Noli Mi Tangere

August 16, 2020

Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry, by Joan Ryan. Little, Brown. 2020. $28.00

 

I was deliriously happy, if you’ll recall, to review John Thorn’s book about 19th century baseball Baseball in the Garden of Eden precisely because I consider myself among the most dismissive readers on that subject possible. If Thorn could educate and entertain me, I reasoned, then his book would certainly succeed with far more open-minded readers, which includes approximately seven billion potential bookworms, counting those currently in comas on Polynesian islands. I was, in other words, a very tough customer for what Thorn was peddling, so I was delighted to recommend his book, if not his thesis, for its entertaining style and its educational content, Thorn being one of the more charming and generous people it’s my pleasure to know. I dreaded the prospect of disliking his book, but was willing to run that risk, a risk that paid off in pleasure multifold.

So, too, do I feel about Joan Ryan’s Intangibles, as I am one of the better informed but extremely skeptical readers on her general topic, expressed in her book’s sub-title,"Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry." I'm a committed believer in the virtues of science, but am highly dubious about souls and even more dubious about team chemistry, even more so because the concept abuses a scientific term for its own doubtful purposes. "Chemistry?" I tend to snort. "Yes, the properties of bullshit are a type of chemistry, I suppose."

My ruling principles on the subject tend to favor a teleological approach, "telos" being the Greek word for "ends." Team chemistry, that is, can always be deduced by looking at the results, mainly wins and losses, successes and failures, and judging the chemistry of teams that win and teams that lose by those results. Has there ever been a last-place team with fantastic team chemistry? Or a team with horrible chemistry that nevertheless won repeated World’s Championships? If not, then aren’t we applying the term purely in retrospect?

My principles—or I should say, my prejudices—might allow for a certain limited basis for team chemistry. Obviously, some groups of players will bond more agreeably than others. One has only to be a member of any group to realize that we feel better in some groups than we do in others, and that that better (or worse) feelings of camaraderie do affect our enthusiasm in achieving that group’s goals.

But there must be a limit to that achievement. Putting me in the most supportive, friendly, encouraging group of writers ever assembled will, no doubt, improve the quality of my writing but will it turn me into William Shakespeare? That is a goal devoutly to be wished, but purely as a practical plan for increasing my bank balance, I would choose instead to earn my fortune and my esteem in men’s eyes by fleecing the three-card-monte players on 42nd Street. In other words, it ain’t happening. Shakespeare gonna Shakespeare, I’m gonna me, and Mantle can hang out with Billy Martin all night long throughout eternity without Martin ever slugging the ball like Mantle. (I happen to know that Mantle and Martin are, in fact, hanging out in eternity right now, and neither one has even picked up a baseball bat once yet.)

So mark me as an extreme skeptic for Joan Ryan’s thesis, that team chemistry exists in any significant way and that it materially affects the productivity of MLB players. I’m writing this after having read three pages of her book’s introduction, and I’m rooting for her to prove me wrong. I love being wrong.

I also confess that I did hear her promoting her book on Jeff Pearlman’s podcast last week and found the conversation lively and revealing. Pearlman’s podcast, in case you don’t know of it, is in general a gem —he has some writer, often but not always a sportswriter, discussing his or her career and latest book, and I always learn valuable information, about writing, about sports, about oddball topics that just pop up unpredictably, from listening to "Two Writers Slinging Yang," including Ryan’s wonderful details about her years covering the San Francisco Giants, especially about covering Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent, filling me with hope that this book would also convey, in passing, baseball lore apart from what she had to say about team chemistry.

Having established with a few well-chosen anecdotes and lab experiments the positive effects that supportive co-workers and spouses and journalists and macaque monkeys have on each other, she sets out on page 9 to pose the question in the following terms:

If some human beings possess the ability to have such a profound physiological impact on each other, as spouses and caretakers of babies do, it stands to reason that all human beings have the ability, at least to some extent, to influence the performance and productivity of those around them. Could the success of the ’89 Giants be a foundational example of the power of team chemistry?

In this nut graf, one clause stands out to me: "at least to some extent," which calls to mind the question that believers like to pose to agnostics and atheists: "Can you be 100% sure that God cannot possibly exist?" to which the only possible answer is "That’s not my table." If some outfielder in 1916 one time made a better throw than usual to a cut-off man because he enjoyed that cut-off man’s personality, does that event qualify "at least to some extent" as solid evidence of team chemistry? No one, not even the most hard-hearted denier of team chemistry (namely me), would ever think of denying that team chemistry is possible or even that it exists. The true question is "Does it affect outcomes significantly?"

If every team wins one extra game per decade because of team chemistry, I would say that extent is fairly insignificant, even negligible, but if team chemistry accounted for one victory per week, or even per month, or quite possibly per baseball season, then we’d have a subject worthy of discussion, and worthy of Joan Ryan’s devotion of a book to that discussion.

