May 17, 2016
The Only Rule Is You Have To Answer My Questions
This one is special. Many of the people reading this article have already bought and read the book The Only Rule Is It Has to Work, by Baseball Prospectus’s own editor-in-chief, Sam Miller and our former editor-in-chief, Ben Lindbergh, about the summer they spent running the Pacific Association’s Sonoma Stompers. And somewhere in the blitz of press that they have been doing to promote the book, they took some time to chat with me.
As we were setting up before the interview, I apologized in advance for the fact that I am not a real journalist, and I’ve never really done a sit-down interview like this before. The only model that I really had to draw from was my time when I worked as a therapist. I told them that the only rule was that they had to answer my questions.
(And yeah, there are a few spoilers in here…)
I don’t know that I can properly plug the book in a way that hasn’t already been done, but I will try. There’s a certain fantasy that someday, if we just yell loud enough, teams, managers, fans, and everyone else will stop doing all of the irrational things that we yell loudly about. This book made me think, “Huh, maybe I’m the one who needs to stop yelling.”
Russell: I think that most of the readers at Baseball Prospectus know the story of how the project was conceived. I think a good place for us to start would be during the gestational period. There was a point where you had sent all the e-mails and phone calls and everyone had signed off, and there was probably a moment of “Oh dear, what am I getting myself into?” But then there was some preparation before, Ben, you took the cross-country flight and Sam, you got into your Honda Fit and drove out to Sonoma. Tell me about how you prepared for what you thought was about to happen.
Ben: Yeah, the “Oh dear, what am I doing here” moment lasted about five months for me – maybe for both of us. We had been thinking about this for years in a sort of abstract way and then in a slightly more concrete way when we were writing a book proposal. But, when you’re writing a book proposal, you just have to sell an editor and a publisher on it and you don’t have to actually do anything, so you can craft this engaging pitch and hopefully much of it will be true and something you can actually pull off. Once you have the book deal, you actually have to set about doing these things. There was a day – we allowed ourselves a day to enjoy that this was happening, but even during that day, I had a sense of foreboding, because I knew the next day was going to be scary.
Sam: And that day was the day we got the book deal, but we got approval from the owner four months before that and from the GM a few days before that. We’re both writers… and writers procrastinate. It’s almost impossible to write a useful sentence if you’re not on deadline, if you don’t have to do it. In my life, I’ve just had to accept that’s how I’m going to do my work and not hate myself for it, and this forced me to really change, because we couldn’t run a team on deadline. We were going to have to have some preparation for when they showed up.
The first thing we tried to do was to get the lay of the land to try to understand the league a little bit and how the stats are a little different and how the stats are different. Like, one thing we had in mind was that the lighting is terrible at this level. So, we thought there’s gotta be something different about night games and day games or from the fifth inning on just because the lighting is terrible. We did sorta pin down those differences. I don’t know if we ever applied them. I just remembered it seeming really important that we figure that out, and spending a month going box score by box score because we hadn’t yet scraped all the league stats, and we were doing it very Earnshaw Cook, 1960s just clipping out box scores. I remember, Ben had a similar experience where he spent two weeks on this one tiny little detail where it was just… it wasn’t a detail that was all that important -- and I think it does show up in the book – but we were really feeling like we didn’t have the level of control that lots of access to data had previously given us and we were really worried about showing up to Spring Training with nothing to offer and with no work having been done.
I do remember showing up to Spring Training feeling like I had already blown it, that I hadn’t done enough work. And that first day was really horrifying. Is it conceivable that we’re already playing a dead hand here because we hadn’t done enough?
Ben: Yeah, I had the same feeling. I think we nailed down the book deal in mid-February and Opening Day was May 1st. Before we knew we were definitely doing this project, there was only so much that we could do. We couldn’t sign a manager, we couldn’t build a roster until we knew we would be there, so we had to compress everything into this period of two and a half months. So, as soon as we knew it was happening, I was sending about a billion e-mails trying to contact players, and people who could help us contact players, and vendors who would possibly partner with us and could give us technology and stats through the process. So, it was a couple months of networking and fear.
Russell: Sam, you have talked about that your ideal role on a baseball team is what you call the “Enforcer of Logic.” But, in the book, you guys detail that there were several points where you got caught up in certain moments. For example, Sean Conroy’s (who became the first openly gay player in professional baseball) start on LGBT Pride night, where it was looking like he might throw a complete game, but perhaps logic says you should take him out here. Tell me about that moment where you realize that you’re not going to be that strict enforcer of logic.
