Baseball Prospectus’s Effectively Wild podcast is known for the quirky questions the hosts Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller receive for its weekly listener email show. My favorite question, and I believe the favorite of many others, was about the essence of baseball: "If baseball were different, how different would it be?" To truly understand something, it’s not enough to investigate the object in question, but also what makes that object different from others. For someone who regularly says the phrase "the difference of difference," out loud and to human beings, this question piqued my interest. I don’t recall the exact answer, but the question was more important anyway.
Ben and Sam are currently entering into an experiment in different baseball. They have taken the reins of baseball operations for the Sonoma Stompers, they of the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, for the 2015 season. Their foray into baseball outside of Major League Baseball allows for reflection on the question of different baseball. While not about the difference of baseball itself, we can draw conclusions about different varieties of baseball. All baseball is different—it’s just different in different ways.
I’ve only watched one independent baseball game, and it was actually a professional game that approximated independent ball. It was put on by Baseball-Bundesliga, Germany’s professional baseball league. The game pitted the home team Berlin Sluggers against the Solingen Alligators. While the game was actually professional, it felt independent. The diamond is located far south in Berlin. It’s the only baseball field in the metropolis.
It was an informal environment, which contributed to the feel. The informality was due to a couple of factors. The first and most notable is that in Germany, soccer is king—baseball is more the court jester.
My baseball companions and I purchased tickets from someone sitting in a lawn chair. We sat wherever we wanted. Our options ranged from second row bleacher-like seat to first row bleacher-like seat. In other words, there were two rows and options. And after the game, I strolled right into the Sluggers’ dugout to chat with a couple of players. It was not a security breach. The atmosphere was incredibly light. In this way, the game probably resembled a high school matchup rather than an independent league game. The Stompers will pull in a crowd—who could resist a four-and-a-half foam fingers on Jose Canseco night?
The game itself was different than anything I, or anyone else, has seen in Major League Baseball. First, the final score of the game has never happened in a MLB game. It was 30-0. According to Baseball Reference’s Play Index, since 1901 a team has only scored 30 runs once. In 2007, the Rangers beat the Orioles 30-3. Even if that game was 30-0, the one I witnessed in Berlin would still have been different. Germany’s professional league employs the mercy rule, so the game was called after seven innings. That is to say, parity was not on display in this game.
The players are weekenders. Games are played Friday through Saturday. Not all of the players get paid, and those that do get paid don’t make that much. The teams are mostly populated by Germans. The highest paid players tend to be from the U.S. I wish I knew for sure what level they could reach in the U.S., but my guess is independent ball. The players are responsible for their equipment. Sometime in the third or fourth inning, one of the Berlin Sluggers broke his bat while popping out to second base. He was really angry about it, too—definitely angrier than one should be for turning in an out in a 23-0 game. It turns out he was mad because he had to replace his own bat.
Like Berlin itself, the Sluggers were rough around the edges and much less refined than their counterparts from western Germany. I didn’t capture a particular moment in time due for change, either. The Alligators have played 420 games in 12 seasons for the first division Baseball-Bundesliga, and have a pretty good .736 winning percentage. In seven seasons of play at the top level of play, the Sluggers have a .337 winning percentage in 196 games. Since this game, the Sluggers have been relegated to the second division Baseball-Bundesliga.
The Sluggers' rawness was part of the charm. The starting pitcher for the Sluggers allowed ten runs in the first, but he stayed in the game (rosters max out at about 20). Other pitchers to enter included someone who threw nothing but curveballs, and the person who began the game as the third base coach, who was also the manager. I imagined the sequence a little bit too dramatically. "Enough of this shit," I fantasized him saying, "I’ve got this to the end, even if it means no more dozen run innings." Instead, his first pitched sailed about five feet above the catcher. He gave up a bunch more runs.
It was great.
What makes Major League Baseball different from other forms of baseball—from independent baseball to baseball in foreign countries where the sport is not very popular and all the way down to little league baseball—is the intense scrutiny it receives by newspaper writers, writers who blog, and other members of the media. Additionally, the myriad statistics Major League Baseball collects (the reason that a site like Beyond the Box Score exists) make it different from everything else. The material for calculating batting average, wOBA, ERA, WAR, FIP/xFIP/cFIP, SIERA, WHIP etc. exists in every baseball game, including the one I saw in Berlin back in 2012. But the ingredients that make those statistics are left unmixed far more often than they're put together.
But whether or not the game receives scrutiny and statistics, whether introductory or advanced, says something about the brand of baseball in question. In this way, the difference between Major League Baseball and possibly every other variety (I don’t know enough about foreign leagues such as Japan, Korea, Mexico, etc. to say for sure) in the world is greater than the difference that exists between all others. In the game I went to in Berlin that approximated independent play, the most important figures were the number of runs that evoke the mercy rule and how much the player who broke his bat will have to pay for a new one. Germany’s Baseball-Bundesliga is indisputably different from MLB. That is not to say that the professional and statistical self-legitimization that exists in MLB makes it better—it just makes it different.
I’ve never followed an independent team in the United States. But as the Sonoma Stompers’ season kicks off tonight, I’ll be paying attention. It just might lead to the discovery of a new, different, kind of baseball.
I would be remiss not to take this chance to recommend the Effectively Wild podcast—it is well rated and reviewed on iTunes. Additionally, a group of Effectively Wild listeners got together and created a truly excellent blog (that I was a part of for a hot minute) called Banished to the Pen. Visit and bookmark that, too.
Eric Garcia McKinley is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. He writes about the Rockies for Purple Row, where he is also an editor. You can follow him on Twitter @garcia_mckinley.