“Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul
of Team Chemistry”
The publishing info:
Little, Brown and Company/Hachette Books
Released today, April 28
The review in 90 feet or less
Nope, no way, no how did the Dodgers of 1988 have any business squashing the Oakland A’s in the World Series. But it happened. Nor did the Nationals of 2019 have any realistic chance of knocking out the two-time defending NL champion Dodger in the NLDS. It happened, too.
The Onion once ran a headline that captures this perfectly: “Team’s chemistry overwhelmed by opponent’s biology.”
Now it’s a chance for Joan Ryan to peel back the onion.
By adding that satirical quip in the introduction of her book, Ryan gets to flex her investigative reporting skills she used for several decades as a San Francisco Chronicle columnist and self discover if there’s a tangible way to define and quantify what we all can talk about in esoteric terms as they pertain to success in team sports.
In our book, Ryan has always had the tactile ability to tell stories based on well-cultivated information. Most recently on the baseball front was forming Bengie Molina’s family project “Molina: The Story of the Father Who Raised an Unlikely Baseball Dynasty.”
But our trust goes back to the landmark book, “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnastics and Figure Skaters” from 1995, perhaps foreshadowing all the sexual abuse that took place with the Olympic gymnasts and Larry Nassar.
And our heart remains with her personal story from 2009, “The Water Giver: The Story of A Mother, a Son, and Their Second Chance,” that focuses on her 16-year-old learning disabled son named Ryan (his dad, Joan’s husband, is acclaimed sports broadcaster Barry Tompkins) who fell off a skateboard, and she documents the medical ordeal that followed from crisis to crisis.
Since 2008, Ryan has been a media consultant with the San Francisco Giants, so it’s somewhat a natural she’s able to hold up the construction of the 2010 Giants roster that won the first of its three World Series titles in a five-year span as a test case about how team chemistry seems to have worked. This was, as described in Andrew Baggarly’s book, “A Band of Misfits.” Especially when she can compare that to the 2007 Giants roster that has been “cliquey and snippy as a middle-school cafeteria.” Three years later, there was a new openness, and the chaos subsided.
She starts with the premise that asks three questions:
Does team chemistry exist? If it exists, what is it? And how does it affect performance?
Long before we come to her conclusions at the end, she takes us on several real-example roster constructions. The foundation is laid on page 52 when she comes up with seven “archetype characters” that every “good-chemistry team” seemed to have over the years.
“To be clear, these archetypes are not scientific findings,” she writes. “They are patterns I’ve observed that seem to resonate not only with people in sports, but also with those in business. Perhaps all high-functioning groups have a version of this list. I periodically ran the list by players and coaches. They validated some, shot down others, and offered suggestions. I culled the list to seven.”
They would be:
The Spark plug: Someone who ignites teammates into a sense of purpose, selflessness, and collective invincibility. That translates into increased confidence and effort. Hunter Pence was that person on those Giants teams. Just see the video above.
The Sage: A wise, kind veteran. Like David Ross of the Chicago Cubs’ 2016 team.
The Kid: High energy, carrying a dream. Buster Posey was it for the 2010 Giants.
The Enforcer: He recognizes when people are slacking off, making errors, sticks his nose where it might not belong. A Jeff Kent fit that on many rosters, including the Dodgers. Maybe just not as well with the Dodgers.
The Buddy: Everyone’s friend. He monitors players’ moods and picks them up. He’s a good audience.
The Jester: One who breaks tension and boosts camaraderie, artfully teasing, wrapped in humor, providing a system cleanse.
The Warrior: Team swagger guy. Like Mike Trout with the Angels. He carries that aura people gravitate to.
In this category, Ryan adds a story:
“A general manager told me about trading for a solid outfielder at the trade deadline, hoping he’d be the difference-maker in getting the team into the playoffs. ‘We did a lot of soul-searching on that deal,’ the general manager said. ‘I talked to another GM who had signed (the same guy) as a free agent and asked him, ‘What do you think it is?’ He said, ‘He doesn’t know how to win. He’s the greatest kid in the world, but he’s never won.’ I said, ‘You know what, you’re right.’
“The GM had passed up on Manny Ramirez because of his reputation as a disruptor in the clubhouse. The Los Angeles Dodgers signed Ramirez, and he rocketed them into the playoffs.”
The Dodgers got him at the trade deadline of 2008. But by mid-way into 2010, he was gone. Too disruptive to team chemistry.
Ryan writes that when she showed her list of these characteristics to Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, he could plug names into the roles from his first 2016 roster, which won the NL West but lost the NLCS to the Cubs: Chase Utley and A.J. Ellis were the sages, Corey Seager was the kid, Clayton Kershaw was the warrior, Justin Turner was the enforcer. Adrian Gonzelez was also an enforcer, but also an agitator. Yasiel Puig was the jester with Kike Hernandez. Kenley Jansen was the buddy, along with Kenta Maeda.
