Will hails game's return to D.C.
by Alan Schwarz
George Will holds a unique spot on baseball's landscape. He's not just a huge Cubs fan (baseball memorabilia and autographs cover his Georgetown office walls) and prolific author ("Men at Work," his 1990 masterpiece, is the best-selling baseball book ever). As one of Washington's top insiders, Will has a keen eye for how the worlds of baseball and politics intersect, both intellectually and emotionally.
To mark the end of this first season of baseball back in Washington, I sat down with Will in his D.C. office to talk about the Nationals, Congress's role in the steroid mess and his deep--very deep--Cubs-fan scars.
ALAN SCHWARZ: What effect have the Nationals and Major League Baseball had on the thinking and self-image of Washington?
GEORGE WILL: You can have the NBA, the NHL, and the NFL, but when you get Major League Baseball, you're a big league city in the way you weren't before.
One of Washington's advantages is that an awful lot of people are not from here, not born here. They have moved here and stayed here. You go to any Nats game, there will be a fairly sizable contingent of fans for the other team, which is fine.
AS: What political effect is there with baseball being here?
GW: Well, it cures the crashing anomaly of the national pastime not being represented in the nation's capital. Second, Washington is an African-American majority city and baseball has been highly troubled by the fact that there are not enough African-Americans in the stands. This is a good laboratory for addressing that defect.
AS: As far as the two vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court go, if conservatives fill those two spots, what effect if any could that have on baseball?
GW: None. A conservative court, like any court only more so, will say that the one great legal issue confronting baseball is the antitrust exemption. And the court's position is, "If Congress doesn't like it, then Congress knows what to do about it." This is a classic case of, "Well, this is a political question--go to it, fellas."
AS: When I watched the Congressional steroid hearings in March, I was astounded at how almost every elected official--regardless of one's feelings on this topic--came off as self-aggrandizing, time-wasting and shockingly ignorant of the real facts and issues. How normal were those hearings?
GW: The hearings where normal in two senses. First, the 100 senators and 435 congressmen, they are very busy. They often have two, three, four committee and subcommittee hearings scheduled overlapping. They are dashing from one room to another, they are at the hands of and often at the mercy of their staff. So they are generalists dealing with quite specific problems at all times. And that showed during the steroid hearings.
There was another sense also. They were stunned by the television cameras attracted by those hearings. It is an abiding preoccupation of the political class to get its message out, and there is immense competition for television time. They saw this and said, "This is a way to get our message out." So, in that sense the hearings were quite typical.
I think the ladies and gentlemen of the committee did not appreciate how far along Major League Baseball was in addressing this. I think the McCain hearings earlier were helpful in moving baseball and the Players Association.
AS: What is your general feeling about the World Baseball Classic? Does it have any political tinges?
GW: Woe be the team that plays the Dominicans.
AS: Or Venezuela. But if Cuba were to participate, what role would that play in any sort of change that might take effect in the next 10-20 years in the United States' relationship with that country?
GW: U.S. policy toward Cuba is a much fought-over subject that will not be any more than marginally affected by a cultural exchange such as a baseball series. Someday, nature will do what politics has thus far failed to do--which is to remove Castro. And when it does, it will be like oxygen on hot coals. There will be an explosion of interest and exchanges, and baseball will come alive and be part of the bridge between these two countries.
AS: You're so identified with Washington, but you grew up in the Midwest. What were your early baseball influences?
GW: I grew up in Champaign, Illinois, which is midway between Chicago and St. Louis. I played baseball briefly and badly in Little League for the Mittendorf Funeral Home Panthers. And at an age too tender for making life decisions, I had to make a choice between being a Cub fan looking north and a Cardinal fan looking south. All my friends became Cardinal fans and grew up happy and liberal. I became a Cub fan and a gloomy conservative.
AS: What has been the worst moment for you as a Cubs fan?
GW: Losing Game Six of the Marlins playoff in 2003--the Bartman Game. Game Seven was an afterthought. The man who should love Bartman and put him in his will is the Cubs' shortstop--Alex Gonzalez. No one remembers that Gonzalez dropped a double-play groundball the same inning. I remember walking out of Wrigley Field and someone saying, "Mr. Will, we'll get 'em tomorrow." I said, "not a chance."
I remember the 1984 playoffs with the Padres. The Cubs had won the first two games, and Don Drysdale was broadcasting for ABC at the time. I'm walking out of Wrigley field next to him and he says, "All right, Will, now do you believe?" and I said, "Every Cub fan knows it's the Padres in five." Which of course it was.
AS: As a member of the Blue Ribbon Committee several years ago, how would you assess competitive balance as it stands today?
GW: Competitive balance is measurably better--to begin with, better than it is in the NFL. Three of the last four Super Bowls have been won by the same team. We've had five consecutive different winners of the World Series. Thanks to the wild card, we have taken back September from football. So, baseball's competitive balance is better than it has been in my lifetime.
AS: What caused that?
GW: A number of factors. Better baseball management. People learning from the small-market and small-revenue teams that have succeeded--Minnesota and Oakland particularly. Second, the competitive balance tax, formerly the luxury tax, has helped. Just having a threshold at which the tax kicks in has become for some owners and general managers a marker of good management.
AS: It's a quasi-salary cap, at least for all but a few clubs.
GW: Well, it's a long way from a salary cap, but it proves that you can get some modest restraint well short of a salary cap.
AS: This year has been wonderful because, no matter how you look at it, there really is no clear favorite entering the postseason. Every team has flaws. What's your playoff prediction?
GW: I may annoy people, but my reasonably longshot bet--which is the only kind worth making--is to look out for Houston in the postseason, because they've got Clemens, Pettitte and Oswalt.
Beyond that, I have trouble sorting my friendships out. Tony La Russa is a good friend, and I'd like to see him get another crack at a World Series after 2004. Jerry Reinsdorf has been a very good baseball owner and cares passionately about it. Some people think that all he cares about are the Bulls. He really wants to win in the American League and I'd like to see him get a chance. That's an exciting team.
AS: And from what I understand, one week ago John Schuerholz was sitting in the chair I'm in now.
GW: I would love to see the Braves win the World Series because there is a lot of nonsense about the Braves--how they haven't won commensurate with their division titles. To which the answer is, 162 games is a great test of a franchise. The postseason is, as Billy Beane has said, a crapshoot.
AS: But a fun crapshoot.
GW: Absolutely. Can't wait.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.