I’ve written the preceding paragraphs before getting 10 pages into her book, not to begin reviewing the book proper, but merely to establish my own prejudices going in. Am I sufficiently established as a prejudiced SOB yet? Good. I will now shut up until I’ve finished reading Intangibles.

72 hours later:

Turns out, this prejudiced skeptic picked the exact right spot to stop reading the PDF version of the book (they sent me one to get me started while I waited, and waited, for the USPS to send a hard copy), the general remarks about "teamwork" and "closeness" begin to fade away and on page 10 the hard data begins trickling in:

A gesture of trust, such as a reassuring arm around a teammate’s shoulders, triggers the release of oxytocin in the recipient’s bloodstream, creating a reciprocal feeling of trust and connection. Evolutionary psychologists theorize this is why oxytocin developed in humans (and lower primates). We needed a trustworthy pack with whom to hunt, gather food, and fend off enemies.

Humans produce oxytocin, she explains, in the brain whence it passes into our bloodstream "when, for example, we fall in love or when women go through labor or breastfeed, fostering strong feelings of trust and connection. It can also be triggered by meaningful touch." In other words, Ryan quickly moves into quantitative data, which is what I was hoping to see.

But the weird part is that the further I got into Intangibles, the less I cared about the thing I hoped to see. Now, I must confess that my history with science—the field itself, not the idea of the field—is spotty at best. As much respect as I have for science, I don’t get it very well.  Aside from one freakish year, my junior year in high school when I aced my AP Chemistry course and decided that I would study a pre-med program in college (a disaster all around, surrounded on all sides by smart guys whose perceptions jetted around me like so many electrons around an especially dense atomic core), I never did well studying science in school and I’ve done worse studying it on my own outside of school. It’s just too intricate for me. Every time I think I understand how something really, truly operates, it turns out there is more data, and that always undercuts the things I just learned. There are it seems an infinite number of regressions, whereby I proceed from knowledge to contradiction to understanding the contradiction to further contradiction, and so on. I’m not complaining—this is how science, in the broadest sense, works. Somebody does a study, which someone else undermines, and then someone else does a study of the new thesis, and on and on. I get it. But it’s just too much for me to keep straight without ceaseless work, so I’m reduced to reading the popularizers’ explanations of science.

Explainers like Bill Bryson and Neil de Grasse Tyson and Stephen Jay Gould do magnificent work, but it’s all Science For Dummies, basically, not the science itself, and all these guys play the same mind game with me, which I first became aware of when I roomed with two brilliant guys finishing up their doctoral work in Physical Chemistry at Harvard (one of them had been a pre-med electron at my college, where I saw that I just couldn’t compete with guys who did easily the work that I struggled to grasp). I was studying Creative Writing with Theo Epstein’s dad that year, and going great guns in the Creative Writing realm, which wasn’t much compared to the Physical Chemistry realm. Over the breakfast table, where these two had rigged an elaborate beakers-and-test-tubes apparatus for brewing beer, they would sum up the work they were doing across the Charles River, and their summations were via the Socratic Method.

My college buddy in particular would end each of his explanations by asking if I understood what he'd just explained. When I’d nod Yes, he’d go into his rap: "OK, but it turns out, that’s completely wrong…" which crucial error he would then explain to me, ending with another iteration of "Do you understand what I just explained?", another nod and another rap: "OK, but it turns out, that’s completely wrong…"

Drove me nuts, but I came away with a respectful understanding of how complicated science really was. Ryan does a job of work explaining the scientific studies by behavioral psychologists and  other -ists, with schoolchildren and rats in mazes, drawing conclusions about the hows and whys of the reasoning for team chemistry, but honestly, I skimmed over the nuts and bolts and raced towards the conclusions. My take-away is that we’re in the infancy of real scientific work in these areas, dozens of future theses and antitheses and syntheses away from really understanding how team chemistry really works.

If it does.

This is one of those areas about which I sense the scientists of the year 2520 will be most scathingly patronizing of us, just as our scientists today regard the naturalists of the year 1520. "The crude, goofy nonsense those poor saps believed was true way back in the day" is a trope that will never get old, but I think theories about "team chemistry" will linger for a particularly long time as a series of wrong roads we’ve gone down in trying to explain why some teams get along better than other teams do. I think three or four major breakthroughs down the line will finally make palpable some qualities that elude us now, and which we struggle to define or even to figure out which terms we need to be defining to build a vocabulary for discussion. That’s where we are now, and Ryan’s book represents the current state of the art.