Maybe that’s a starting point to try to dissect the current Dodgers roster and see if there’s something missing?
With even a deeper dive, Ryan can agree that it’s “a fool’s errand to measure chemistry the way sabermetricians measure performance. The difference between the two is the difference between measuring a heartbeat and measuring a thought. It is time to end the argument that chemistry isn’t real because it can’t be quantified. Quantification has nothing to do with what is real. Was light less real before astronomers could measure its waves and calculate its speed? Of course not.”
She adds: “Team chemistry is a biological construct. Humans are open-loop creatures, truly interdependent beings. … Day in and day out, on the field or in the workplace, we count on other people to stir our emotions, boost our energy, give us something to fight for. I know now that on great team-chemistry teams, meaning and purpose evolve beyond winning gold medals or even making history. Your teammates become the meaning and purpose. You feel the joy and exhilaration of being part of a truly connected, focused, driven group. There is a sense of completeness, of being the perfect you in this moment, with these exact people, in this exact quest.”
This runs all the way up to the team’s hierarchy, not just the player roster.
Ryan uses Roberts again, now as an example of how, after he was hired, he contacted all the players on the roster to make a connection and built trust. When Roberts was hired in November 2015, he sought leadership advice from coaches he admired, such as the Seattle Seahawks’ Pete Carroll, the Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr, and former Lakers and New York Knicks coach Pat Riley.
“Roberts came away with pages and pages of notes and distilled them to this: ‘Players want to know three things about a coach: Does he care about me? Can I trust him? And can he make me better?’” Roberts tells Ryan. “If you can check those three boxes, then you can get a lot from a player. I think for me that foundation started with the phone calls in the winter.”
And that’s also where a modern-day alchemist can start the process.
Our author Q and A:
Thanks to Joan Ryan for answering some emailed questions we had after reading the book:
How long as this “intangible” idea been percolating? Was it just that Giants team reunion that kind of tripped it to go forward?
It was indeed the reunion in 2009. I’ve always been intrigued and kind of delighted by the relationships among teammates, the give-and-take, the physical affection, the nicknames. But not until that reunion did I suddenly become gripped by figuring out this thing we call chemistry. What was it? Did it matter to performance? Was there more to it than matching beards and camaraderie?
On your website bio, it says you’re “currently working on a book on team chemistry that will be out in late 2018.” So here we are. How are the best-laid plans of book writing and publishing?
God, is that still on my website? Only two years past deadline. I could have worked on this book for another 10 years though I’m pretty sure I’d be divorced. I couldn’t let it go because there was always another fascinating bit of research to dig into, another brilliant scientist to interview, another team’s story to tell. I still feel I only scratched the surface. It’s an extraordinarily complex topic. To study team chemistry, I now know, is to study what it means to be human.
It’s interesting how you bring up Michael Lewis’ “The Undoing Project” about the friendship of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky – it’s the book by Kahneman, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” that becomes the basis for Keith Law’s new baseball book, “The Inside Game” (with our review on April 21) in trying to examine how and why baseball decisions get made. Again, more brain stuff. You came out on Twitter recently that you were puzzled by Law’s dismissal of team chemistry in his book. You’ve had some more time to process that whole thing. How do you address that now as it pertains to what you’ve discovered?
I don’t know if Keith dismisses team chemistry in his book because I haven’t read it. But he certainly dismisses it, and has long dismissed it. I am puzzled by his, and Michael Lewis’s, outright rejection of team chemistry without considering the scientific argument for it. Listen, read, ponder – OK, then dismiss it if you must! Frankly I don’t see how they could. The evidence is overwhelming. Both are such brilliant, curious men. It’s a head-scratcher.
We seem to understand more than ever how a lack of human interaction affects us. There’s a strain many of us fight through this sequester, knocking some of us off base. From what you’ve gathered is there anything you can pass along as reference material that might help sports fans in particular who feel a profound disconnect from their passionate relationships with their teams and favorite players? How would you suggest addressing it and processing it from what you discovered?
Loneliness is a national epidemic, as dangerous to our health as smoking or obesity. For many of us, and perhaps especially the 35 million Americans who live alone, a sports team might be their only tribe. They give us a sense of belonging, even a sense of purpose. Our loyalty to the team feels meaningful. The absence of sports means no daily TV and radio visits from beloved players, coaches and broadcasters. Nothing can replicate that exact relationship. But because humans need connection, sports fans could reach out to like-minded fans. I personally feel less knocked off base by talking to friends who are also follow my teams, whether live on Zoom, posts on Facebook pages, sports forums, etc.
In chapter 2 you start into a discussion about Aubrey Huff and the impact he made on the 2010 Giants in their World Series pursuit. But now he’s become someone buried in social media posts, enough to get him uninvited to a 10-year reunion of that team. You size him up pretty well in the book based on your relationships with him – he seemed to have awakened that roster because of his personality. How do you see his actions playing out now off the field? Has what’s happened to him based on his personality a surprise?
