Ordinarily I would have a series preview in this space, but today I’ve got something much cooler in store. Rob Neyer is known to baseball fans everywhere as a long-time columnist at ESPN and author of several books. His latest is Rob Neyer’s Book of Baseball Legends, which we reviewed here in April.
I first met Rob at BlogWorld & New Media Expo last November, and we’ve been in touch off-and-on since then. Recently he was gracious enough to take time out of his busy schedule and chat with me about the book, baseball, and life in general…
Ducksnorts: I’m assuming that all the stories that ended up in the book were fascinating to research, but what were the most surprising in terms of what you found?
Neyer: Keeping in mind that all the research was completed six or seven months ago — and most of it well before that — I have to say no single story surprised me. What surprised me is just how few of the stories in the book are actually true. I didn’t have any particular preconceptions heading into the project, but I suppose if you’d pinned me down I’d have predicted that perhaps half the stories I researched would be true, or essentially true. But the actual number is far, far below half. And I’m not just talking about the piddly stuff, the “Joe Blow said he homered on Tuesday evening but it was actually Thursday morning” sort of stuff. I’m talking about players tell stories about important things, and finding that the stories simply don’t check out. Don’t come close to checking out.
Ducksnorts: What was the most challenging piece of research you had to do for the book, and why?
Neyer: There was nothing particularly challenging. A fair amount of my research simply involved looking stuff up on the Web. I also got daily logs for a number of players from the Hall of Fame. I suppose some might consider spending hours looking at microfilm a challenge, but I actually sort of enjoy that, and so I enjoyed my time in various libraries, particularly in Portland, Manhattan, and Brooklyn.
Ducksnorts: As you note in the preface, this book isn’t for everyone. How much resistance (if any) did you encounter while working on the project? If there was resistance, what kept you moving forward?
Neyer: Oh, there wasn’t any resistance at all, but that’s partly because I tend to keep to myself. While working on this book I talked to exactly one player… and I wasn’t asking him about a story he’d told. He was a major character in a story, and I wanted to confirm that he’d thrown a big curveball (he did). But I didn’t have any interest in calling people who’d told stories, and questioning their stories.
Ducksnorts: Shifting gears, what is the most significant way sabermetrics has affected baseball over the years?
Neyer: Oh wow, that’s a tough one… I’m sure I’m missing the obvious answer, but I think teams today are significantly better at valuing players — from minor-league prospects to free agents in their thirties — than they did 10 years ago, mostly because sabermetric tools allow teams to place a specific dollar value on everyone.
Ducksnorts: If you were commissioner for a day (and weren’t just a figurehead but had real power to act in the best interest of baseball), what would you do?
Neyer: I would outlaw the intentional walk. I would shorten the season by two weeks, by shortening the schedule to 154 games and scheduling five or six doubleheaders per team. I would — and this is something Bill James has been recommending for years — standardize and supply the bats. I would shorten the time between half-innings by 30 seconds. I would order the umpires to enforce the rules prohibiting fielders from blocking bases (including home plate) [Ed. note: This was days before Albert Pujols cleaned out Josh Bard]. I would do whatever I could to lower the number of pitching changes. Oh, and I would set a maximum decibel level for ballpark sound systems that would result in a great deal less noise than we hear now. (Yes, I know… Hey, you stupid kids! Get out of my yard!)
Ducksnorts: You live in a minor-league town. Talk about some of the differences in the fan experience at a minor-league game versus at a big-league game. What might either side learn from the other in terms of attracting and retaining fans?
Neyer: I don’t know that either side has anything to learn from the other, as MLB and Minor League Baseball both seem to set new attendance records every year. Plus, I live in Portland, which is the largest market in the minors but annually finishes among the bottom four or five in Pacific Coast League attendance. There are a great number of things I would do differently if I were in charge, but it’s hard to argue with their results.
Ducksnorts: The Royals and Padres both came into existence in 1969 and today face similar challenges as franchises that lack the resources of, say, the Red Sox or Yankees. The Royals enjoyed a fantastic run from 1975 to 1985, and I expect most of us know about Moneyball by now, but how do you think these small- and mid-market teams can position themselves to remain competitive and entice their communities to embrace them?
Neyer: Obviously it’s not easy, and the Yankees will always have their big edge. But look at the Mets and the Dodgers and (especially) the Mariners, all of whom have payrolls topping $100 million. When you have that much money you feel like you have to spend it, which often results in starting lineups that include guys like Juan Pierre and Jose Vidro, pitching rotations that include guys like Pedro Martinez and Carlos Silva. Actually, Pedro’s never actually in the rotation, which only proves the point. It’s only when the big payroll is married to rational decision-making that you see great success… But somewhat perversely, having a lot of money on hand doesn’t seem to encourage rational decision-making. At least not when it comes to money. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that for the foreseeable future, there’s no system reason for the Padres not being competitive (the Royals’ row is a bit tougher to hoe, as they’re in a tiny market with an old ballpark).
Ducksnorts: Bud Black or Danny Jackson?
Neyer: Oh, Bud Black for sure. I know Danny Jackson came up big in October in ’85, but Black beat the Angels down the stretch that fall in what seemed at the time like maybe the biggest game in franchise history. I’ll always love him for that. Also, I met him a few years ago and he was wonderfully gracious (which maybe shouldn’t matter to me, but does).
Ducksnorts: Who is your favorite player in the game today?
Neyer: Nobody comes to mind except Tim Wakefield — knuckleballer, basically my age — but I’ve been a fan for so long that I’ve come to take him for granted. Right now I enjoy watching Joakim Soria because he might be unique among the current closers (or at least the good ones). And because he’s a Royal, of course. I also tend to like players who read books, or write poetry, or play jazz guitar.
Ducksnorts: Which baseball writers have influenced you, and in what ways? How about non-baseball writers?
Neyer: When I was younger I wanted to be Bill James, and I’ll still occasionally read something of his, maybe from one of the old Abstracts, and rue my comparatively modest talents. I do think I’ve picked up some of his habits without even thinking about it. Otherwise, though? I don’t have the slightest idea. I’ve been a voracious reader since I was seven or eight years old, and I went through phases where I was heavily into World War II, and science fiction, and spy novels, and presidential politics, and of course baseball. For years I’ve been reading most everything in The New Yorker (exception the fiction, I’m sorry to say) and right now I’m in the middle of a book about John Coltrane. So what any of it’s done for me as a writer, I just don’t know.
Ducksnorts: This is obnoxious, but I’ll ask anyway because it’s something I struggle to answer and I’m always looking for inspiration: How do you explain to people who aren’t fans of baseball why you like the sport?
Neyer: I don’t get that question so much anymore, maybe because I’m married and I don’t go to many parties and most of my friends like baseball. But I used to get the question, and eventually I settled on something like this… I love baseball because it’s a beautiful thing to watch, and also because for seven or eight months every year it provides these daily doses of unscripted drama that you just can’t find anywhere else.
Ducksnorts: Nice. I think I may need to borrow that…
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Thanks again to Rob for taking the time to chat with us. Be sure to catch him at RobNeyer.com.