Living the Independent Dream with Ben Lindbergh

The book Ben Lindbergh wrote with his Effectively Wild co-host Sam Miller is not the book they intended to write, but that’s okay. The Only Rule Is It Has to Work was supposed to answer the question of what would happen if two statistics-minded outsiders were allowed to run a professional baseball team. That’s part of the story, but there’s much more to it.

Lindbergh and Miller served as co-directors of baseball operations for the Sonoma Stompers of the independent Pacific Association during the 2015 season. As Lindbergh related by phone, the challenges they faced weren’t always the ones they’d expected.

“For much of the first half of the season we were anxious and frustrated, and [we] worried because we’d pitched the book as two statheads doing their wacky experiments–like five-man infields–and we weren’t able to do that. We were worried about alienating everyone and being dictators and tyrants, and that nobody would listen to us.”

They eventually got around to their wacky experiments, which were often beneficial.

“Players did seem to be flustered when we tried something really strange, like a five-man infield or four-man outfield. They were trying to beat the shift, but most times it backfired because it took them out of their normal approach. It did get in their heads.”

Before they reached that point, they had to earn the backing of the manager and the players who would be asked to carry out those experiments. This involved getting to know and trust each other, which took time and effort.

“We weren’t on the field, we weren’t in uniform, but we wanted to show the players that we were putting in the time. We were in the dugout, showing them video. We would go drinking with them after the game. They knew we were real people they could talk to.”

Sometimes showing that they were real people meant stepping out of their comfort zones. In an exhibition game against prisoners at San Quentin, both Lindbergh and Miller took at-bats, which made players more receptive to their input later in the season.

“We learned that being willing to take risks and embarrass yourself is a good idea. It wasn’t our plan to get into that game, but it was an exhibition and the players were egging us on. We hadn’t swung a bat in a long time. Both of us struck out. I at least made contact and looked more coordinated than Sam. Playing in the game helped us in our efforts to be embraced by the team.”

Being embraced is one thing, but developing a management style is another. Dealing with actual humans is more complicated than running numbers through a spreadsheet, and efforts to do the former led to a much richer experience.

“We really did find that finesse and persuasion worked better than issuing orders. We learned how to assert our authority. As much as we learned about baseball, we learned even more about communication.”

As anyone who has ever played on a team knows, communication is vital. So is chemistry, a related concept that is difficult to define or quantify, although Lindbergh and Miller tried.

“Chemistry is tough. It’s something we wanted to learn more about, and this gave us a unique opportunity. The stathead philosophy is that we want to understand more. With team chemistry, there’s a lot we don’t understand. We hoped we would get more insight behind the scenes. We wanted to make it into a math problem.”

Specifically, they were interested in learning about player morale. Lindbergh and Miller provided surveys that asked about players’ moods, and about how “locked in” they felt before each game.

“We got enough data to conclude that there was a real change in the team’s mood throughout the year.”

This seems intuitive enough, although it leads to other, more difficult questions.

“Are you winning because you’re happy, or are you happy because you’re winning? We couldn’t resolve that, but it’s definitely important. We were much happier when the team was doing well, and so were the players.”

Getting to watch games up close also made an impact. At one point in the book, Miller observes that “the game moves too fast for logical discussions.” Lindbergh agrees, noting that their time in the dugout gave them greater empathy for those who have to make decisions in such circumstances. For example, when closer Sean Conroy—the first openly gay active player in professional baseball—moved into the rotation and threw a complete-game shutout on the team’s Pride Night, emotions trumped logic.

“We understand a lot better how hard it can be to make decisions in the moment. It is really hard to adjust on the fly when things are happening. When Conroy made his start, he threw about 140 pitches. You kind of got swept up in the emotions. If we hadn’t been there in the dugout, we might have recommended a different decision.”

Being in the dugout presented additional challenges. As Lindbergh and Miller learned, some methods of communication were more effective than others.

“[We would] have a meeting before the game and after the game, as opposed to talking to the manager during the game, which felt like meddling or pulling strings. Before the game we’d say, ‘We should have this guy ready; here’s our game plan.’ If we weren’t happy about the way things went, we would talk about that after the game. The more you can plan things and then dissect them afterward, the better, in terms of process.”

The intimacy of communication extended from the team to the fans and the community. Independent leagues are nothing like most people’s conception of baseball. They’re about as far from the major leagues as you can get.

“The crowds are not huge, so when people are there every day, you get to know them and talk to them. It’s much more of a personal connection; you really do feel like you’re sort of a family. During the championship game, the Stompers crowd was louder than the home crowd, doing organized chants. It’s a much deeper connection on so many levels.”

Players don’t earn enough to pay rent, so local families put them up and take care of their basic needs while they pursue their dreams, however improbable the realization of those dreams might be.

“We got to know a lot of the fans, especially the host families, who are such an integral part of baseball at that level. They were almost always there watching their players, who they think of as sons. They were very hardcore, very dedicated, not so much in terms of standings but in their emotional investment in the players. They’re rooting for the player because they know if the player doesn’t do well, he’ll come home and mope around, and they’ll feel bad alongside the player.”

Reaction to the book from people involved with the Stompers has been limited, though positive.

“There weren’t a lot of voracious readers on the team, so it may take some time. The people who worked with the stats are happy. [General Manager] Theo Fightmaster, [Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations] Tim Livingston, and Sean Conroy—who became sort of the star of the book—are very happy. Other than that, we haven’t really heard from any of the players. We haven’t heard anything negative yet, but that may change. We tried to be accurate and present a balanced view where possible. We tried to be honest and unflinching, but we weren’t out to get anyone.”

As for the experience as a whole, Lindbergh wouldn’t necessarily do anything differently if given the chance to try again. He also concedes that if his goals were different, then he might have taken an alternate approach.

“If I was doing this to write a book, I would do the same thing because I like the way the book came out. But to win, you just sort of have to act like you’ve been there and assert your authority. We made things harder on ourselves by deferring. [If I had another chance] I’d walk into the clubhouse on day one and write the lineup on the board. Just that display of dominance, or at least belonging, probably would have smoothed things down the road.”

Does that mean he’d be willing to try again?

“I’d be tempted to do it again…but it requires such an investment of time. It’s basically a full-time job. I couldn’t have done it without a book attached. It would’ve been too much time to devote.”

Fortunately, Lindbergh and Miller have already done it. In the process, they’ve reminded us that while statistics are important to baseball, the people whose efforts produce those statistics are far more important.

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Geoff Young is Crooked Scoreboard’s baseball editor. You should follow him on Twitter.

Ben Lindbergh is a baseball writer and podcaster. You should follow him on Twitter, too.