Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
2003-05-06 07:19
by Alex Belth



Rob Neyer is the most popular sabermetrician not named Bill James. The ESPN analyst has just published his third book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," and has prettied-up his home page to boot. I read Neyer's column regularly and appreciate him for his even-handedness, his self-depricating wit, and his willingness to get to the heart of the matter. I was fortunate enough to talk with Rob last week, and I'm pleased to say he's as genial over the phone as he appears in print. (It's always nice when people you admire don't suck.)

I generally don't like the idea of splitting interviews up into two parts, but after I transcribed my conversation with Rob, I felt it was the best way to go. We spoke for a long while, and when I went back to see what I could edit out, I found that I just liked too much of what he had to say. I don't want to completely blast the reader with too much information all at once, so here is Part One, where Rob talks about his how he became a baseball fan and a baseball writer. Neyer talks about his apprenticeship with Bill James, his adventures as a freelance writer, and the experience of writing a book about Fenway Park that his editor hated. Part Two will follow tomorrow.

This interview was conducted via telephone between the Bronx, NY and Portland, Oregon on Wednesday, April 30, 2003.

Bronx Banter: Where did you grow up?

Rob Neyer: I grew up in the Midwest. We moved around a lot, mostly in the Minnesota, North Dakota area, and finally settled in the Kansas City area when I was about ten.

BB: Did you play sports as a kid?

Neyer: Yeah, I was like most kids I think. Or at least most kids that I knew in that era, before video games and cable TV. Playing sports is just what we did. It seems to me, looking back on it, pretty much every day when it wasn't too cold out, we were playing baseball or basketball or football. I wasn't all that good at any of those things but I sure did enjoy them. We moved to Kansas City when I was nine, about to turn ten, in the winter or early spring of 1976. It was a great time to be in Kansas City because that was the year of their first division title.

BB: Were the Kansas City Kings still around when you were a kid?

Neyer: You know, they were. They were there until '81 and '82, I think. I was a big Kings fan as well.

BB: Tiny Archibald.

Neyer: It was right at the end of the Tiny Archibald era, I'm not even sure if I ever saw him play. The guy I liked to watch was Phil Ford, who was a fantastic point guard. I still have their starting line up memorized. They were good for four or five years there. I didn't like the Chiefs, both because they weren't very good and because I'd become a fanatical Vikings fan when I was in Minnesota. Basically I stopped caring about the NBA when the Kings left for Sacramento. I don't know if I've watched a complete NBA game since the early ¡®80s, asides from the ones that I've attended.

BB: Were you interesting in baseball writing when you were young?

Neyer: No, I don't think so. I don't think I was ever that focused on what I wanted to do. I was a voracious reader as a child, in addition to playing sports and watching as much bad TV as I could fit in. I read a lot, and I think anybody who reads entertains some fantasies about writing some day, but it was never something I was really focused on doing. I didn't read books about sports, really. I mean I read a couple of kids' books. One of my favorites was "Strange But True Baseball Stories"; I must have read that one a dozen times. And I remember reading a book about Phil Rizzuto when I was in the fourth grade or fifth grade. It was in the school library. God knows why; this would have been 25 years after his heyday, but there it was. I actually tended to read more science fiction novels and spy novels than anything. I read stuff like Bradbury, Asimov. Yeah, all the robot stories. And I read a lot of military history. Even in the fifth grade, I was reading giant books about stuff like submarine warfare in World War II. So I was a voracious reader, but there really that many sports books, at least that I had around. So no, being a sports writer is nothing I ever really thought about. I never had any idea what I would do one day.

BB: How did you then get your start in baseball writing?

Neyer: Well, it happened all of a sudden when I got a job with Bill James. When I went to college--this was in the fall of ¡®84--I was a huge Royals fan already, because they had been good. I think it's a lot easier to become a fan if your team is good. Which is why, parenthetically, that I think it's good for baseball that the same teams don't win every year. Because I think you end up with more baseball fans in the long run. Anyway, I went to college at Kansas, which is about half an hour from Kansas City. I went to KU for four years, and was essentially a wash out as a college student. Especially the last couple of years. I quit before I got my degree, and I think I would have probably gotten kicked out if I hadn't quit. I got a job working as a roofer and had that job for exactly nine months. And then I heard that Bill James, who happened to live a half an hour away from me, was looking for a research assistant, and I applied for job. I have no idea why Bill hired me, but he did.

