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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Review: The Only Rule Is It Has to Work

Last summer, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller embarked on the kind of fantasy baseball adventure that most of us can only dream about: they were appointed the baseball operations department of the Sonoma Stompers, and independent-league baseball team in California.  In contrast to a minor league affiliate, independent-league teams have to find and secure their own talent.  They do so largely by feeding off the dregs of the minor league systems: players who play in independent baseball do so because they either weren't drafted into MLB's minor league system after college, or they were signed but then were subsequently released.  And while some guys play ball simply because they enjoy the game, most of the guys available to the Stompers are playing explicitly for another chance at a career in affiliated baseball.

Even so, as the baseball operations department, this was a chance for Sam and Ben to test a lot of their ideas about baseball teams in a real world situation.  This included novel ideas about roster construction in independent leagues, using college statistics to find good ballplayers, and even, as the season went on, in-game strategy.  As the summer's data accumulated into larger datasets, Ben and Sam started to tinker with extreme fielding arrangements (shifts!  5-man infields!  4-man outfields!), unconventional reliever usage, sabermetric-minded batting orders, etc.  All of those strategies that we in the stat-head baseball blogosphere argue the big league clubs should do?  This was the chance to implement those strategies, and Sam and Ben don't waste the opportunity to do so.  The Only Rule Is It Has To Work is the tale of their efforts.

They have some wonderful successes.  But they also have their share of challenges, both on and off the field.  They soon butt heads with the manager they hire.  Other teams try to poach their players.  Some of their players underperform horrifically.  Opposing teams sign half a roster of new players.  All the while, we get to go along for the ride, living in the authors' minds.  Ben and Sam take turns writing chapters throughout the book, and so we get both of their perspectives--which are often very different--on key moments in the Stompers season.  All the while, we readers get to play armchair quarterback, thinking about what we might do in those same situations.

Nevertheless, the book manages to be more than just a recounting of a fun experiment in independent baseball.  As baseball fans will attest, the full experience of baseball brings with it a certain melancholy to accompany its triumphs.  That melancholy is revealed when playing out a doomed season, in watching aging players fail where they'd once succeeded, and in seeing hardworking players get cut through no fault of their own.  The vast majority of young men who want to become one of the 750 players on a major league active roster fail to realize that dream, and most never even come close.  This frustrating failure is the soul of the greatest baseball film of all time, Bull Durham, and it's also one of this book's unexpected successes.  We get to know the players of the 2015 Sonoma Stompers.  We celebrate their successes with child-like enthusiasm.  And we suffer through their failures, which carry a lot more weight; failure in independent ball often spells the ultimate end to players' careers.

It's that melancholy, stacked on top of the riveting tale of last summer's experiment, that brings me to this: The Only Rule Is It Has To Work is one of the best baseball books I've ever read.  Yes, I'm card-carrying stathead, and I'm a long-time Effectively Wild listener.  I've been looking forward to this book since they announced their project last summer, and even checked the Sonoma Stompers website a few times last season to check on their progress.  Yes, yes, yes, this book is right up my alley.  But even so, this is just a terrific book.  While it certainly does set itself apart from the standard baseball story with its unique premise, the book somehow still manages to encapsulate the full experience of baseball, with all of its highs, lows, and in-betweens.  Buy it and enjoy it.

Full Disclosure: I did receive a review copy from the publisher...but I had already preordered the thing, and was looking forward to reading it anyway!

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