July 09, 1990 12:00 PM

This is a laugher of a game, an absolute massacre. The Orioles are leading 13-1 in the top of the ninth at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium; the Texas Rangers have as much chance of coming back as Nicolae Ceausescu. Yet George F. Will will not leave. The 49-year-old columnist, conservative pundit and lifelong baseball nut is determined to savor the contest to the very last slider. Asked if the lopsided score doesn’t make the proceedings somewhat dull, Will widens his owlish eyes in amazement, then horror. “What” he exclaims. “I agree with Red Smith. Baseball becomes dull only to those with dull minds.”

Indeed, this is the thesis of Will’s surprise best-seller, Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball—that is, the deeper one looks, the more richly complex is this boys’ game played by men. The book, which Will describes as “a nuts-and-bolts guide on how to observe and appreciate baseball,” has been No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for the past 10 weeks. Its very existence, let alone its success, has startled many who thought of Will as a pompous ideologue more at home in right-wing think tanks than in the jocular precincts of a locker room.

Will’s book has also been the source of considerable guilty pleasure among liberal baseball fans—and even some revisionism. Roger Angell, the New Yorker’s nonpareil baseball man, called Men at Work a “classic…shoptalk raised to the MIT level,” adding that he had “no choice but to join in the standing O.” He also felt compelled to add that the book “reveals [Will] to be more generous in spirit than I had previously imagined.”

Though Men at Work took three years to research and write, that proved no hardship. “It was great fun,” says Will. “I got to hang around with ballplayers and talk baseball in coffee shops, hotel lobbies, locker rooms and dugouts.” Will’s reputation as the brainy scourge of liberalism—the Wall Street Journal has called him “perhaps the most powerful journalist in America”—didn’t hurt him among the players. “It was an advantage” being well known from a world they respect,” he says. “But they were happy to talk seriously about their work.” Will focuses on four of baseball’s most thoughtful and accomplished participants: Tony La Russa, the Oakland A’s manager, Cal Ripken Jr., the Baltimore shortstop, and Tony Gwynn and Orel Hershiser, the San Diego outfielder and Dodger pitcher, respectively. He reconstructs what goes through their minds as the game unfolds. There are also learned and witty asides on subjects as various as the art of stealing signs and the evil of aluminum bats.

“I found it pretty fascinating,” says Ripken, mischievously. “Especially the chapter on Tony La Russa.” It seems that reading Will allowed Ripken to read La Russa as well. Earlier this season, while Baltimore was facing Oakland, the A’s had a man on first with Carney Lansford up and a 2-0 count. Ripken wondered if La Russa would call for a hit-and-run. Conventional baseball wisdom said no; Will’s book indicated yes. “I learned [La Russa] tries to be unpredictable,” says Ripken. Guessing hit-and-run, he shifted his position and started a double play on the ensuing ground ball. Ripken felt great, until he realized Will’s book might make him equally scrutable. Under the guise of a friendly schmooze, Ripken often interrogates base runners about their hitting strengths and weaknesses. “After the book I was afraid people would stop talking to me,” he says. (They haven’t—so far.)

Will grew up in Champaign, Ill. His father was a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois, his mother a high school teacher. The family, which included an older sister, Katherine, now a lawyer, was “bookish and verbal,” Will recalls. There was no TV in the house until 1964, so young George grew up listening to radio. “Radio probably made me into a baseball fan,” he says. “It was the connection to great metropolises like St. Louis and Chicago.” Will favored the woeful Chicago Cubs—so his mother became a fan of the White Sox. “She wanted to be able to argue with me while I was doing the dishes and say, ‘Nyah, nyah, I have the better team’—which was true, of course.” Young George’s Little League career was forgettable. “I was terrible,” he says. “I don’t remember a thing except that I played for the Mittendorf Funeral Home Panthers. We dressed in black.”

Will studied religion at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., where he also met and married Madeleine Marion, now an educational consultant. He went on to study at Oxford and earned a Ph.D. in political science from Princeton. He briefly taught political science and was an aide to Colorado Sen. Gordon Allott before becoming the Washington editor of the National Review from 1973 to 1975. In 1973 he also began writing pieces for the Washington Post editorial page and rose fast, winning a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at age 35. Yet he has had his share of problems. His oldest son, Jonathan, 18, was born with Down syndrome. Last year Will was divorced from Madeleine after 22 years of marriage.

Will’s career has flourished, however: In addition to a Newsweek column and his Sunday appearances on This Week with David Brinkley, Will has a syndicated twice-weekly column that appears in 470 newspapers. But some critics charge that he compromised his credibility as a journalist by working as an unpaid campaign consultant to Ronald Reagan and becoming a frequent lunch guest of Nancy’s. Will now finds himself shunned by George Bush because of remarks he made in 1986. (Among other things, he called the Vice President a “lapdog,” for kowtowing to the far right.) “That has zero effect on how I conduct my work,” says Will. “If I want to talk to anyone [at the White House], I just pick up the phone and talk to them—which is the way it’s been since I started writing.”

Of course, if he were bothered by the estrangement, he would probably never admit it. As Men at Work clearly demonstrates, George Will knows better than most how the game of hardball is played.

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