BB: Were you already familiar with his work?

Neyer: Yes. I meant to say that before. When I was a freshman in college in 1984, the Royals were improbably involved in a pennant race even though they were a pretty average team. I was completely caught up in it, and hungry for anything baseball-related that I could find. I was in the university bookstore one afternoon, and I ran across this book, "The Bill James Baseball Abstract." I had never seen it before. I was fascinated by it, so I picked it up and brought it home, and I probably devoured it in one sitting. From that point, I was obsessed with Bill's stuff, and went out and got the books as soon as they came in. Every spring I would haunt the bookstore, literally every day from March 1st until it came out. Is the Abstract here, is the Abstract here yet? That is not a unique experience. I've talked to many people over the years who did exactly the same thing every spring. I just happened to be lucky enough to live not far from where Bill lived.

BB: Did you entertain fantasies of working for him when you found out he was a local?

Neyer: I do think I entertained fantasies of working for him one day. I think you almost had to. You had to think that if you're young, Well, maybe this guy is looking for somebody to help him. It was a dream job, but I didn't consider it a realistic option. It never would have occurred to me to actually approach Bill and ask him for a job. I even had a chance to meet him a couple of years before he hired me. A bunch of members of this group called Project Scoresheet, which was sort of a precursor to Stats and other organizations, we went out to a Royals game, and I sat next to Bill, but I didn't really talk to him too much. I was too intimidated. There are people in the world who will identify what they want out of life, and they'll go get it. And that's just never been my personality. I have always waited for things to happen, and I've been incredibly fortunate, where they just have. For example, an agent e-mailed me one time, and said, "Have you ever thought about writing a book?" Well of course I had but I had never done anything about it. Once I had an agent, I thought, "Well, I should probably try to do this." It was the same thing with the Bill James. A mutual friend of ours came to me and said, "Hey did you know Bill is looking for an assistant?" And I said no, I didn't know that. He said, "He should send him a letter and apply for the job." I sent Bill a letter, and we met for an interview and he hired me almost immediately. I've been very lucky in my life. A lot of things have happened to me that...welI, sure I helped a little bit, but for the most part I was lucky to be around where I was.

BB: You mentioned being intimidated by James when you first sat next to him at a ballgame, what was your impression of him when you interviewed for the job?

Neyer: I don't think I was all that intimidated by him, because it just seemed like a goof. Why on earth would Bill want to hire me? I think once he agreed to see me for an interview, I wasn't so intimidated any more. Bill is, for the most part, is the person that you'd expect him to be if you've read his writing. I remember where we were, were we ate, but I don't remember much else about the interview itself. The only thing I remember about the interview, literally, is that Bill asked me what my favorite baseball books were. And it wasn't hard to answer that question. I already had a list in my head. And they happened to be a lot of the books he had listed in his baseball books as his favorites. I believe I told him, "Your stuff, of course. But after the Baseball Abstracts, my favorites are probably 'Nice Guys Finish Last', 'The Glory of Their Times', and 'Ball Four.'" I didn't do that on purpose, it's just the way it worked. Oh, the other thing I remember is that Bill asked me for a college transcript, and I told him I'd get one, though I really didn't have any intention of doing that because my grades had been absolutely terrible from my sophomore year onward. Anyway, I got a phone call from Bill a week or two later, and he said he wanted to hire me. That was probably the best moment of my life up to that point. This would have been in December of '88. I went to work for Bill on January 2nd, 1989.

BB: What did you do as his assistant?

Neyer: I did a lot of everything. I did everything from ordering books for his library to baby sitting his kids from time to time, which I really enjoyed because I love kids in general, and Bill's kids were great. I paid the bills. Most of my work revolved around writing the Biographical Encyclopedia for Bill's Baseball Book, a book he did for three years from '90 to '92. I was fortunate to do a lot of writing on those. That was really the stuff I enjoyed.

BB: How long did you work for James before he encouraged you to write?

