It has to work

Like other sports fans, I often worry that watching and thinking about sports may be selfish and wasteful. I want the time I spend in the stands, watching television, reading articles, or listening to podcasts to have broader significance. I want my appreciation for sports to further my development as a moral being, critical thinker, and leader for meaningful causes.

Book publishers have long been aware of this desire, and have served this market, in part, with a steady stream of management books by sports figures: Hall of Fame basketball coaches Phil JacksonMike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino, Pat Riley, Pat Summit, and John Wooden are just a few of the celebrated coaches and managers who have written books on leadership and management. Publishers have also promoted crossover interest by commissioning successful business writers to produce books about sports, most notably “Moneyball,” a book about the Oakland Athletics by Michael Lewis, whose business bestsellers include “Flash Boys” and “The Big Short.”

A new book, “The Only Rule is it has to Work,” by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, is a twist on this subgenre, both in premise and attitude. Lindbergh is a staff writer for ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight, and the former editor in chief of Baseball Prospectus, the leading website for baseball analysis, and Miller is Baseball Prospectus’s current editor in chief. They also co-host a popular baseball podcast, Effectively Wild. Through their podcast, Lindergh and Miller met Theo Fightmaster, the general manager of an independent league baseball team, the Sonoma Stompers, who agreed to let them run the team for the 2015 season.

Lindbergh and Miller are aware that their credibility with the team rests on the strength of their ideas and their ability to convey them, a familiar place for managers joining a new organization. They believe that by thinking clearly and preparing assiduously they can assemble a group of players and construct a strategy that will enable the team to win the first half of its season, then go undefeated in the season’s second half. At the same time, they are intellectually and constitutionally tethered to constantly questioning whether they know what they think know, and whether they have enough faith in their beliefs to inspire others to share them.

As a sports fan and library director, I find the book offers useful reminders about the importance of recruiting a great team, maintaining that team’s morale, and consistently putting colleagues in position to succeed. Good decisions are predicated on quantitative analysis, even when the relevant data may be difficult to identify and obtain, and on preventing cognitive biases from undermining that analysis. Yet good decisions are never inhuman: our calculations should reinforce, rather than replace, our organizational values. Early in the Sonoma Stompers’ season, the team’s best pitcher, Sean Conroy, lets the team know he is gay, becoming the first out player on a professional baseball team. Miller and Lindbergh discuss the importance of demonstrating support for their pitcher, resolving to cut “any player who makes trouble for Sean.” Fortunately, they needn’t have worried. The team figuratively and literally embraces Conroy, making an already appealing team even more lovable, while simultaneously reinforcing the idea that clear thinking is about more than just analysis: it is also about interpersonal relationships, morality, and leadership.

We can allow ourselves to believe that being kind, productive, moral leaders is antithetical to leisure, that what we enjoy doing distracts us from what we should be doing. Public libraries have struggled with this since the nineteenth century, when my professional predecessors were criticized for including “frivolous” fiction in their collections alongside “serious” nonfiction, and it continues today when the games or movies in our collections are deemed less intellectually nutritious than books on vocational topics. Fortunately, humans are constantly learning, our lessons come from a variety of sources, and, if we pay attention, some of our most important instruction can come from novels, videogames, films, and even baseball analysis.

Image of 2015 Sonoma July 4 Parade from Flickr user Sarah Stierch. Posted with Creative Commons license.

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