I can come up with so many ennobling reasons that we watch sports. Visceral excitement. Diversion from life's daily pressures and woes. Connection to one's community. A sense that one is bonded to something larger than one's self. The facilitation of communication between loved ones that might otherwise be blocked or thwarted. A perpetual history, a throughline from one generation to another, a universal ongoing story. Handing foul balls to kids. An excuse to be outside in the sun for a few hours. Cold beer. Mike Trout.
But deep down, I think it's much more self-oriented than all that. I think we watch sports because we wish it were us out there.
Futurists are always claiming that, someday, our professional athletes (specifically football) will be played by robots. The idea is that what we want out of sports -- fierce competitiveness, escalating physicality, data generation -- will become too much for mere humans to provide; we're too unpredictable, too prone to breakdown, too unsustainable. (Here's an essay in Robotics Trends making this exact argument.) But this will never work because it doesn't mean anything for a robot to win, because we can never imagine ourselves as a robot or a machine. It would be impressive to watch a robot hit a 700-foot home run, or swish a jumper from 100 yards away, or kick at 250-yard field goal, but it wouldn't mean anything. It would be as connected to our own lives as watching a blender make a smoothie, or a junkyard trash compactor pulverize a Buick into the size of a bale of hay. It is entirely independent of us.
No, for sports to work, we have to pretend it's us. Every connection we have to the games imagines us out there. If a guy misses a free throw, we wouldn't have. If a pitcher walks a guy, we wouldn't have brought him in to begin with. If a quarterback throws an interception, we wouldn't have traded for him in the first place. Watching sports is a passive, helpless activity, and the only way we can attach meaning to it -- them only way we can make ourselves part of it -- is to project ourselves on it. We can't do anything. But if we could … we would.
Among the many delights of Ben Lindbergh's and Sam Miller's new book "The Only Rule Is It Has To Work," about their summer running (or attempting to run) the Sonoma Stompers, an independent baseball team playing in the Pacific Association, is that it attempts to find out what would happen if, in fact, we really could do something. It was born out of Lindberghs and Miller's daily podcast, "Effectively Wild," a large portion of which is spent wondering how the game of baseball itself could be reinvented, how various variables, like playing six infielders or planting a tree next to the mound, would end up turning out in the real world. (Of note: I have been an avid, compulsive listener to "Effectively Wild" for several years and a guest on the program several times.) Through a series of odd coincidences, Lindbergh and Miller ended up with the opportunity to run the Stompers for one season, resulting in this book. They took time off from their jobs -- Lindbergh wrote for Grantland before working for FiveThirtyEight when the former was dissolved by ESPN, and Miller is the editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus -- and their lives to go see if some of their theories about baseball can work outside the lab environment of spreadsheets. They have been like the rest of us, screaming at the television for decades, while those inside baseball have claimed they couldn't criticize because they Never Played The Game. Now they were in charge. Would it work?
One of the great jokes of "The Only Rule Is It Has To Work" is that, well, Lindbergh and Miller aren't really in charge. (It's so difficult for me, a listener of the podcast for so long, not to call them Ben and Sam that I'm just going to go ahead and do that the rest of this piece, if that's OK with you.) Within hours of showing up in Sonoma, they're labeled the "corduroy boys" -- thanks to an ill-fated coincidence of the two men wearing the same pants on their first day -- and are belittled and ignored by much of the on-field staff. And even when they fight through that, and push for more autonomy (longtime listeners of the podcast will be surprised, I suspect, to learn that Ben is the bad cop who has to push Sam to be more aggressive and strident), they discover that changing decades of baseball inertia is near-impossible, even if you're the ones in charge. Understanding that the way most managers use their closers is counterproductive is one thing to write in an essay or a tweet; it is quite another to find the correct way to persuade your manager -- who is also your center fielder, by the way -- who just keeps saying "the closer is the closer is the closer." Ben and Sam might be right about a lot of things. It doesn't make anybody listen to them any more closely.
Of course, it doesn't necessarily make them right, either. The Stompers show immediate improvement when Ben and Sam start putting together the roster -- largely thanks to their quantitative approach, finding value in players the rest of baseball overlooked, the book's one real nod to a "Moneyball"-type narrative that never ultimately emerges, thankfully - but then things start getting weird. Players they were eager to give up on start hitting; players they went out on a limb for, obsessed over even, falter and implode; the manager they hired because they assumed he'd listen to them begins to shut them out and openly antagonize them. Even more telling: Much of the analytics is thrown out the window once things start getting hot. Players are kept in the lineup because it's the easiest way to keep the clubhouse happy; Ben and Sam hesitate to try out most of their craziest ideas because they don't want the players to resent them; most of all, a pennant chase makes Ben and Sam lose much of their perspective, not abandoning their principles but not averse to old-school superstitions and black magic either. When they look back at the end of the season, not only have most of their projections been wrong, they also realize they're more emotionally attached to their team, and the men on it, than they ever were to any of their beloved experiments. And they end up helplessly screaming on the sidelines anyway.
There are still many successes, from slugger Daniel Baptista (whom Sam, in the book's funniest scene, essentially smuggles out of an open tryout so no other team can figure out how good he is) to Sean Conroy, the player Ben and Sam talked out of retirement to become a Mike Marshall-type swingman who also turned out to be the first openly gay professional baseball player. (And a mean Super Smash player.)
And all told, the Stompers are better off with Ben and Sam than they were without them. They even ask Sam to manage the team in 2016, which he turns down in the book's closing chapter because he wants to spend more time with his family (and, presumably, promote this book; the season starts in one month). Ben has work to do too, and then there is the podcast, and their rightful place back with the rest of us, watching those with skin in the game make mistakes and gritting their teeth about how they would do so much better. It is ultimately a much more comfortable place to be, and one of the sad jokes of the book is that it's probably more profitable. Ben and Sam make more than 10 times more a month from the Patreon sponsors of their podcast (of which I am one) than the average salary for a Stompers player.
This is a fun lark for Ben and Sam, something they got a terrific book out of, but now they're back where they are supposed to be, where the rest of us are supposed to be. Their shoes are cleaner, their consciences are clearer and their salaries are higher. They don't have to cut anybody, or try to talk some Old Baseball Man into not hitting his best OBP guy ninth in the order. They just get to watch now. They get to be connected only tangentially, and only in their own minds, like the rest of us. We all want to fly closer to the sun. But not really.
It's easier over here. We need to feel like we can do better. Even if it's not true. Especially if it's not true.
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Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow me @williamfleitch; or just shout out your window real loud, I'll hear you. Point is, let's talk.