Sports writer and podcaster Ben Lindbergh’s key to success? Working harder than hard

 

When it comes to crafting his career as a writer focused on baseball analytics, Ben Lindbergh says he has been lucky, and to some extent, that’s true. But one of the core tenets of the baseball analytics community is that luck doesn’t hold up for long; at some point you have to create your own. A pitcher might do that by generating soft contact, but Lindbergh has done it by working harder than hard.

Sports writer and podcaster Ben Lindbergh (Photo courtesy of Fonzie Cuaycong)

Sports writer and podcaster Ben Lindbergh (Photo courtesy of Fonzie Cuaycong)

After his junior year at Georgetown University, where Lindbergh majored in English and minored in History, he got an internship in the Yankees’ publications department. He also interned at Baseball Prospectus assisting with research, so he spent the summer working two jobs. For many college students, that might have been too much.

“He was the only one who actually did all the work,” said Steven Goldman, a contributing editor at Baseball Prospectus at the time. “Most college students flake, but Ben came through with everything he was supposed to.”

Today, Lindbergh is 30, and writes about baseball, video games and television for The Ringer, the sports and culture website founded by Bill Simmons. Lindbergh lives in Manhattan with his fiancée, Jessie Barbour, and their dog Grumkin, a miniature dachshund whose name is a reference to the fantasy series “Game of Thrones.” He’s five-foot-ten, with short brown hair and a soft voice that belies his athletic build.

“There’s a funny perception of him when people only know him from the podcast,” Barbour said. “He’s this very strong athletic person, which is not what people picture when they hear him speaking.”

Lindbergh started following baseball for the same reason most kids who lived in New York in the 1990s did — the Yankees were winning. His parents weren’t baseball fans, but he would go to Yankee Stadium with friends, or an aunt or uncle. He loved the atmosphere, and certainly it helped that the Yankees won four World Series in a five-year span from 1996 to 2000.

Lindbergh went to Saint David’s School, an all-boys Catholic school in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and in sixth grade a teacher named Tom Ryan taught his confirmation class. Ryan was an avid Yankees fan, and held a club called Hot Stove after school on Wednesdays where a group of boys gathered to talk about baseball. Lindbergh joined, and, as Ryan said, “never missed a day after that.”

Early on, the analytical side of baseball appealed to Lindbergh. He was drawn to sabermetrics, and the idea that there were misperceptions that no one had taken the time to closely examine.

“Looking back, early on he saw it was a game of strategy,” said his mother, Doris Lindbergh. “That’s probably what appealed to him.”

Lindbergh started his career at Baseball Prospectus, a baseball website focusing on analytics, where he wrote for a few years before serving as editor-in-chief from 2012 to 2014. But he never meant to write only about baseball. He wanted to prove to himself that he could write equally well about other topics. While at Baseball Prospectus, he started freelancing for Simmons’ previous website, Grantland. The editors at Grantland liked his work enough that they brought him on full time. He wrote there until the site closed in October 2015, then wrote for the data journalism website FiveThirtyEight for nearly a year before joining The Ringer soon after it launched.

Lindbergh’s career has been propelled by an ethos of hard work. In any given week, there’s one night he doesn’t sleep at all, usually because there’s something else he needs to do. His drive stands out to Mallory Rubin, Lindbergh’s primary editor at Grantland and currently at The Ringer.

“When I’m trying to explain what a hard worker is,” Rubin said, “I tell people who don’t know that he ran an independent league baseball team and wrote a book about it without asking to take a single day off from his actual day job. That’s insane.”

The book, “The Only Rule Is It Has to Work,” which Lindbergh co-wrote with Sam Miller, a former colleague from Baseball Prospectus, is about their time together running the Sonoma Stompers, an independent league team in Northern California. In 2015, Lindbergh and Miller approached the team’s management and asked if they would allow them to run baseball operations. The team agreed, and the two writers set about constructing a roster. They used the season as, among other things, a test-case for a series of sabermetric ideas that Major League teams were hesitant to try, concepts such as a five-man infield and a closer pitching as early as the fifth inning.

To Rubin, the book showcased Lindbergh’s greatest strength as a writer.

“His real strength is in the idea generation phase,” she said. “His brain is a different beast.”

That same creativity can be seen elsewhere in Lindbergh’s writing. At Baseball Prospectus, he found himself wondering what it was that umpires and managers said to each other when they argued. So he found Evan Brunell, a deaf baseball writer who could read lips, and together they sorted through videos of managerial ejections and found some that Brunell transcribed.

The resulting story showed another one of Lindbergh’s signature traits — a willingness to reach out to anyone. While others might be uncomfortable contacting someone they don’t know, Lindbergh doesn’t hesitate.

“Taking that step is something a lot of people won’t do, and it really benefits you,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m totally comfortable with it, but I just do it.”

One of the biggest reasons he takes those steps is simple — he’s curious.

“When you can set out to answer a question that’s a mystery when you begin and you end up with what seems like a concrete answer can be very satisfying,” Lindbergh said. “If you can find some truth that has remained hidden all this time, you sort of feel like you understand the world a little bit better.”

That curiosity is something Miller took note of when they were running the Stompers together.

“He doesn’t not do something because it’s hard,” Miller said. “He is extremely good at using every source of research there is.”

That translates to his private life as well. Last October, Lindbergh took Barbour, then his girlfriend, to the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan to see his favorite band, Sloan, in concert. The couple had seen the Canadian power pop quartet on their first date in that same venue more than five years earlier, and Lindbergh had been waiting for Sloan to return. He had requested the day off from work months in advance, and had reached out to the band members via a mutual acquaintance to see if they could help him out.

Right after intermission, Lindbergh stepped on stage and invited Barbour to join him. He proposed to her, and after she said yes, the two sang her favorite Sloan song, “Deeper Than Beauty,” with the band.

Despite such theatrics, Lindbergh is actually understated. When he’s in a group, he’s happy to sit back and listen, and according to Ryan, at any Saint David’s alumni event he’s usually standing in a corner.

“He hardly talks, even to people he’s very close with, even if you’re in the living room with him,” Miller said. “He’s not actually shy. He just doesn’t talk that much.”

This subdued nature can be heard in the first episodes of the “Effectively Wild” baseball podcast that Lindbergh started co-hosting with Miller more than four-and-a-half years ago.

“If you go back and listen to that first episode, I’m just kind of mumbling, there’s no energy in my voice,” Lindbergh said. “That’s more what I’m like on a day-to-day basis.”

Over time, though, he realized that if people were listening, he had to amplify his persona. Today, Lindbergh sounds confident as the host of “Effectively Wild,” which is still running, although Miller is no longer involved. Lindbergh also hosts The Ringer’s baseball podcast, and recently started co-hosting a podcast for The Ringer focusing on video games.

“You never would have thought that this would be somebody who would be hosting thousands of episodes of various podcasts,” said Goldman, his former editor. “To this day, it’s a little shocking to me. I admire it.”

That development as a journalist didn’t happen quickly, but for Miller, his co-author, the realization was sudden, and the results speak for themselves.

“He flipped a switch and became the very best in the world,” Miller said. “He’s better than everybody. He’s genuinely the best there is at what he does.”