Sam: Well, there were a few things that broke down that dream of perfection in our minds. One is when Ben and I would disagree about things. I think everyone on the team thought of us as one unit and I think a lot of the people who listen to the podcast think of us as one unit, because we’re pretty in agreement on most things. It’s a pretty peaceful podcast where we are trying to strengthen each other’s arguments for each other. So, once we actually had to start making decisions though, we realized that last step of actually doing things, sometimes for logic reasons, sometimes for political reasons, sometimes for fear, sometimes for priorities, we might disagree. And we didn’t really have a great way of dealing with that.
Russell: Couples counseling perhaps?
Sam: It would have been nice to have someone… honestly, this sounds weird now, but it would have been nice to have someone else who was writing a book about running us who could have made the ultimate decisions and we would have been that person’s sandbox.
I sorta feel like as it went on, there are times… that logic is not necessarily the end goal. Really what we’re talking about is that people want fulfillment; they want happiness; they want a good day. People want to have a good day, right? So, sometimes, it’s hard to fit what’s going to make us happiest within the framework of logic. I don’t think that’s not a great thing, I’m not proud that it happened. But the reality is that you’re spending 13 hours a day with this group of people, who are all spending 13 hours a day with each other. You just really don’t want it to be miserable. You just don’t want your life to be unhappy, to have nothing but bad relationships in your life. And it does start to influence the way you think, You start looking sometimes for the path that will make life fun. And I think to some degree it was an obstacle and is part of the reason why I was too risk-averse and is part of the reason why my own personal baggage with better ballplayers came into play. I also think to some degree why I think back on the project as completely satisfying and the best summer of my life and why we ended up with some really good stories.
Russell: One of those relationships where you spent 13 hours a day was with your first manager, Fehlandt Lentini. That relationship kinda came to an abrupt end. In the parlance of indie ball, he was “traded to another league” because he was also a player-manager. Did it feel like a business decision? A break-up? Was there an emotional component to it?
Ben: For me it felt like a much-needed breakup, by that point. I had sorta pushed for it and instigated it. I’d hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. I’d hoped it would all work out wonderfully and it was strange for me because I was on the other side of the country for the months leading up to Opening Day, so I hadn’t met Fehlandt until I went out in March just for the tryout and met him briefly there and went back home again. I hadn’t really spent much time with him, so I was sorta hearing about him through Sam and through [Stompers General Manager] Theo Fightmaster and through other people who knew him, and what I was hearing sounded sort of scary. I had misgivings and anxieties, but we had a hard time finding a manager, because we couldn’t just look on a spreadsheet and find a Sabermetric-savvy manager who would fill all the boxes that we wanted to check. So, he was our best option at the time, and we had reason to think it would work out, and we hoped that he would be such a superior player that even if there was some conflict, it would be worth it to have him around.
But it just got to the point where I certainly realized that the relationship was not going to improve and we were at an impasse and that one conversation in particular that we detail in the book where he just walked out kinda was the last straw for me. I felt like if we couldn’t have a conversation, then there was just no path forward, so at that point, between that and the fact that he hadn’t been quite as good a player as we expected him to be, I was pushing for someone who would be more sympathetic to our cause or more receptive.
Sam: It’s a really short season and there was a feeling that we were already getting close to the end, even though we were not quite halfway. But it was a relief to not keep losing days in that relationship, and I think he would say the same. Because it wasn’t progressing and since we were invested in its progressing -- it was actually part of the experiment to see if it would progress – and I don’t know if he would have cared all that much except that we were putting so much pressure on it to progress. It was like, in your relationship analogy, it was like one side of the relationship needs to get married or their grandmother won’t leave them an inheritance, so we were really pushing hard for this relationship to go to the next level. I think that, to some degree that was putting a lot of pressure on him. I mean, he comes from indie ball, where the relationship between the manager and the rest of the team is very negotiable and in some cases, the manager is the GM. He’s the head coach and the entire brain trust for the organization. And in this case, I think that he probably thought this isn’t how I imagined being a manager, and he probably didn’t mind that much. I think it was probably insulting that a couple of nerds got to trade him, but they weren’t the happiest days toward the end.
Russell: Sean Conroy comes up a lot in the book. He is the focal point of one of those first rifts that you detail with Fehlandt, when you suggest using him in a “fireman” role, rather than as in a traditional closer role. And then he’s also the subject of one chapter where you detail his being the first openly gay player in professional baseball. Looking back on my own thoughts on the book, I found that I could see “Sean Conroy, strategic decision point” and I could see “Sean Conroy, human being, great backstory”, but I was having a very hard time integrating those two pieces into one whole. You guys, being there “on the ground,” was there the same level of separation or did those pieces start to blue together a little bit (or a lot)?
