Book Report: The Only Rule Is It Has To Work

the-only-rule-is-it-has-to-work“This was the ugly part of the stats-vs.-tradition debate in baseball: Rather than a conversation about the best way to make baseball decisions, it had become an argument, in which it increasingly felt as if the purpose was to score points by humiliating one’s opponent. So far as I could tell, nobody had ever changed his mind about anything in an argument. Dale Carnegie was way ahead of me: ‘If you tell them they are wrong,’ he wrote, ‘do you make them want to agree with you? Never! For you have struck a direct blow at their intelligence, judgment, pride and self respect. That will make them want to strike back. But it will never make them want to change their minds. If you are going to prove anything, do it so subtly that no one will feel that you are doing it.'” (The Only Rule Is It Has To Work)

Title: The Only Rule Is It Has To Work – Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team

Author: Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller

Publisher: Henry Holt and Company

Publication Date: 2016

Origin: This book occupies an intersection of two of my interests: getting a view behind the scenes of professional sports, and the general realm of leadership and management. By reading it, I hoped both to be entertained (it is telling a story, after all), and to learn some general leadership lessons.

Summary: The Only Rule Is It Has To Work is the authors’ tale of running the Sonoma Stompers independent professional baseball team for the 2015 season.

In alternating chapters, the authors take turns telling a pretty amazing story: two statheads are offered the reins of a professional baseball team, and get to apply all their sabermetric knowledge to strategy and tactics.

Over the course of a season, they experience some support, some resistance, some successes and milestones, and some failures, as they take on the challenges posed by players, managers, baseball tradition, the other teams within the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, and their own ideas about how to win.

My Take: First, let me recognize that The Only Rule Is It Has To Work came highly recommended by my good friend (and former colleague) Dan Deeth, and I thank him for the recommendation because I truly enjoyed it.

While The Only Rule Is It Has To Work was a nice break from some of the more dense and academic material I read, it nonetheless offered important lessons about leadership and management, especially with regards to trying to bring change to established institutions.

“Millions of people really, really want to work for professional sports teams. At our busiest, saddest, and most sleep-deprived moments this summer, we’ll still be living the dream.”

The book was, in some ways, a window into a fantasy that I’m sure is shared by many folks: working in professional sports. The authors capture this point early on, as they’re recruiting support staff to join the team – through their popular podcasts and media presence, they had no shortage of volunteers (p40): “The fact that a successful professional who’s probably billing four figures an hour even entertained the idea of moving across the country to be at our beck and call reminds us of something that we’ve previously only experienced from the other side of the application process: Millions of people really, really want to work for professional sports teams. At our busiest, saddest, and most sleep-deprived moments this summer, we’ll still be living the dream.”

Personally, I still harbour a little fantasy about being involved in professional soccer, perhaps owning a small franchise, or holding some other position. On that note, a number of years ago the Vancouver Whitecaps were hiring a Head of Marketing (or some such similar title), and I was going to apply. My wife wasted no time scouting out potential places to live, should we move out West. My pitch was simple: I’m a marketer, and I love soccer! Sadly, I only noticed the job post a couple of days before it came down, and I didn’t get my application submitted in time. Yeah, what a lame ending to that story, I know. As The Tragically Hip say, “No one’s interested in something you didn’t do.”

Also, if you’re remotely interested in minor league baseball (or Kurt Russell), then check out The Battered Bastards of Baseball, a truly wonderful documentary.

And finally, I love that the Stompers continued to break barriers in subsequent seasons!

Read This Book If: …You’re interested in sports analytics, professional sports management, or just like a good sports story.

Notes and Quotes

“If you’re so good, why are you writing to us? This is a terrible, fallacious bit of reasoning: every player we ultimately sign will be, by definition, available to us, and many of them, we hope, will be valuable parts of a winning team. The question must be asked, but instead of asking it rhetorically – to be answered with a ‘pfft’ – we should be asking it sincerely: What is this guy’s ‘why,’ and does the ‘why’ matter to us? Nobody good will be available to us without a good reason, but good reasons almost certainly exist.