Neyer: I think from the very beginning he encouraged me to write. I have a fair amount of stuff in the first Baseball book, which he started working on three or four months after I started working for him. I would say that my initial efforts were pretty piss poor. I still have a memo someplace that Bill left on my desk one day, critiquing something I had written about Bill Almon, a shortstop of the 1970s and ¡®80s. It was a harsh, but useful and appropriate, lesson in writing. It pointed out obvious things like Don't write in the passive voice; People Don't have things done to the them, they do things. Some of that stuff was hard to take because Bill can be brusque. Especially when he's the middle of writing a book. But they helped. That's not to say that I learned all of those lessons immediately, but they did sink in eventually. And I think by the time I left Bill, after four years, I was ready--or at least more ready than I'd been--- to go out on my own.

BB: So you really got your degree at Bill James University. He was your mentor and your editor.

Neyer: That's exactly right. Bill is an amazing editor. I've seen him mark up things that I have written, but also things that other people have written, things that were submitted for him to publish in his books, and he's really amazing. He could have been a brilliant editor at a magazine or a publishing house.

BB: When you were working with James, did you guys go to a lot of ballgames together?

Neyer: You know, we didn't get to that many games. We went to some games. I remember one game in particular, with Tommy John beating the Royals for his last major-league victory. We probably went to half a dozen games a year, at the most. For three of the four years I worked for Bill, we didn't live in the same town, we both lived about an hour from the ballpark, and Bill had a family. And from the middle of the summer on, we were always working on the next book.

BB: And the manuscripts were due when, in December?

Neyer: That's right. The Biographical Encyclopedia stuff, we could work on that at anytime. But once we got under the heavy book crunch, we didn't do anything else. Bill's schedule would get crazy and it would consume his life, so we didn't get to as many games as I wish we would have, in retrospect. But I did see a number of games with Bill and that was always a great experience.

BB: Where did you go after you left?

Neyer: After four years I felt it was time to go. The job was still good, I just felt like I filled that apprenticeship as long as I should have, maybe longer, and it was somebody else's turn to have that opportunity. We parted on really good terms. I did some free-lancing for about nine months and was a terrible free-lance writer. Just awful. To be a good free-lance writer you have to be able to go out and get work. Unless you are established and people come to you. But I wasn't at that point yet. I am better at it now than I was ten years ago, but if I had to do that again, I'd still be a bad free-lance writer because I'm not good at making phone calls and getting people to hire me. The first few months weren't bad. But I had gotten a really good gig writing the backs of baseball cards. There was a set called the Conlon Collection. Basically, they were all photos that were taken by a guy named Charles Conlon in the first forty years of the 20th century. The Sporting News published these cards. I did a lot of research for the cards, and wrote the text for the backs. I like doing historical research anyway, so that was a lot of fun, and they paid really well. After that job ran out, I basically lived hand-to-mouth and check-to-check. I saw my tax return from that year the other day; I think I made something $8,000. This was in '93. I worked for Bill from '89 to '92. In '93 I freelanced, I made $8,000 bucks and I was reduced to buying food with my mom's Amaco credit card. It was pretty bad. Then I was fortunate, in that STATS, Inc. was looking to hire somebody to work on publications. They hired me. I believe my first day was November first or November second, 1993. And I worked there for about two and a half years.

BB: Did you put the book together, or were you a general editor?

Neyer: I did all that stuff. After the first year, I think my title was assistant director of publications, which was a lot more high-falutin as it sounds. Did a lot of writing for the various STATS books, all sports: basketball, football, baseball. I helped design some books, and did a lot of editing.

BB: Are you naturally inclined towards math and science?

Neyer: I was always good at math; I was never great at math. In junior high and in high school I was in the advanced math classes, but I wasn't a math star, or anything like that. I did better on the verbal sections of the standardize tests than I did on the math sections. The brutal truth is that like a lot of other things in my life, I didn't really have a passionate interest in things mathematical unless they were related to baseball. I dropped out of my Algebra 2 class in high school because it just didn't interest me. It was too theoretical. I wasn't very good at my physics class in high school, or college for that matter, because I wasn't able to apply it to anything that I really cared about. So no, I wasn't a math or science whiz by any means.