Sam: I’m interested to hear what Ben has to say, but the “Sean Conroy, pioneer of the sport” story was – for us – a one-day story. We would keep checking in with Sean on how things were going because we knew it was going to be a chapter, and we also knew that Sean himself was going to be a part of the story for a number of reasons, but we knew Sean extremely well. We were extremely close to Sean before he came out, and after he came out, it was like 2-3 days and then life was completely back to normal. I don’t think anyone on the team was thinking about it, we weren’t thinking about it. I’m not sure how much Sean was thinking about it. I remember picking up a ballplayer at the airport and driving him up toward the end of the season, and he said “So you guys are the team with the gay guy, right?” And I was like, “Huh? Oh yeah, we are…” By then, 98 percent of our energy was going toward the “fireman” fight. The “first gay ballplayer” storyline had no conflict any more.
Ben: Yeah, it might have been different if we had known or if he had prepped us for this when we signed him intending to be pioneers or something, but we had no idea. We signed him because he had been a really good college pitcher and we thought he’d be a good Pacific Association pitcher, and he was. And we were just thrilled about that for the first couple weeks of the season, because he was one of those guys that we had never seen or watched video of before he showed up in Spring Training. For all we knew, he could have been overweight or had a torn ligament. We had no idea. And so he showed up and was a great pitcher immediately, and seemingly a great person whom we got along with really well.
So, we got to know him on that level and of course, when another element was added to his story, we were thrilled that we played any small part in making that happen, and that we got a front row seat to see that story and tell that story, but it really did quickly become a non-story, which was a story in itself, that nothing happened and that there were no great repercussions and that he was integrated totally seamlessly.
It was sort of hard to separate ourselves as friends of Sean and then people who wanted the team to win and people who wanted the book to be good. There were three different selves that we kinda had to consider. So we wanted Sean to be used in the role he wanted to be used, just because we liked Sean and we wanted to him to have the best summer and the best season that he could and then we also wanted it to happen because we wanted the book to be good and we wanted to pull off this successful experiment. So, there were all these different layers that came into it, but I think they all worked in tandem most of the time.
Russell: A lot of our readers here at Baseball Prospectus who have read the book are thinking that someday they’d like to do this. Most of the time, the fantasy is that they’d take over the local major league team. What tips or life lessons can you give them from the perspective of someone who has actually done it?
Ben: Well, if your goal is to work for a Major League team, you probably shouldn’t do many of the things that we have done in our lives, because that’s not what we do. We don’t have the skills to be of use in that area. But, we learned a little bit about baseball, I hope. And we definitely learned how to present ourselves. That was probably the biggest takeaway from the season. A lot of the trouble that we got ourselves into and then got ourselves out of was a result of the way that we presented ourselves and sold ourselves and established or didn’t establish ourselves.
Even the whole Sean Conroy thing, the “what role is he going to play” debate stemmed from early in Spring Training, maybe the first day, when he was asked what he wanted to be and he said “closer.” And at the time, we weren’t thinking that this will set in stone what I’m doing for the rest of the season, but it kinda did. That initial impression really lingered. Even Matt Walker who was our Opening Day starter because he wanted to be, at that point, because we didn’t know much about pitchers having only seen them for a week or so, and he stepped up and asked to be the Opening Day starter. And our manager liked that, and so he was. And just by having been the Opening Day starter, he had this aura of “the ace” even though he was probably the least effective starter on the team right from the get-go. And so, we learned a lot about that. We wanted to be diplomatic. We didn’t want to alienate anyone, and there were ways in which that did serve us well, but there were ways in which we dug a deeper hole and had to dig ourselves out of it because we hadn’t acted like we had been there before.
Sam: Yeah, if you can get away with being a tyrant, you should. It’s really frustrating to try to be diplomatic and try to be humble and try to be respectful of everyone. And Ben and I don’t have a choice. We are incapable in behaving in a “take what’s in front of you” way. It’s to our fault, but it’s also how we like ourselves, and it’s probably why we like each other. But if you have the sort of personality that can just take, embrace that. You’ll get a lot done.
And if you’re bad at it, the world will tell you.