My problem, finally, with "team chemistry" lies not with the "chemistry" part but with the "team." What is a team? For convenience’s sake, we speak of teams in terms of years and organizations, the 2009 Giants, the 2015 Royals, the 1960 Pirates, but all these teams, every team ever assembled, are less stable than that label would imply. Take one of the most stable of teams, my all-time favorite team, running away, the 1969 Mets—this was a team that screams "chemistry" at the top of its lungs, with a special chorus of "alchemy" or even "magic" interspersed, but this remarkably stable unit actually changed considerably from April through October. It added Donn Clendenon in the middle of June, for one large change (6’4" to be exact, and the World Series MVP), but added a bunch of lesser changes to the definition of the team on a monthly, weekly, even daily basis: they lost backup infielder Kevin Collins in the Clendenon deal, players went into the Army reserves throughout that year, players got injured, pitchers moved in and out of the back end of the rotation (Nolan Ryan, Don Cardwell, and Jim McAndrew averaged 17 starts apiece and 10 relief appearances), they sold pitcher Al Jackson and acquired outfielder Jim Gosger, players went into severe slumps while others carried the team singlehanded for weeks at a time. The 1969 Mets, in other words, an unusually stable unit, still experienced sharp changes in personnel and personality that must have affected the team’s chemistry, whatever that is.

And from year to year, of course, teams change even more. A tight, cohesive, perfectly matched team one year can (and will) change enough the next year that not only will their won-lost record differ sharply, but the entire mood of the clubhouse and the feel of the team will differ even more. Individual players will differ wildly from season to season. Ryan gives the example of Aubrey Huff, an oddball who came to the Giants in 2010 after years with other teams as an unsocialized lone wolf, and one likelier to bite his teammates than blend into the pack—but with the Giants, he became, according to Ryan, not only a star player but an accepted and vital member of the 2010 club, and even a leader. And then, in 2012 he had a bad season, started his antisocial ways again, and was quickly off the team and out of MLB entirely. Obviously the poor season with the bat and with the personal relationship are related somehow—but which was the cause and which was the effect?

Ryan identifies by name characteristics of team chemistry, which results from players trusting each other, and she identifies archetypes of players who all contribute in differing ways to team chemistry. The seven types of players who make for team chemistry are: the Sparkplug, the Sage, the Enforcer, the Buddy, the Kid, the Warrior, and the Jester, and she supplies examples of each type. Of course, there is no rigid formula for the proportions of these seven roles. One team might have three Jesters and one Sage, while another might have four Sages and five Jesters, and these roles are fairly fluid. The Kid, by definition, is a rookie, a naif who marvels at the wonders of an MLB clubhouse and the amazing plumbing and luxurious lockers it provides that all the veterans can make fun of and, at the same time, recall their own naivete when they were Kids. But of course one can be a Kid for only so long, and not every rookie is equally Kid-like. And Ryan confesses some of these roles bleed into one another, so in her definition of an enforcer, she breaks down that role into two distinct sub-types: the unpleasant Agitator-Enforcer, who is begrudgingly respected by his teammates for rightly getting on their cases whenever lax performances appear (her example of an Agitator-Enforcer is Jeff Kent) but who quickly wears out his welcome if his scoldings become too frequent or too overbearing. The other type is the Sage-Enforcer, a wise veteran like reliever Javier Lopez, who would gently begin his admonitions with two pieces of praise leading into his criticism of what his teammate was doing wrong. Lopez "spent hours with the young player, talking and listening, counseling and encouraging."

There is no magic, of course in these seven archetypes, which could be eight if we think of the two types of Agitators as completely distinct, which they appear to be, or as six if your Sparkplug has a lot of Warrior in him. Or nine, or seventeen, or three. Ryan feeds her archetypes to MLB managers who respond by identifying players on their teams who fit each role: Matt Williams describes his 2001 championship Diamondbacks as Enforcers (himself and Todd Stottlemyre) and as Kids (David Delucci and Danny Bautista) and as Sparkplugs (Steve Finley) while Dave Roberts identifies the 2004 Red Sox’ Warriors as Big Papi and ManRam, their Jester as Kevin Millar, and Tim Wakefield as their Sage.

Of course, the managers don’t buy into Ryan’s scheme completely. When Roberts describes the 2016 Dodgers, he goes off-script and identifies Clayton Kershaw as the "Hero," a whole new classification, and other managers like Jim Leyland are even less accepting of the whole concept of "team chemistry." Described as having "the leathery face of an old baseball man and the curmudgeonly demeanor, too," Leyland, looking like he’s "one scotch away from taking a swing at somebody," throws his ice-water chaser initially into the face of Ryan’s thesis:

"To me, chemistry was a subject you took in school….I had teams that’d go to chapel together every Sunday, couldn’t win a game. So that don’t mean shit to me. Forget chemistry out here. Don’t worry about it. Don’t think about it. It’s so over-used in sports. It’s the first thing normally some journalist who doesn’t know what he’s talking about brings up. Whenever somebody’s losing, you hear they have bad chemistry."

Okay, Jim, but how do you really feel?

Turns out Ol’ Leatherface does eventually soften up, and allow there might be something to Ryan’s thesis: "Good veteran players," he finally concedes, "are the best tonic your team could have. The younger players see that if the veteran players believe in the program, they’ll follow suit."

The problem with this point of Leyland’s, and with this entire part of Ryan’s case for chemistry, is that no one actually argues against it. Who’s arguing that having good veteran players is a bad thing, or that young players won’t take cues from veterans on how to behave?

