Once upon a time, two guys who are total baseball stat nerds have an idea. Frustrated by the theories that they and their fellow nerds had been spinning – like, what if you deployed a two man outfield and a five man infield against extreme groundball/flyball hitters – they decide to look for a real team to try their theories on. Not in the majors, of course, there’s too much at stake. Nor in the high minors either, for the same reason. But a real team nonetheless, further down the baseball food chain, populated by players and managers just desperate enough to get back into the show that they’ll try anything to win a few games.
So they do. In 2015, Ben Lindbergh, a staff writer for FiveThirtyEight, and Sam Miller, editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus (and who together host the podcast Effectively Wild) wangle their way to the Sonoma Stompers of the Pacific Association of Professional Clubs – which, at the time, had more words in its name than teams in its league. Four, actually (including the Stompers), and you could visit all of them in a two hour drive. It’s an independent league, so none of the teams are affiliated with major league clubs. Which means anyone playing on them is hoping someone from one that is affiliated will somehow hear about them and pluck them from obscurity. And what are the odds of that? About what you think they are.
Which makes these guys exactly what Ben and Sam are looking for. Guys who either play here, or give up on baseball altogether. Young guys – who might have been good but at unknown colleges, or got injured at known colleges (or both), and are taking one last shot before getting a real job and getting on with their lives. Old guys – who had been at an affiliated team, maybe even had a cup of coffee in the show, and can’t say goodbye to the only life they’d ever known.
So what could possibly go wrong?
Well, everything, sort of.
For starters, these stat nerds need data, which is one thing teams this far down the pecking order just don’t have money for. Hell, it’s only because they barely have to pay for travel that the teams can make payroll. So how can Ben and Sam do their Moneyball thing if they don’t have the numbers to crunch?
Second, there’s the fact that baseball players – like most specialists – are a very tight clique and very suspicious of outsiders. Especially pointy headed nerd outsiders. Which they make clear to Ben and Sam again and again.
Next, there’s the fact that late in the season, when things are finally starting to click a little, teams in leagues even one rung up who are in playoff races, actually do start stealing their players in order to improve their chances. And the players go happily because, well, that’s why they’re here, right?
Oh and also this:
“The game happens too fast for logical discussion. This is why I couldn’t win the argument to get Schweiger out earlier, or to put Paul in earlier, or to have Conroy up in the seventh-inning nonsave situation. While I’m trying to put together a logical argument, batters are hitting and pitchers are warming up and base runners are getting thrown out and Fehlandt is thinking about his next at-bat and Godsey is trying to figure out what ‘dead eyes’ mean for a pitcher. It happens too fast ….”
But finally there’s the fact that their whole premise is actually wrong. Sure, from outside one would think that anyone at the fuzzy end of this baseball stick would be willing to try anything. But they’re not. Because these are guys who have trusted their instincts their whole lives. All they have are their instincts. That’s what got them here, and while “here” may be well short of where they were aiming, it’s a helluva lot further than you got, isn’t it? So why, when the chips are down, really, really, down, why would they throw over the only thing they’ve ever had, for something that even the guys who are suggesting it don’t know will work?
Which is why, in the end, the book has the wrong title. The Only Rule is it Has to Work is the title of the book they thought they would write. This book should really be called something like “The Only Rule is You Have to Get the People Involved to Buy In.” But that’s actually why it is useful.
Because Sam and Ben forgot they were dealing with humans. Which Sam sort of discovers in the book’s epilogue, a long letter to the GM of the Stompers who had offered him the manager’s job. A job he turns down – despite it being the real way for him to see if his crazy ideas would work – because he remembers that he’s a human too. A human who wants to see his daughter go to her first school. A human who wants to help support his wife in her new job.
A human who has learned that one of the things that makes it so hard for him to turn down the job is the humans he’s spent the summer with. The ones he had to fight with and worry over and convince and learn to understand, and earn the respect of. Which he utterly did not count on when he and Ben were hatching this plot in their garages.
And this is worth remembering. That in our social media alienating, red state/blue state, black/white, 1%/everyone else, world, learning how to connect with people who are different from you is still important. The impact of humans different from you. Who are not to be discounted because they are different from you. Who are not just names on a roster. Not just images on a flickering screen. Not just posts on a feed. Not just statistics on a spreadsheet.
The Only Rule is It Has to Work by Ben Lindbergh & Sam Miller was published by Henry Holt and Co. on 05/03/2016 – order it from Amazon here or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).