What he’s saying on social media is not a surprise. The surprise was that he was ever a team leader. That’s why it made for a fascinating case study on the power of culture to reshape people, even only for a short while. The makeup of that 2010 team, along with the leadership style of manager Bruce Bochy, combined to bring out in Huff qualities he hadn’t known before. The key was trust. When his teammates showed trust in him – which he admits was a surprise – he trusted in return. He actually cared about his teammates. Trust and caring are the raw material of team chemistry. He was that guy for that one season but never before or after. It shows how complex team chemistry is. Though many of the players returned the following year, the clubhouse dynamic wasn’t the same. Every player on that team, including Huff, had been changed by winning the World Series. Huff wasn’t a leader ever again.
One of the things Willie Mays talks about in his “24” lessons about life learned with John Shea (with our review on April 24) is the way one can turn what’s seen by some as a disadvantage into an advantage – like the ballparks he played at the Polo Grounds in New York and Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Do you think the Giants in the times you covered them used that home field weather to their advantage psychologically? How does upper management play in setting that narrative?
Absolutely. When Roger Craig and Al Rosen took over as manager and general manager, respectively, they banned complaints about awful Candlestick Park. They convinced the players that the ‘Stick was the greatest home field advantage in all of baseball. Visiting players so detested the cold, wind, and sparse crowds that they just wanted to get the hell out of town. Embracing the conditions gave the Giants a leg up. They understood the strange and brutal wind patterns. They knew how to keep from freezing when the fog rolled in. They learned how to keep the dirt from blowing into their contact lenses. They saw their opponents’ misery as weakness, and they feasted on it.
Also, leadership is huge in fostering a culture from which team chemistry can emerge. As manager and general manager of these Giants, Bruce Bochy and Brian Sabean hired well. They had a balance of players with an old-schoolish approach and wild cards like Brian Wilson, Aubry Huff, Tim Lincecum, etc. Bochy let them be who they were, but tugged at the leash when necessary. Leadership in the clubhouse, though, is even more important than in the manager’s office or front office. The players have to motivate and police themselves, otherwise there’s no team chemistry.
Also maybe we’re ultra aware now of the word, but how do intangibles translate to other sports? Do you find the seven baseball traits/personalities you spell out likely work with other sports? Here’s an AP story we just found related to the NFL Draft to talk about that.
This is a really smart, interesting story. I like that the writer and those he interviews recognize the complexity of the “It” factor. So many factors go into how a person’s brain processes information, whether it’s intellectual or emotional. Intangibles translate to every sport because they translate to every human being and every human group. As for the seven archetype personalities, they also apply to every sport, and perhaps to every type of group focuses on a shared goal. I ran the archetypes by people in various sports, and they all could quickly identify who on their team fit each type. To be clear, these archetypes are not the result of a scientific study. They’re from talking to sports people and interviewing experts in group dynamics, but they’re mostly from my own observations over my many years in locker rooms and clubhouses.
And a quick follow up: How is your son Ryan – the subject of your book more than 10 years ago now?
You are extra-ordinarily kind to ask. He struggles. He’s almost 30! We downsized seven years ago to a condo so we could buy him a place to live. He can’t live in apartment because his behavior is too erratic and he has a very difficult time following community rules. And he can’t live with us because he can be volatile and he’s 6-5, 290. I no longer felt safe. That said, we see him several times a week, though not now because he is not sheltering in place and is out and about constantly. He doesn’t quite grasp the enormity of the virus. He’s on permanent disability and doesn’t work. But he’s a lovely person when he’s taking his pills and getting some sleep!
How it goes in the scorebook
First, as is now posted from the Sports Business Journal on Amazon.com:
And the full blurb:
It’s a delicate process in trying to measure something we deem intangible, and it’s equally interesting to see how this may be something classified as “Sports and Sociology” or “Sports Psychology” or wherever Amazon.com’s analytics want to shelve it.
A baseball book? For our needs, sure. The cover illustration allows it to be a connection between the seams of a baseball and a DNA strand. Most of the examples used should suggest that it’s the foundation of where the questions are asked.
Especially, it’s about the biology of baseball, with help from the period table and some, perhaps, no anti-depressants. After reading this, we are stimulated, if that matters, to read more on the subject especially as it pertains to 21st Century pressures and measurements.
It would seem that if all front-office people, not just in baseball, don’t take a book like this with some seriousness, they’re missing out. Some may be intuitive and understand how this all this works. But now they have a better language to use in discussing it.
The mother of invention: The PBBClub.com
Says Ryan about joining this group of baseball writers looking to band together and promote each other’s work in these times: “PBBC has been helpful in several ways. One, and perhaps most important, it offers us isolated writers a tribe. There are others out there grappling with the publicity part of writing books, which as you know can be very frustrating and demoralizing. Two, it gives us a platform to promote our own and fellow PBBCers’ books to a wider audience. It’s fun, too, to interview each other and be interviewed, and retweet each other’s comments, etc.”