In "Hey Bill" early in 2019, Bill addressed this question, in response to an inquiry into Elliot Maddox’s uniting role on the 1974 Yankees:

Teams rally and come together sometimes; sometimes they start to distrust one another and fall apart.  We went through a terrible crisis in Boston in 2011-2012.  A 2011 team that we thought at the time was the best we had had lost the trust in one another, and disintegrated horribly in the heat of the pennant race, and of course 2012 was just .. ..let's not use any words, this close to Valentine's Day.   In 2013 the team rallied after the Marathon bombing and decided they just weren't taking this.   It wasn't any better team in terms of personnel than the 2012 team, but they came together in terms of determination and faith in one another.  Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino, more than anyone else, played the role that you associate with Elliot Maddox.   They made a very special season out of what could easily have been a completely forgettable season.

As it happens, Joan Ryan devotes an entire chapter to Gomes, "Super-Carriers, or the Curious Case of Jonny Gomes." (Shane Victorino also figures in this chapter, as a minor figure on the 2013 Sox whom Gomes replaced in a pivotal game that Ryan retells at length.)  In this age of the Covid-19 virus, a super-carrier connotes something very, very bad, but Ryan uses the term as a pure honorific. According to "Super-Carriers," Gomes was the crucial factor in the Sox’ 2013 championship season, despite so-so stats (a .771 OPS, not so hot for a corner outfielder, slash numbers of .247/ 13/ 52 in 116 games, which are perfectly in line with his career numbers of .769 and .242/22/71, per 162 games). "Jonny Gomes is the best team-chemistry guy I ever played with," Red Sox teammate Jake Peavy is quoted as saying. "He was a huge part of what made us go."

In this mini-biography of Gomes, Ryan tells of his hard-scrabble upbringing, so poor that, among other deprivations, the Gomes family, splintered and peripatetic as it was, rarely had a Christmas tree. Five months after he’d retired from the game, she paid Gomes a visit to gain his perspective on team-chemistry, though she already had a lot of other players’ laudatory comments about Gomes’ powerful super-carrier status. (She notes that "stories and interviews were easy to come by. Players call you back when your message says you’re writing about Gomes.") What Gomes missed about the game he’d just retired from, she realized, was the connection with teammates. And it wasn’t only the camaraderie, the friendships, the fun times that he missed: he loved connecting with teammates who rejected or ignored his initial attempts to help. In Gomes’ rookie year on the lackluster 2005 Tampa Bay Rays, a veteran teammate had noticed a Rays’ pitcher tipping his pitches but refused to tell him.  (Because "I might have to face him next season.") Gomes suppressed his anger at the veteran: "Families behaved poorly sometimes, but they were still families,"  a notable insight from one whose own family had been so strained. The concept of "team," in other words, sometimes overrode particular displays of un-teamlike behavior. The crucial part of "team" was acceptance of each other’s weaknesses as well as strengths.

Accepting each other's quirks and idiosyncrasies might seem less important to team chemistry than constantly exhorting others to play their very best ball, but that’s what super-carriers like Gomes brought to his various clubhouses, the understanding that they were all pulling for each other to succeed, even when it most seemed otherwise. It’s a difficult concept to buy into, across the board—petty grievances, resentments, and jealousies can drive a team apart, and they must be minimized and overlooked in order for the team to cohere—and it takes a very special kind of player to see the larger picture.

The incident that Ryan describes at length to exemplify what Gomes meant to the 2013 Red Sox took place during the World Series, when the Cardinals announced that they were starting a right-handed pitcher in Game Four, relegating the right-handed Gomes to the bench. When the Sox manager posted his starting lineup, with lefty Shane Victorino starting the game, as he usually did against a righty, Red Sox veterans and stars and leaders crowded into his office to insist that Gomes start in Victorino’s place, contrary to all conventional wisdom and good sense. Why? Because the Sox leaders (basically, all their stars) felt Gomes was a winner, stats and analysis and conventional wisdom be damned, and the game bore that point out. (Why it didn’t demoralize Victorino is another question, maybe more critical to the whole "team chemistry" concept. Seems to me that Victorino’s buying in is what made this move work more than anything else, but Ryan doesn’t explore that side of the story, unless her index let me down again. I did spot some references to Victorino that her indexer missed, but my memory says that Victorino wasn’t interviewed on this subject in Intangibles. I would have liked to hear what he had to say.) The Sox won the game, and tied the Series, on Gomes’ three-run HR in the sixth inning of that game, off a right-handed Cardinals’ reliever whose presence just yelled, "Put a lefty batter in for Gomes NOW!!"

