The instinct and tradition that go into making baseball decisions has given up some ground to statistics over the years. A sport that has long been obsessed with the most miniscule stat (if I heard “he has the best batting average after falling behind 0-2 in the first at bat of the second game of a double-header played on Thursday since Someguy Wholastplayedseventyyearsago” on a broadcast, I wouldn’t blink) is letting those stats drive some decisions. Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics are the most well-known example, thanks to Moneyball, but it happens everywhere. Even in a small independent league in California.
The Only Rule is it Has to Work is the story of Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller: two statheads who got to use a baseball team as a laboratory for testing their hypotheses about what makes a baseball team successful. While everything went right for the Sonoma Stompers at first, the season didn’t have the satisfying payoff that a fictional account would. But even in a four-team league, only one team gets to claim the championship.
In a sense, the ending helps make the book a truer representation of baseball. While every team (and every fan) wants that trophy at the end of the season, the road is not easy and more likely ends in frustration than the sweet joy of victory. But baseball can be a wonderful sport without that joy: just ask generations of Cubs fans who have lived and died without their team winning the World Series.
I had my first exposure to unaffiliated ball this summer when the Lafayette Aviators had their inaugural season a five minute bike ride from my house. I instant fell in love with “my” team: a group of guys trying to get just a little bit better while they’re in college, in the hopes that they’ll get drafted. Playing for almost no money, in front of crowds measured in the hundreds, these guys live a life so different than the big leaguers. Reading this book gave me a greater appreciation of what the players, managers, and owners go through.
Despite the frustrating way the season ended, Lindbergh and Miller must have liked what they had a chance to be a part of: they’re still listed on the Stompers’ website as Special Assistants to the General Manager. And I think that’s what this book is really about. The stats are nice, but like the players, Lindbergh and Miller just want to be a part of baseball.
Those of us who love the game can use this book to live vicariously. The authors aren’t superstar players, and they’re not even working in the big leagues. They’re just two passionate guys working with a team just above rec leagues. It’s not so hard to imagine yourself in their shoes, and for a moment you’re a part of baseball again.