  • What starts as a light-hearted, mocking anecdote turns into a serious examination of the necessity and challenge of finding a diamond in the rough, p20: “We give the first fifty or so the respect that a dream deserves, but after a while we skim, mock as appropriate, and file away. The sense of unfairness these guys have? It’s not entirely wrong. Even we don’t take their abilities seriously, and while some of the mockery is mom-literally-wrote-your-cover-letter-related, much of it comes down to a decision-making shorthand that we start to develop: If you’re so good, why are you writing to us? This is a terrible, fallacious bit of reasoning: every player we ultimately sign will be, by definition, available to us, and many of them, we hope, will be valuable parts of a winning team. The question must be asked, but instead of asking it rhetorically – to be answered with a ‘pfft’ – we should be asking it sincerely: What is this guy’s ‘why,’ and does the ‘why’ matter to us? Nobody good will be available to us without a good reason, but good reasons almost certainly exist.”
  • For reasons I can’t, in this moment, fathom, I’ve written “Brady Bunch” in the margin next to this passage from p40: “But the fact that a successful professional who’s probably billing four figures an hour even entertained the idea of moving across the country to be at our beck and call reminds us of something that we’ve previously only experienced from the other side of the application process: Millions of people really, really want to work for professional sports teams. At our busiest, saddest, and most sleep-deprived moments this summer, we’ll still be living the dream.” After typing that out, I vaguely recall an anecdote about people chasing their dreams and moving to Hollywood, even if only for a bit part on The Brady Bunch. Hopefully I’ll remember fully, ’cause it’s really bugging me.

“It’s our first lesson in how easily our careful planning can be swept aside, and a reminder of how much legwork major league clubs must do for deals that never get made, let alone the ones we know about.”

  • This brief passage reminds me both of a reality of meetings/presentations (that you can do all sorts of prep that turns out to be unnecessary or rendered moot by outside forces), and a story I read about a basketball documentary Jay-Z was producing (for some reason, it really stuck with me; also, HOLY SHIT IT’S ONLINE!), p71: “It’s our first lesson in how easily our careful planning can be swept aside, and a reminder of how much legwork major league clubs must do for deals that never get made, let alone the ones we know about.”
  • p130, since I always enjoy a discussion of cognitive biases: “There’s a reason Bill James defined sabermetrics as the search not just for knowledge about baseball, but for objective knowledge. Months later, I will skim a list of cognitive biases and realize that, at this moment in the dugout, I was suffering from at least a half dozen of them.” The section continues, listing and explaining: availability heuristic, confirmation bias, clustering illusion, focalism, base rate fallacy, and the ever-popular Dunning-Kruger effect.
  • p175, neat! “Not long after the first pitch on Pride Night [during which their team had the first openly gay player in professional baseball], the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum requests that the Stompers send the scorecard from Sean’s start to Cooperstown. Everyone signs it, even me: We know it’s the only way we’re ever going to get there.”

“The worst thing a president can do to advance his positions is to state them; as soon as he does, a huge number of people will position themselves in opposition, and they will lose the ability to be swayed by any contradictory evidence.”

  • Interesting…p225: “A few months after this resolution [to never try to win an argument], I read an article in the New Yorker that made me intensely happy to be argument-free. Its premise, based on the work of political scientists, was that the worst thing a president can do to advance his positions is to state them; as soon as he does, a huge number of people will position themselves in opposition, and they will lose the ability to be swayed by any contradictory evidence.”
  • p225: “This was the ugly part of the stats-vs.-tradition debate in baseball: Rather than a conversation about the best way to make baseball decisions, it had become an argument, in which it increasingly felt as if the purpose was to score points by humiliating one’s opponent. So far as I could tell, nobody had ever changed his mind about anything in an argument. Dale Carnegie was way ahead of me: ‘If you tell them they are wrong,’ he wrote, ‘do you make them want to agree with you? Never! For you have struck a direct blow at their intelligence, judgment, pride and self respect. That will make them want to strike back. But it will never make them want to change their minds. If you are going to prove anything, do it so subtly that no one will feel that you are doing it.'”
  • p290: “I’ve won plenty in my life – board games, Ping-Pong tournaments, hands of poker, etc. – and so I know how little winning changes anything. Winning doesn’t often end the quest to win. Winning doesn’t relieve the pressure to win. Winning is fun, and then it’s over. If we win this season – if we finish first in a four-team race for the championship of the fifth-highest independent league – the world will not stop and applaud every time we enter the room.”

Lee Brooks is a freelance technology marketer based in the high-tech hub of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

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Posted in Books, Everything, Leadership, Management, Math and Science, Sports
2 comments on “Book Report: The Only Rule Is It Has To Work
  1. the fans are waiting for the review of “The Fifth Discipline”

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