Of course, another question that arises is "How come Gomes isn’t still playing for the Sox today at age 39?" or less hyperbolically "How come the Sox weren’t more reluctant to trade Gomes the next June?" Worse, for Gomes, the team he was traded to (for Yoenis Cespedes), the Oakland A’s, a team he had been a part of and had been a Super-Carrier on in 2012, was now "a disintegrating team," demoralized by the loss of Cespedes. The A’s clubhouse was baffling and frustrating to Gomes, who tried his level best to reach his new teammates, and Ryan chalks the failure off to "the situational nature of archetypes and team chemistry, even to Super-Carriers."

Gomes’ opposite number, both in terms of domination on the field and in perception of his personality, was superstar Barry Bonds, the subject of Ryan’s next mini-biography, the chapter entitled "Super-Disruptors: The Curiouser Case of Barry Bonds," which treats Bonds and his fellow Giant superstar and super-disruptor Jeff Kent to close scrutiny. The big reveal here is that Ryan finds neither Bonds nor Kent, contrary to their well-earned reputations for personal difficulty, to be super-disruptors, or even disruptors of any kind. She interviewed them both at great length, and with no little persistence in lining up the interviews, well after they’d retired from the game, and she found them both well capable of being "grit in the gears, but they’re not enough to ruin the engine."

Why not? If you’ve got a totally dominating super-star on the playing field, much less if you’ve got two of them in their primes, aren’t they going to affect the team’s tone for better or worse? How can two prickly, anti-social, egotistical, self-absorbed monsters like Bonds and Kent not take the whole clubhouse down with them? Wasn’t that Leyland's grudging example of what forms good chemistry, veteran stars showing younger players how to act?

Ryan contends that team chemistry is more complicated than that. What Bonds and Kent did, she maintains, is set an example of excellent play in the field, and even their selfishness became a model to lesser teammates on how they must drive themselves to excel at all times, to play the game as competitively as possible. "Bonds and Kent deeply trusted each other," Ryan explains, "but only on the field." She refers to this strange trust as "task chemistry," the kind of thing that some players can turn on and off every day for years on end.  Ryan describes many incidents of profoundly anti-social behavior off the playing field for both men, from Kent picking up his child at the same day-care center as one of his teammates but ignoring him even when the two Giants stood next to each other, to Bonds refusing to acknowledge reporters clamoring to interview him after hitting walkoff homeruns, forcing his teammates to provide the reporters with their quotes about Bonds’ slugging.  But on the field, Bonds and Kent competed to show each other, and their lesser teammates, how good they’d have to be to win their respect. "This ‘task chemistry’ is about the work," Ryan concludes, "and only the work."

If it’s only about the work, though, is it really chemistry? If Bonds and Kent were difficult, brooding, moody, unpleasant teammates before and after the games whose excellence on the field challenged and inspired other Giants (and each other) to play their very best at all times, is that chemistry or just the effect of having superstars in the lineup?

It’s not impossible to imagine lesser players interpreting those examples as discouragement to play their very best. "Oh, I can’t hit this pitcher," one of them might say to himself, "but that’s okay, ‘cuz Jeff or Barry will do it—they’re so much more talented than I can ever hope to be." Certainly there are plenty of counter-examples of superstars on teams not noted for their team chemistry nor for getting themselves out of last place: Kiner on the early 50s Pirates, Banks and Santo on the early 60s Cubs. What is the relationship between being a good teammate and being a good ballplayer? Is there one?  Can you be an excellent teammate but a very bad player?  We know you can be a very good player but a lousy teammate, simply because there are so many clubs with terrible won-lost records but a few good players—some of these teams must suffer from poor chemistry, or else the term means nothing at all.

If we see a long path ahead that ends at the palace that is called "Making Use of Team Chemistry" then we’re still lacing up our sneakers to prepare for the walk. Accepting the metaphor of actual chemistry, we’re somewhere around the mid-19th century when Dmitri Mendeleev compiled the first periodic table of the elements (he counted only 55 of them—we’re up to over twice that many now) and tried to posit the relationship these elements bore to one another. That’s about where the -ists (biopsychologists, neurologists, behavioral economists etc.) Ryan quotes at length here are:  defining terms, inventing nomenclatures, positing theories, speculating on possibilities, but never coming very close to pinning down what the larger subject consists of nor how it operates in a way that accurately predicts much of anything. Predicting team chemistry, and building it, is the goal here, not just noticing when it has already formed, which can be and has been done for ages simply by looking at teams’ won-lost records, and deciding that the winningest teams must have the best team chemistry. The Oakland A’s of the early 1970s, or the Yankees of the late 1970s, used each other as punching bags that got a near-daily workout, but we all agree that they had a certain je ne sais quoi, a certain indefinable spirit, that we call "team chemistry." (Ryan cites the A’s team’s fractiousness, committing a rare error in the course of describing them as "the original twenty-five players, twenty-five cabs team"—I’m pretty sure I read that witticism applied to the early 1960s Red Sox.)