BB: One of the things I appreciate about your writing is that you make statistical formulas human. You aren't cold or clinical stylistically and that helps me grasp the information much more readily. You also appear to be as interested in the characters who play the game, as you are in the stats themselves.

Neyer: I think that that is certainly true for me. And Bill as well. I don't get this as much because I'm not as famous as Bill. So people don't feel quite as compelled to put a label on me, but there are a lot of people who think that all Bill cares about are numbers. That he's some geeky guy who sits around with a calculator all day. When the fact is that for the last decade plus, Bill has written a lot more about people and stories behind the numbers than the numbers themselves. It's characteristic of humans that we like to categorize things, to put labels on them and put them in a nice, neat box, because it makes life a lot easier. But if people do that with Bill, and to some extent with me, then I think they are going to get it wrong.

BB: When did you start working for ESPN?

Neyer: In March of '96. Back then it was called ESPNet SportsZone. The site was run and maintained by a company called Starwave, an independent company that had a business agreement with ESPN; basically we licensed the name. And used some of their talent to provide content, but essentially it was a completely independent operation.

BB: How many columns are you contracted to write weekly for ESPN?

Neyer: It's changed a little bit. When I first started I was doing one every day. And they were short. And then I started doing one every day, but longer. Then we cut back to four columns a week during the season, and during the off-season it was more like three columns a week. But it's not really set in stone. I could do three columns a week and maybe a chat a session, or maybe three columns a week and a special sidebar. Like I just wrote something, I took the "no" side of a debate on whether or not Rafael Palmeiro should be in the Hall of Fame. It wasn't a column, but could count (if I wanted it to) as one of my four columns for the week. I've got a contract and it's pretty open-ended. Basically we just trust each other. They trust me to put out a certain number of words every week, and I trust them not to load too much work on me.

BB: When you've finished a piece does it go to an editor before it is posted?

Neyer: Yeah, it does. When I initially started doing this stuff, back in '96, I had access to all the publishing tools and I would often publish my own column. But in the years since we've gravitated away from that, not really by any preference, just that I don't have the publishing tools on my computer any more. And I think it's a good idea to have it run by an editor anyway, because it keeps everybody from getting in trouble. I send my column off to an editor and it will be posted anywhere between a half and hour and three hours depending on how busy they are.

BB: Have you been tagged with the label as a Bill James clone?

Neyer: I don't think I really have. Partly because there is a certain distance between when I worked for Bill and when I worked for ESPN. Also because it wasn't that obvious to people. When I first did the column I didn't put at the bottom of the column, "Rob Neyer used to work for Bill James." You know there are people that do know I worked for Bill; I've written about it in every book that I've done for example. I've probably mentioned in the column a few times. And the fact is if people want to label me that way, I'm perfectly happy to be labeled that way. It wouldn't bother me at all. I treasure the association. And to an extent, I foster it. There is a quote from Bill on the first book I did, "Baseball Dynasties," and there is a quote from Bill on the book that just came out. If I wanted to get away from that I could, but I don't have any desire to let that go.

BB: What was the deal with your second book? The book about Fenway Park?

Neyer: I wrote an article about that experience on my webpage. In a nutshell, what happens was, I signed a contract with a major publishing house to write book about spending a year in Boston going to every Red Sox game. Which I did in the 2000 season. I lived in an incredibly over-priced apartment just three blocks away from Fenway, and went to all 81 home games; I think I went to 105 baseball games that season (including games in Seattle, New York, Miami, Chicago, and Kansas City). I submitted the manuscript. On time. And my editor at this publishing house just basically hated it. Wanted to have nothing to do with the thing. Which is obviously a pretty rough thing to have happen. Not only was there a level of embarrassment---I mean no author wants to submit a manuscript and have it rejected out of hand---but there was a big financial hit there. Because I was living that year as if I was going to get paid for the book I wrote. As it turned out, I ended up getting paid for half of what I should have gotten paid, and I owed the publishing house a significant portion of that money. To this day, I still haven't paid them back and I'm going to have to do that one of these days.

BB: Was the manuscript something radically different from what they expected?

