MEN AT WORK: THE CRAFT OF BASEBALL by George F. Will; New York: Macmillan 353 pp., $19.95 I HAVE sometimes wondered if the heroes of my boyhood - Ted Williams and Sandy Koufax - or the heroes of my son's boyhood - currently Ozzie Smith and Bo Jackson - are duly appreciative of the fact that they are possessed with a unique combination of blessings - blessings that kindle the dreams of young boys and the envy of grown men.
My sense after reading George F. Will's impressive new study of the game of baseball is that they almost certainly must; for only someone with a keen appreciation of how special his gifts are is likely to make the commitment necessary to realize the most from them.
Will's book is about the pursuit of excellence, and excellence, as he points out, is only partly a gift. ``[N]o `gift is sufficient for greatness,'' he writes. ``Greatness is never given. It must be wrested by athletes from the fleeting days of their physical primes. What nature gives, nature must refine, hone and tune.'' As the title implies, Will's book is about the work involved in nurturing nature.
``Baseball is hard and demands much drudgery,'' he writes. The evidence he presents, however, both supports and belies that premise. Will shows us Tony Gwynn, the San Diego Padres' peerless hitter, coming to the stadium hours before a game to get in extra batting practice in a room beneath the stands, swinging until his hands are blistered. He shows us Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. skipping across the outfield grass in spring training; looking plainly silly, Will says, but interested far more in increasing his flexibility than in appearances. He shows us Oakland Athletics manager Tony La Russa and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser, hunkered down over their computers, entering and retrieving data, helping themselves to understand what has come before, so that they might better cope with what will likely come in the future. But the attitude of these men is not that this is ``drudgery.'' It is merely that this is a part of the job, a part of the process of excellence; and the attitude of these four craftsmen toward their work seems to be a collective: Hey, who wouldn't want this job? Who wouldn't want to do it well?
``For a fortunate few people, happiness is the pursuit of excellence in a vocation,'' says Will. ``The vocation can be a profession or a craft, elite or common, poetry or carpentry. What matters most is an idea of excellence against which to measure achievement.''
George Will, of course, is the syndicated columnist and ABC News political commentator who seems reconciled, albeit somewhat sadly, to the fact that the gray flannel suit he wears to work comes with a button-down shirt and a rep tie, not with knickered pants and the blue letters and numerals of the Chicago Cubs.
Still, he is clearly one of those fortunate few who finds happiness in the pursuit of excellence in his vocation; and his achievement in this book is considerable. To begin with, the book is a lot of fun. Will quotes Aristotle and Descartes and Casey Stengel and Lefty Gomez and nobody steps on anyone else's line. He tells us the story of Rickey Henderson as a 17-year-old minor league rookie, misunderstanding the ``takeoff'' sign, the sign that erases or takes off all the previously flashed signals. ``I know the signs,'' protests Henderson to his manager after stealing two bases the manager hadn't ordered stolen. ``You gave me the takeoff sign and I took off for second and I took off for third.''
Will also conjures up some deliciously arcane history, such as the story of Nick Altrock, a pitcher in the dead-ball era with a noted pick-off move, who ``was said to have walked some batters because he thought picking them off first base was the most expeditious way of getting them out.'' He sets us wondering just which National League left-hander today telegraphs his move to first base by the angle at which he points his toe. And if you think Ted Kennedy or Mario Cuomo can raise the ire of the politically conservative Will, you should hear him on the subject of aluminum bats.
(There is also, it must be said, one very surprising mistake for a man as fastidious with facts and as steeped in history as Will. He asserts that the St. Louis Browns move to Baltimore to become the Orioles in 1954 was ``the first move of a franchise since 1902.'' Tsk, tsk, as the wry Will himself might say. Surely he knows that the Braves left Boston for Milwaukee one year earlier.)
On a deeper level, it is not so much that Will greatly advances an understanding of the game; the reader who sits down with this book is likely to bring considerable baseball wherewithal to the task. Even the most sophisticated of baseball fans is likely to find something new in here, such as the fact that a keen-eyed batter can sometimes identify a slider by the small red dot the seams on the ball make as the ball spins its way to the plate. It is rather that Will delivers, first, a clearer understanding and a keener appreciation for the men who play and coach the game.
In his pursuit of excellence, Will has patiently and skillfully plumbed the minds and hearts of his four principal subjects - the manager, La Russa; the pitcher, Hershiser; the batter, Gwynn; and the defense, Ripken - and dozens of others, exacting insights the sources themselves may not have even realized and most certainly had not previously articulated.
To put it another way, Ripken, Gwynn, Hershiser, La Russa, et al., are likely to learn a bit about themselves from reading Will's work. We fans, too, will learn something about ourselves in these pages - something about what it is we cherish about the game. Baseball games ``are like snowflakes,'' says Will. ``They are perishable and no one is exactly like any other. But to see the diversities of snowflakes you must look closely and carefully.'' Baseball, too, must be looked at closely and carefully to be fully appreciated. In return for our attention, says Will, the game returns ``not only the profit of an elevating pleasure, but also that of instruction. It teaches a general truth about excellence.''
There's that word again. Excellence. It is a most appropriate word with which to conclude a discussion of this book.