Both the A’s and Yankees, and innumerable other winners, bonded as a group in opposition to something, or specifically to someone, whether it be Charlie Finley or George Steinbrenner or some other oppressing figure, a bond that has long been recognized as a much stronger cement than just players liking each other. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" may work more effectively than a simple truistic "My friend is my friend." Motivational managers like Tommy Lasorda have been known to start brawls simply to create animosity that his players will then share and form closer bonds with each other as a result—I don’t know that there’s anything very mysterious about that form of creating team chemistry. It’s sort of obvious as a ploy, and can easily backfire if done too often or too baselessly. Ryan cites the most well-known motivational system along these lines, the military mindset that deliberately creates a brutally dehumanizing Basic Training, to force recruits to share a misery that creates a bond. No empathy from officers, from NCOs, from the system itself, just hardship and suffering among one’s peers—the sense of compassion one feels for each peer who is trying to survive (the ones who stop trying get weeded out along the way) forms the ultimate "team chemistry," whether the recruits are shooting for that goal or not.

The non-baseball examples in Intangibles are taken from the military, from business (or from both—retired General Stanley McChrystal’s military-style corporate consulting company takes up a chapter), and from sources as disparate as poets and philosophers. I enjoyed the apt quotations from oddly chosen figures as Samuel Johnson (comparing genius to "fire in a flint, only to be produced by collision with a proper subject") and Arthur Schopenhauer, whom she quotes on the nature of Barry Bonds’ genius: "Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see."

Bonds agrees with Schopenhauer: "My IQ and skill on the baseball field was such that I could do it whenever I wanted to," which is a statement more telling of his self-esteem than of his IQ or his skills. Bonds claims to be "so gifted that he purposely hit all his milestone home runs at the Giants’ home park." Ryan laughs at hearing this, but it turns out Bonds is deadly serious, so she looks it up: Bonds did hit all his milestone marks in San Francisco, his 500th, his 600th, his Mays-tying 660th, his Mays-breaking 661st, his 715th, his 756th, at home.

Well, that’s not quite "all," is it? What happened to #714 and #755? I mean, chance dictates that he’ll hit half his HRs at home (his career split is just about even), so he’s not exactly running the table at Monte Carlo to go 6-for-6 in hitting those particular HRs at home, and if you throw in the Ruth-tyer and Aaron-tyer, that’s 6-for-8, which is nothing, statistically speaking. But more important, if we take Bonds at his word, doesn’t that imply that if he was on the road and on the verge of a milestone HR, he was deliberately restraining himself from hitting a couple of HRs? Not exactly the best case to make for Bonds as a team player, is it, picking the most ego-satisfying places to hit his HRs in. You’ve got to wonder at all claims made by and about players to turn it on in special circumstances, anyway, because of the unstated implication that they are turning it off in non-special circumstances—which is to say, they’re not giving the game their very best effort at all times. That, of course, is Ryan’s case for Bonds’ and Kent’s contributions to team chemistry, that their teammates see their 100% effort at all times on the field.

While accepting that neither Bonds nor Kent is actually a "Super-Disruptor," she does identify two types of players disruptive to team chemistry: the clubhouse lawyer and the malingerer. "Clubhouse lawyers can do more friggin’ damage than anybody on a ball club," she quotes one former star, who adds, "He needs to be traded as soon as possible." Combined with malingerers, whose concern for their own bodies takes precedence over the team’s need for them to play hurt, these players are compared to rotting apples in a barrel of otherwise-fine apples: infected with a chemical called ethylene, rotten apples encourage the good apples to produce their own ethylene, and soon enough the whole barrel is mushy and soft.

What I found especially interesting in the quotation above about the "friggin’ damage" that some players inflict is that it came from Keith Hernandez, perhaps the archetypal rotten apple who himself was "traded as soon as possible" (and for close to nothing) because his manager thought his attitude and his lack of hustle was damaging his team.

Ryan’s fascinating chapter on Bonds, containing long conversations that the great man chooses to permit her (after great effort) to have with him, testifies to the colossal ego still on the man, years after retirement, but also his equally strange humility and his (almost) apologizing for his manner (and lack of good manners) during his playing career. ("I know I created that monster," Bonds confesses to Ryan, describing his toxic relationship with the media. "I don’t ever deny the monster I created. I probably played better [because of it].") She bends over triple-backwards to present him lording his domination over her, just in granting her an interview. Bonds reminds her over and over how he’s giving her a huge story for free, how that access is worth something, how he’s helping her advance her career but not charging her a fee (he tried to get paid, but Ryan refused to pay a source while persisting in her interview requests for over a year), and she mildly agrees with him at every turn, responding to each lording with a variation on "You are being generous, and I do appreciate it." A lesser reporter than Ryan might have given in to the temptation to tell him to put a sock in it already (which was, I suspect, Bond’s aim, getting a rise out of her so he could then turn his monster face to her), but she’s too focused on her goal of getting the interview, and too good a reporter to take the bait.