Ben: And I guess it’s also important to put the time in. You shouldn’t just trust that your credentials are enough to get you by and give you the authority that you need. We found out that we really had to be present. We couldn’t just parachute in and say that we work for Baseball Prospectus. That didn’t mean anything to anyone on the team, so we had to establish our own credentials. So, we had to be there every day in Spring Training, and we had to spend hours going to these road games and video taping every at bat. Then many hours figuring out how to edit it and then present it to the players. I think just seeing us there every day in the clubhouse and the dugout and all the implied work that we had done when we showed up with scouting reports or video. That all conveyed the message that we were part of the team and that we had earned a spot there; that we weren’t just relying on past work or past achievements, and that we were pulling our weight. And that was probably as important as any knowledge or intelligence that we brought to the situation.
Sam: And get a good partner that you trust and who has complementary skills. Like I said, people thought of me and Ben as y’know, Samandben but Ben and I have very different skills and I would have been an absolute disaster alone. Almost everything that got done got done because of Ben, and I don’t know if it’s the same for him, but I suspect that it’s the case from his perspective that a lot of things that got done got done because of me.
Sam: We had two very different tacts. We were able to use them. And also, it just wasn’t as lonely as it could have been. It’s just really hard to be in this social situation. If I could go back to your very first question, I almost feel to run a team with pure logic, with total logic enforcement, it almost needs to be like how they do replays now. You can’t have the umpires do it. You’ve got to have some umpire in New York, who’s not gonna hear the boos, who’s got no skin in the game, who’s totally separate and doesn’t even know anything about the game except for this little thing that’s in front of him, and then he just makes the call, right? I almost feel to do what we did with perfect rationality, you would have to have someone who has never met the players, never met the GM, never met anybody involved. He just gets like… a little codebreaker in some World War II codebreaking office. This thing comes down upstairs, they ask you to do it, and you do it and you send it back and you don’t even know what it’s for, and that probably would work. But when it was me and Ben… there’s a lot of social aspects to it. It’s just too much to ask people to not care whether they are liked by the 30 large men standing around them all the time.
Russell: Last one. Reflecting back over that summer, how would you say it changed the relationship between the two of you?
Sam: I think to some to degree... I think this is probably in a bad sense for my life. For a long time, Ben was my editor, and Ben has been just an incredible editor and great counsel to me on any number of baseball issues, writing issues, editorial issues, and we spent so much time together that now I just know what Ben thinks about everything and I know where we disagree, and rather than having where I used to have to used to engage with him on disagreements, or ask him a question and say “Well, what do you think of this?” and he’d tell me I was wrong or that something would be better and I would have to cope with that. Now, since I can already anticipate that answer, I just don’t go to him. Like, I have no interest in hearing Ben’s opinion if it’s not going to agree with mine. And to some degree, I’ve lost this great coach in my life. So, that’s probably the greatest loss from this project. And Ben is so smart and so talented that anybody… he’s a tremendous resource to have someone guiding your decisions. So, I feel like I’ve lost that.
On the other hand, we also were… we went through The Grind. And the Grind is something that is very real. It is very taxing. You come out of it with very strong relationships. And I said it was the best summer of my life. It was the most emotional summer of my life, and Ben and I have this super-secret code now where we know a baseball team better than anybody can know a baseball team and we’ve shared that experience.
Ben: I think each of us had confidence that the other person’s half of the book was gonna be great and were worried that ours was going to be bad. That was how I felt going into it. I had no doubt that Sam was going to deliver half of a great book and that made me feel good. And that took some pressure off because I only had to write half of a good book. But then it put some pressure on, because I knew I had to match half of a great book. So, it really, I think, was a very productive relationship. I think it re-assured us and spurred us on at the same time.
Sam: We never really did learn how to argue with each other in a productive way. I have people that I can argue with really well, and I have people that I can’t, and I just shut down. And I never really did figure out a way to argue with Ben, like I would get condescending and insulting when it came to Ben sometimes. And Ben… I don’t think Ben ever learned how to argue with me. Because you have to understand, Ben in real life and Ben the podcaster… that is a character. Ben is not nearly that outgoing in real life and trying to get him to engage with an argument can be very difficult. That was maybe the biggest weakness in our relationship. We have great communication when things are going well and when we disagreed, which is the last stage of every decision, rounding out the differences big or small, we didn’t have a great way to deal with that.
Ben: It was very weird to disagree. I didn’t anticipate that it was going to happen. I probably should have. But after doing the podcast for a few years and working together and not having any serious disputes about anything and then writing a book proposal and pretty much being on the same page about everything, it never really crossed my mind that in addition to trying to persuade players or managers or people on the staff to see things a certain way that I would also have to persuade Sam to do that. It was a strange new experience and frustrating at times, but it saved me from making mistakes, and I saved Sam from making some.
Sam: Yeah, not enough. I made a lot of mistakes.
Ben: We both did.
Go buy the book.