Neyer: I think that was part of it. I don't know that they should have expected anything radically different. But one of the things I've tried to avoid doing is trying to get into the head of my editor. This was a very successful editor, who's edited many, many successful books. I don't know what he was expecting. Clearly he wasn't expecting what I sent him. But I'm not sure what he was expecting. I think that what I submitted was at least moderately close to what I had promised in my book proposal. But either it was far off from what he thought that was, or it just wasn't nearly as good as he expected. I don't really know. But the upshot was, he made some soft noises about trying to salvage the book. Basically rewrite the entire thing. I just found that impractical. And I got the impression from him, but more so from my agent, that they really weren't interested in rewrites, they just wanted to say that to assuage me a little bit. Maybe keep me from doing something like taking him to court, I don't know. So we took the book back and tried to sell it someplace else. We had some interest from a few editors but at that point it was too late to publish it that spring. But if you do a book in the 2000 season, what you want to do is publish the following season. There wasn't time to do that so the people who were interested in it wanted me to rewrite the proposal, and at least some of the book. Make it less focused on the 2000 season and a little bit more on the general Fenway experience. Then we could publish it in the spring of 2002. At that point I just wanted to get this thing out of my way. The publishing experience had been so distasteful. We did get an offer from a company called "iPublish," which was a division of Time/Warner. "iPublish," did e-books. They also published mine as a trade paperback for people who asked for it, and it's still available in both formats. There only as many copies as people order. Economically, you are not going to make a lot of money doing that, because people don't buy e-books. But my attitude toward that book is that I had fun working on it. I had a lot of fun going to all the games. I met some really good people when I was in Boston. And there are some people who really like the book. Today, I don't know how good it is. But there are people who like the book, and I'm not going to tell them that they shouldn't like the book. I learned a lot important things in the process, so I wouldn't call that book a success, in a lot of ways I'm glad that I wrote it.

BB: Were you a Red Sox fan before you went up there?

Neyer: No, not at all.

BB: Were you a Red Sox hater?

Neyer: No, I wasn't a Red Sox hater either. Since I was ten I was a Royals fan and haven't cared about any other team. I have some small rooting interest in the Mariners because I've lived in the Pacific Northwest for a while now. For the most part, the Red Sox were just another team to me. I visited Boston and saw Fenway Park for the first time in the fall of '99. I just immediately fell in love with that ballpark. I was there for three games in a row against the Orioles, in September of '99. I loved it so much I tried to figure out a way to get back there, and writing a book about the park and the Red Sox was the only way I could figure out how to do that.

BB: Did you find yourself pulling for the Sox that year you watched them up close?

Neyer: Oh sure. Yeah, I became a huge fan of the Red Sox. Personally, it would have impossible for me not to become of fan of the Red Sox. I believed it would help the book if the Red Sox did well. If they had won the World Series, then next spring people would want to read about them, and boom: I have a book ready. But even beyond that, I couldn't help but get caught up in it. I made friends with Red Sox fans. You know, I was at the Park every night, and I'm surrounded by people who care so desperately, so passionately about what this team is going to do. That's what attracted to me to the project. It was the ballpark, yes, but it wasn't the ballpark in the sense of this building; it was the ballpark in the sense that when you're in this place you are surrounded by people who are so passionate about what's happening. That's what really struck me. I love going to games in Kansas City; I love going to games in Seattle, but the feeling from the people sitting around you is completely different in Boston than anyplace I've been, except for maybe Yankee Stadium. But just this notion, all around you, packed in so tightly, are all these people care so much about what's happening on the field. It's something I've never felt anywhere else.

BB: Did you make it down to Yankee Stadium that year?

Neyer: I did. I was there for one of the great games of the year. I think it was a Sunday night game: Pedro vs. Roger Clemens.

BB: The 2-1 game.

Neyer: The 2-1 game, that's exactly right. I wrote about it in the book.

BB: Yeah, I remember that fuggin game. Nixon, that som'bitch hit the homer off Clemens.

Neyer: Yup, you got it. That was an incredible experience. I went to a few Yankee-Red Sox games that year, and they were all great. The fans are just insane for those games, of course.

BB: What were your impressions of Yankee Stadium?