Ryan is good. Not so much in her case for team chemistry, which remains something of a murky mystery, very loosely and variously described, and only partially verified by any of the provisional definitions, scientific or otherwise, but in the interviews she has with active players, retired players, managers, coaches, GMs, observers of the game. This book is well worth reading for the interviews alone, for the anecdotes and memories of baseball people talking about instances of chemistry on teams they’ve played on, of teammates who showed it, and didn’t show it, and Ryan manages to get quotes from all of them that reveal insights into the game regardless of their bearing on her central issue. There’s simply great quote after great quote here, interspersed with her sharp observations about each person being quoted. Ryan is a fabulous interviewer and reporter, and that’s the real value in Intangibles.

"Intangibles" is one of those funny words (technically, an "enantiodrome") that means what it means but also means its opposite, like "cleave," "sanction," or "oversight," literally meaning "untouchable" but with opposite implications. You can’t touch something, in the M.C. Hammer sense, but is that because it’s holy or because it’s filthy? Eliot Ness was untouchable because of his exalted moral standing but that’s obviously not the same sense that the lowest toilet-swabbing dalit in Calcutta is an untouchable. Fights have been started, here on BJOL and elsewhere, over the concept of "intangible," being a byword for the most elusive of qualities that turn losses into wins and as an all-purpose summation of the BS people will spew to avoid saying the three dread words "I don’t know."

"Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry," her sub-title, is quite accurate as yet a different metaphor: the knowledge is still locked up in a cabinet that we can’t get open yet, but we are in the process of figuring out how to open that lock, and isn’t that exciting? There may be a key somewhere, or maybe it’s a combination lock, but we’re working hard on figuring out the answer to that question first, and when we get that figured out, we will start working on fitting the key into the lock, or guessing what the combination is. All we really know for sure right now is that "Team Chemistry" is still locked up pretty tight behind that cabinet door, and some skeptics don’t see how we’ll ever get it opened up.

 

 

 
 

COMMENTS (25 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
That would be great, Mike. Love to know what Victorino felt, though I'll be astonished if someone hasn't asked him that before. Joan Ryan didn't, but I'll bet the world that someone did.
5:10 PM Aug 24th
 
mauimike
I remember writing here, maybe it was just a Hey Bill, that he didn't post, that the reason the Red Sox were so successful that year was because they had three Portagee's, Pedroia, Victorino and Gomes on the roster. I was just kidding, but maybe there was something to it. I'm a distant cousin of Shane Victorino, if your Portuguese and you are born on Maui, you're related, it would be an interesting question to ask, if I could track him down what he thought about Gomes starting and not him.
10:17 AM Aug 22nd
 
Manushfan
Chemistry Shemistry. What we Really wanna know is if they have The Will To Win(TM). Ken Harrelson has found a way to measure it apparently. Share, Hawk.
10:45 AM Aug 18th
 
malbuff
Thank you for this review. I remember Joan Ryan very well from when we lived in SF and I read the Chronicle and Examiner sports sections daily. She was good then, and based on this article it's clear she's good now. With all of the references here to my Giants, I know I'd be getting this book anyway, but it appears there's a lot more to like. Thanks again.
9:29 AM Aug 18th
 
steve161
What is with the software running this website? To make Steven's link to the discussion of chemistry work, add the colon after HTTPS in the address bar, which is present in the link but was lost when I clicked on it.
7:48 AM Aug 18th
 
KaiserD2
A very interesting survey of the subject. I remain a convinced skeptic about chemistry--or rather, I would say that the most powerful chemical element is victory. It makes everybody feel good, and it extends an emotional glow to very average players (like Johnny Gomes) who happen to be in the right place at the right time. I am curious as to whether Ryan spends any time on whether managers create good or bad chemistry. I think that they used to, but I'm getting the impression that managers now have so little power that they really can't do much to change the atmosphere of the team.

DK
7:34 AM Aug 18th
 
villageelliott
I had a friend from Boston a generation older than me. Born in 1932, he said the expression "25 players-25 cabs" was in common usage when he was a lad in the 1930's. Had something to do with the "well-paid, country-club atmosphere" established by Tom Yawkey. He is no longer around to ask for clarification.
3:40 AM Aug 18th
 
robneyer
Nice work, Sir.

I enjoyed Ryan's book, as I sense you did.

Recently I read David Ortiz's book, followed by David Ross's. Both write a great deal about leadership - well, Ross more than Ortiz, befitting their relative reputations - and both spend a great deal of ink on their amazing run in 2013, driven (as they tell the story) largely by great chemistry and leadership.

