsCracklePop interview.

Our discussion centers on a new edition of Mr. Will’s “Men at Work: The Craft of baseball” It was first released 20 years ago, but, this week, hits store shelves again with a new introduction by the author.

I’m still shocked sometimes by what this here internet makes possible.

SCP: “Men at Work” came out 20 years ago. Obviously, a lot has changed in the game since then. But aside from the biggies (salaries, steroids, new ballparks) what’s had the biggest impact on day-to-day baseball? Was there any great strategy devised by a manager or front office that you think fundamentally changed the game? The biggest impact has come from “Moneyball,” broadly construed. The book is a business book as well as a baseball book. It, and Billy Beane’s thinking, are about how to value — that is, price — assets. Begin by understanding that baseball does have a clock. It has 27 ticks, called outs. When they are gone, the game is over. Hence the emphasis on on-base percentage. And on the related concept of “value over replacement player.” The game has not fundamentally changed in the 20 years since “Men at Work” was published, but it has acquired a new layer of sophistication.

SCP: At the same time, 20 years isn’t that long ago. Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre, and Bobby Cox are still managing, and Omar Vizquel is, somehow, still playing.  What is it about the sport, and these men in particular, that lends itself to such longevity?

GW: The longevity of managers is not confined to baseball — look at the way NBA coaches have more lives than cats. But baseball is a small community; everyone knows everyone, and knows the value of institutional memory. Regarding players, money breeds longevity: When the late years of a career can be lucrative, there is an incentive to live — eat, train — sensibly.

SCP: You are on the Baseball Commissioner’s blue ribbon panel, which aims to improve baseball’s on-field product. When announcing the creation of the group, the Commissioner promised there would be no sacred cows. So, what are some of the ideas that have been discussed?

GW: The members of the commission have agreed to not discuss the deliberations. It is, however, true, as has been reported, that the commission has discussed pace of game issues and the pace of the post-season schedule.

SCP: You were also on baseball’s blue ribbon panel ten years ago. That group focused on the sport’s economic heath.  Some of that panel’s ideas have been adopted in some form, while others have not. Is the sport in better shape, economically, than it was a decade ago.

GW: Baseball’s condition, as measured by competitive balance, is much improved, partly due to revenue sharing and the competitive balance tax, partly due to better decision-making by small market teams (e.g., the Rays).

More teams are economically healthy and attendance remains strong.

SCP: Is Bud Selig a good commissioner?

GW: Wild card, 20 new ball parks, competitive balance tax, revenue sharing, interleague play, labor peace in 2002 — Selig is far and away the best commissioner baseball has had.

SCP: Major League Baseball has been back in Washington DC for about five years now.  How’s it going for the Nationals and for fans in the nation’s capital?

GW: The Nationals are better and the Redskins are worse — a good combination for baseball fans. With a gold glove all-star at third, and several very talented pitchers due to arrive from the minors, fans should be — and are — energized.

SCP: You have a long career as a journalist and columnist, and are one of the icons of the conservative movement. How did you bridge the gap from there to baseball?

GW: There is no gap. I write about politics to support my baseball habit.

SCP: As you’ve traveled in baseball circles, are there any players who’s interest in politics that have surprised you? Is  there anyone connected to the game now who you could see one day running for office?

GW: Cal Ripken could be governor of Maryland, were he foolish enough to want to be. Many players have a lively interest in marginal tax rates. Ted Lilly is among the players I have found to be most interested in politics.

SCP: Finally, how did you have to confidence to go with the bow tie the first time you wore it? It’s something I’ve always wanted to try, but I’m worried I will look ridiculous and jowly.

GW: Given that Churchill, Fred Astaire and Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens made bow ties their signatures, be brave and tie one on.

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