Q&A With Rob Neyer

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…

* * *
Thanks again to Rob for taking the time to chat with us. Be sure to catch him at RobNeyer.com.

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41 Responses »

  1. Great interview, Geoff. Neyer, as always, is down-to-earth and witty. I really enjoyed reading this.

    I especially liked Neyer’s comment about payrolls and rational decision-making.

  2. Loved his comment about why he loves the game. Makes complete and total sense.

  3. “I also tend to like players who read books, or write poetry, or play jazz guitar.” Is this an oblique Eric Show reference? There was a very nice article about Show in the paper recently. Interviewed a coupld of his former teammates and fellow pitchers, his sister, his wifre and his former coach at UCR. I always liked Show and found it sad he struggled with addiction and mental health issues after baseball.

  4. 1. Another good interview, and not just because I’m a huge Neyer fan.

    2. #3@Pat: Seems more likely to be a Miguel Batista and Bernie Williams reference. I can’t remember any Royals of the Glory Years who had artistic leanings.

    Something tells me that Chris Chambliss, the first man to make me cry over baseball, would be on Neyer’s “I have no rational reason for it but I hate this guy” list. Damn that man.

  5. I wonder what is unique about Joaquim Soria … that he’s a Rule 5 guy?

  6. #5@LynchMob:

    That, and he took a circuitous path (signed by the Dodgers in 2001, dropped by them in 2004, went to Mexico, signed by us in 2006, left unprotected from the Rule 5 while the likes of Craig Stansberry occupied roster spots). He also has a more varied arsenal than most closers, and could be a solid starting pitcher. The Royals might want to consider switching him and Bannister, although it would cause some fans to howl.

  7. GY … would you ever considering using this forum as a place to conduct a project to impact change in baseball (ie. if you/we were commish, what would we do?) … Neyer’s list is great … (‘cept I don’t mind intentional walks, the Johnny Bench in the World Series thing, for example) … but shortening the season, more DHs, standardizing the bats, less time between innings, enforcing the rules (ex. blocking plate) … those are all SOLID … and would seem worth some of our collective effort …

    But most of all, I like this suggestion …

    I would set a maximum decibel level for ballpark sound systems that would result in a great deal less noise than we hear now.

    … as there are MANY times when I’m at a ballpark and I can’t talk to my friends. This seems like something we could start with on a local level … letters from individuals to the Padres … based on actual incidents (ie. go to a game and note a moment when the decibel level was too high … and just let the Padres know … over and over. An idea for a middle-ground might be that the Padres include information on their web-site (or in a form letter they could use in reply to anyone voicing concern about the decibel level) information about the “hot spots” and “cold spots” in Petco … I’m sure there are places near speakers that much louder than other places … if I care enough to complain, then I’d care enough to let that be a factor in my ticket buying process … and if enough demand exists for “cold spots” (ie. lower decibel seats), then perhaps that would lead to a broader change.

  8. #7@LynchMob:

    The time factor seems to be something that hits committed baseball fans more than casual fans, and teams seem to feel that committed fans are going to stick with it no matter what. I wonder if the noise is similar. It’s bad even at minor league games, it’s like they think everyone suffers from ADD. But if their focus is on people who come to 3 – 5 games a year, rather than 45-81 (because those people are coming no matter what), then it would help explain the barrage of light and noise.

    I love the cold spot idea, I just don’t know enough about acoustics to venture an opinion of its practicality. Can you build a sound system that will blanket 80% of the ballpark but keep 20% quieter, and will that 20% zone still be a place you want to see a game from…i.e., not an armored bunker with limited sightlines?

  9. On JP-related news, the Brewers called up Russell The Muscle Branyan. Bill Hall doesn’t like it, but if you don’t like it, Bill, don’t hit .220 with a .292 OBP.

    Schlom brought up Kouzmanoff to the Brewers last week. There’s no way we get LaPorta, but if the Brewers are that down on Hall, we may have an opportunity to get some other valuable pieces.

  10. What does “JP-related news” mean?

  11. #4@Tom Waits: Well, it should be a Show reference. ;-)

  12. So, um, is the first year player draft today? Not a lot of hype around the draft this year, eh? Last year it was fun with Friberg’s and others’ projected picks.

  13. #12@Marsh: nevermind. June 5-6. Just getting a little jumpy, I guess…

  14. #10@LynchMob: JP and I had a wager on how many plate appearances Branyan would get for the rest of his career. At least that’s what I think the wager was.