Oddly, both have almost nothing to say about 2014, when the Red Sox went from World's Champions to 71-91 with largely the same roster (including those two plus Gomes). So ... I don't know? But I always wish analysis of chemistry would spend as much time on the failures as the successes. And of course it never, ever does.
12:33 AM Aug 18th
 
joeashp
Mallevsdei, good reference to John 20:17, but there Jesus is not speaking to his mother but to Mary Magdalene.​
9:09 PM Aug 17th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Didn't know that, though I suppose lots of Latin speakers (Jesus wasn't one) would have had plenty of occasions to tell someone "Don't touch me." Or "Get your grubby paws off me." Or "Keep your hands to yourself" or "Stop feeling me up" or any one of a number of other comments that might be translated as "Noli mi tangere." Wyatt used that Latin phrase in an English poem, so he may have been alluding to the New Testament passage if that translation was in use in his time and place. (The whole NT was, I believe, composed in Greek, and has been translated into various other languages, so Jesus's exact words are hard to know.)
6:09 PM Aug 17th
 
mallevsdei
Noli Me Tangere is originally from the New Testament Vulgate (although believed not to have been translated, like the Old Testament, by Saint Jerome). It is found in John 20, verse 17, Jesus speaking to his mother
4:25 PM Aug 17th
 
MarisFan61
.....and all I could think of was Spiro Agnew. :-)
3:11 PM Aug 17th
 
Steven Goldleaf
The allusion in the title, for those who care, is to Sir Thomas Wyatt's early 16th century poem "Whoso List to Hunt..." which uses the phrase "Noli mi tangere," or "Do Not Touch Me" (using the root word that appears in "intangible"), a phrase engraved on a necklace around the neck of one of the King's deer (and on the King's dear, Anne Boleyn, with whom Wyatt was supposedly having a clandestine affair), warning would-be poachers to keep their hands off.
12:11 PM Aug 17th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Just found this old article while searching for "25 players, 25 cabs": https://www.billjamesonline.com/article809/

9:23 AM Aug 17th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks for the correction, rwarn17588--I hope you won't mind if I change that date (and make your comment seem incorrect).

Fireball--I think I first heard "25 players, 25 cabs" about the Yaz-Dick Stuart Sox of the early 60s, but I'll research it a bit.
8:08 AM Aug 17th
 
Fireball Wenz
Good article - I'm married to someone with a Biology degree from Harvard and as a history major - yeah, we're getting the diluted solution from the pop science people, who are still doing a service.

By the way, Elliot Ness was an alcoholic.
7:22 AM Aug 17th
 
Fireball Wenz
My memory is that "25 players, 25 cabs" was said about the c. 1978 red Sox by either Frank Duffy or Jack Brohamer while they were in Boston, but it might not have been the first instance.
7:18 AM Aug 17th
 
steve161
I did the same search on Amazon, only to be reminded that the book is already sitting on my Kindle, waiting along with a few dozen other titles to be read. Obviously I bought it because of previous experience with the author, the excellent Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.

I also learned of another book, also called Intangibles, by Geoff Miller, with the subtitle "Big-League Stories and Strategies for Winning the Mental Game--in Baseball and in Life". Hmpf. It must be said that the reviewers are kind: 46 of them break down 42-3-0-0-1 (5 stars down to 1). Harvey Dorfman and Bob Tewksbury also have books in a similar vein, which like Miller's seem to promise more certainty than Ryan's does. I'll pass.
7:03 AM Aug 17th
 
rwarn17588
It's an interesting book review. And I'll say this: Jim Leyland's skepticism about team chemistry and the author's cautious acceptance of it both might be right.

It seems to me team chemistry is so fragile and fleeting, professional sports clubs won't be able to quantify it for at least another 50 years.
6:56 AM Aug 17th
 
rwarn17588
Aubrey Huff's big year with the Giants was in 2010, not in 2009. He was with two other clubs in 2009.
6:53 AM Aug 17th
 
MarisFan61
BTW, perhaps of some stray interest, when I did the "search" on Amazon for the book -- and indeed the first match was the right thing -- here are the next several matches that showed, which actually, come to think, is maybe almost on-topic because it shows what can happen when something is based on pure algorithms and crunching:

Foundations of College Chemistry

The Craft and Science of Coffee

Ernest Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises & Other Writings 1918-1926: in our time (1924) / In Our Time (1925) / The Torrents of Spring / The Sun...

American Noir: 11 Classic Crime Novels of the 1930s, 40s, & 50s

(who knows, maybe it's because Amazon could tell that I came from Bill James's site) :-)

Scientific Soapmaking: The Chemistry of the Cold Process

Jonathan Schell: The Fate of the Earth, The Abolition, The Unconquerable World


......and then there was this, which many people here might feel is the kind of match that this book deserves:

Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation
7:13 PM Aug 16th
 
MarisFan61
Just skimmed the article, from which skimming I gather (as if I didn't know) :-) that you and I have what we might call a friendly disagreement on the basic subject -- but I saw enough to know that I want to have the book.

You're a good salesman! :-)
7:03 PM Aug 16th
 
villageelliott
Somehow my comment double posted, which may, or may not illustrate my point.
4:21 PM Aug 16th
 
villageelliott
In my opinion, you are a major intangible influencing the team chemistry on Bill James Online.
4:18 PM Aug 16th
 
villageelliott
In my opinion, you are a major intangible influencing the team chemistry on Bill James Online.
4:18 PM Aug 16th
 
 
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