Neyer: I like Yankee Stadium. I don't like the building a lot. It's so big; the upper deck is so far from the field. I sat in the right field upper deck, way down the line, one game. I mean you couldn't hear the P.A. announcer. You couldn't see the players, they were so far away. By that point I had been to twenty or thirty games at Fenway Park, where basically every seat is close to the field, and it's a completely different experience. I'm not that thrilled with the building. I don't like all the blue of the walls and the black of the batter's eye. I have this prejudice that everything possible at a baseball stadium should be green. And Yankee Stadium doesn't really have any green accept for the playing surface. So I'm not a big fan of the Stadium. I do enjoy the passion of the fans. I do enjoy sitting there, and looking out on the field, and knowing that Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle played here. For that reason I think Yankee Stadium is a great place to watch a game. I don't like the physical plant, per se.

BB: It's funny because every place the Yankees play on the road, you'll hear a vocal contingency of Yankee fans. That never happens at Yankee Stadium. Okay it does a little for the Subway Series, but it doesn't happen unless the Red Sox are in town. If the Stadium is sold out, you know to expect 10-15,000 Boston fans to be in the house.

Neyer: Maybe this is not representative, but after a game at the Stadium with the Red Sox I was on the subway train. It was mostly Yankee fans but there were some Red Sox fans too. And there was a lot of back-and-forth going on. One of the wonderful experiences that a person can have as a baseball fan¡ªit was maybe my favorite memory from that entire season---was being in a subway car after a game and hearing the Red Sox and Yankee fans chanting back-and-forth. And there was no malice. It was all very good-natured. I was standing next to a Yankee fan, and he was having a great time. The Red Sox had won the game, but he wasn't at all upset. And I asked him about it. He said, "You know what? In the end, we'll win. So why should we let it bother us." That's the attitude Yankee fans should have: "You know what? We've been winning since 1920, and the Red Sox haven't. So we should have fun with it. Eventually we'll win anways."

BB: I always take the opposite approach. I worry that the Yankees have won so much, that eventually it will be the Red Sox turn. They have to win it sometime, I worry. Why not now?

Neyer: Well, they do have to win sometime, and it is going to happen. In our lifetime the Red Sox are going to win a World Series.

BB: I agree.

Neyer: But to me, as far as the Yankees are concerned, when you've been on top for so long, it's almost upon you to be a little bit magnanimous about this thing. To me, the Yankee fans should basically just humor the Red Sox fans.

BB: What drives me crazy about Yankee fans is that the downside of what has transpired over the past decade is the sense of entitlement they have about winning. As if the Yankees have corned the market on winning, which is nonsense.

Neyer: Right, exactly. You hear about this all the time with Yankee fans. Yankee fans think that Thurman Munson, and Don Mattingly, and Goose Gossage should all be in the Hall of Fame. Now I think Gossage should be in the Hall of Fame, but the other guys, I'm a bit iffy about. I tended to paint Yankee fans with the same brush, but I've met some very nice and very magnanimous Yankee fans who feel very lucky to have their favorite team be greatest franchise in the history of sports. At least in this country.

BB: Hell, you are talking to one of them. It's what makes me focus on appreciating what we've got, every day.

Neyer: That's right.

BB: I know I'm going to enjoy the season, regardless of whether they ultimately win it all or not. Sure it would be great if they could win another ring, but if they don't it won't necessary ruin the year for me.

Neyer: Baseball gives the fan the opportunity to be happy a number of times during the season. If you are a Cincinnati Bengals fan, you may only have the chance to be happy once or twice in a whole season. But if you're a fan of a truly bad baseball team, you have a chance to be happy 60 times a year. Now, if you are Yankee fan you have a chance to be happy 100 times a year, which is even better. If you win the World Series, then you are happy for the whole winter. Baseball is a marathon. You have all these games, and all these ups and downs, and it's like a soap opera and all that stuff. I think if you are lucky, you can take it day-by-day. For example, the Royals this year, got off to this amazing start. I've never been under the illusion that it's going to last, or that they are going to win 85 games and the division title or anything, but I've been able to enjoy it because you have to take every day as it comes. I've enjoyed every one of their wins this year whether they win the division or not.

Tomorrow Rob talks about pitch counts, Pedro Martinez, and Michael Lewis' hot new book, "Moneyball." Stay tuned...

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