Rob Neyer and Baseball’s Blunderous Past

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“This is worse than a crime, it’s a blunder” – Charles M. de Talleyrand

I can remember it like it was yesterday…

Yelling at the tube like a blithering idiot, my head swiveling back and forth so hard I nearly pulled a Linda Blair. Hands in the air. Eyes rolled into the back of my head. Teeth gnashed…

“Ah, crap! He’s going to leave him in!!! Take the ball from him… Take the &@*& ball!!”

It’s so painfully obvious that the decision being made is going to have disastrous consequences; why the heck doesn’t the yahoo coming out of the dugout see it?!? Where’s the TV brick? Where’s something to kick?…

The place? Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS.
The event? Grady Little leaving Pedro Martinez in during the eighth.

With Bernie Williams on first, left-hitting Hideki Matsui coming up to bat, and Alan Embree all set to come in, Little leaves Pedro in, and, well…

Matsui lines a double into right, scoring Williams. Posada hits a bloop double to center, tying the game. The game goes into the 11th when Aaron Boone jacks one over the fence after he sized up the first knuckleball pitch thrown by Tim Wakefield. Game over, another blunder recorded.

Show of hands: how many of you were asking yourself, “Little, what were you thinking?!?”

At the time, it must have seemed like one more blunder in a long list of blunders that had rolled down the pike for the Red Sox. At least 2004 made up for a portion of them, maybe all of them, maybe not.

Rob Neyer has spent a good deal of time looking into the “blunder” and has a book coming out on some of the biggest ones in the history of the game. Little’s blunder gets no more or no less play than a host of others in the book, and, for Red Sox fans, maybe that will make the sting of that one a little less painful. As the Swedish proverb goes, “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.” Yeah, but on occasion, sitting in sorrow thinking about others in sorrow can take the edge off for a bit, know what I mean?

Maybe it’s our fascination with the crash and burn that makes Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders: A Complete Guide to the Worst Decisions and Stupidest Moments in Baseball History such fun to read. Maybe it’s that sick feeling we get in the pit of our stomach when we remember some of them happening. Or maybe it’s that comical sense of hindsight where some of the blunderous decisions become so painfully obvious that will draw many to Neyer’s Blunders.

With the book getting ready to be released (the official publication date is May 2, but stores can begin selling the book on April 11), it seemed it might be more interesting to ask Rob about the book than write a review of it. Since the journey of book writing seems to lead many to wisdom (clearly then, I need to get started on writing one, and don’t stop going through the exercise until I drop dead), Rob’s responses make understanding the book process which, let’s face it, is more enjoyable than me blathering on about whether the book is good or not, a better read.

It’s a Neyer book. If you liked the Big Book of Baseball Lineups, you’re more than likely going to like this one just as much, maybe more. Rob and I sat down over beverages one day and came up with doing this as an interview. Here’s what he had to say…

Brown: How did you come up with the concept for the book?

Neyer: When I came up with the title for Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups—not the idea, because it wasn’t my idea—I assumed that if the book was commercially successful, it would make some sense to do other “Big Books.” To “brand” the idea (as people who wear suits would say). I don’t remember if I actually gave any thought to what those might be, but certainly by 2004 I was working on some ideas. I eventually came up with three: blunders, and two others that I can’t talk about quite yet (because I’m not sure which of the other two I’m doing first).

“Blunders,” I think, was inspired by those shows on the History Channel about military blunders. Now, in the grand scheme of things it’s pretty silly to suggest that John McNamara falling asleep in 1986 was as important as the U.S. Navy falling asleep in 1941. But I don’t write about the momentous events in recorded human history. I write about a silly boy’s game, and within that context I figured it would be fun to write about the silly decisions that have changed the course of the game’s history.

Brown: What did you use as the criteria for a “blunder”?

Neyer: I had fairly rigid criteria in my head when I started. The “perfect” blunder would satisfy three conditions. One: it was premeditated. Two: it could have been avoided with a bit of intelligent analysis. Three: it resulted in some serious negative consequence.

In the event, though, I didn’t stick to those with any great consistency. Every blunder in the book was premeditated, which is why there’s not a chapter about Merkle’s Boner or any of the many lousy pitches that have been thrown over the years. But there are a few “blunders” that really were perfectly reasonable at the time (selling Babe Ruth), and there are a few that weren’t reasonable, but wound up not hurting anybody all that much (letting Carl Hubbell get away). If a particular blunder didn’t meet all three criteria but seemed interesting enough to write about anyway, then I wrote about it. If you want to send the Blunders Police after me, go ahead…

Brown: How did you determine what did and didn’t make the cut?

Neyer: There were some blunders that I had to write about, because if I didn’t that’s all anybody would talk about. But aside from those, I just chose the ones that seemed like they’d be fun to research and write about. And the ones that I could convince others to write about (for instance, Collusions I, II, and III, which I convinced some guy named Maury to write about). I’m sure that I missed some obvious blunders, but I’ll say this . . . I asked about a dozen crazy-knowledgeable fans to suggest blunders, and I wrote every suggestion down in my little book of quotes and ideas and whatnot. So, if nothing else, at least I can claim I did my due diligence.

Brown: Well, there’s a blunder; using me for the book. Apologies if you take a hit in sales. Which blunder came to mind as a “can’t miss”?

Neyer: Well, when I got this idea, the first blunder that popped into my head was McNamara not replacing Buckner in Game 6 of the ’86 World Series. But what made it interesting, for me at least, was that the biggest blunder was not leaving Buckner in the field for the ninth inning. The biggest blunder came earlier in the game (but I’ll save specifics for when you actually get the book).

Brown: On Frazee’s sale of Ruth to the Yankees…How comical was it to read how bad the deal was going to be for the Yankees in the two excerpts you use from the 1920 Reach Guide?

Neyer: It’s easy, and I suppose fair, to second-guess Red Sox owner Harry Frazee. The move certainly didn’t work out. But when you read the contemporary accounts…there were a great number of writers, both in Boston and elsewhere, who thought Ruth wasn’t worth the trouble. He occasionally jumped the team, he said he wouldn’t play in 1920 if Frazee didn’t tear up his old contract…and Frazee got an immense amount of money from the Yankees. In fact, I don’t know if I’d have written this up as a “blunder” if I hadn’t found a lot of stuff that most people don’t know about.

Brown: Why do you think the Mariners went for Maury Wills as Manager? Pure name recognition?

Neyer: That’s hard to say. Wills certainly was articulate and intelligent, and he’d written an entire book about what he would do, if he were a major league manager. And supposedly Wills had been offered the job as Giants manager a few years earlier, but turned it down because the Giants were offering just a one-year contract (which, as things turned out, was smart of them). But Wills was just a complete mess, both professionally and personally. As I say in the book, he might have been the worst manager ever.

Brown: As a fan of Finley, it’s interesting to read about the owners ignoring his statement that the owners should have made all players free agents after the Seitz ruling. Was it the orange baseballs, the white uniforms, or Finley’s way of simply pissing everyone off in the room that saved Marvin Miller?

Neyer: Maybe that was part of it. But I think what really motivated the owners was a simple unwillingness to give the players any more freedom than absolutely necessary. Yes, it might have been in the owners’ financial self-interest to make the players free agents every year (multi-year contracts notwithstanding). But in case you haven’t noticed, the owners do things every day that aren’t in their financial self-interest.

Brown: Learn anything new doing the book?

Neyer: Oh, sure. As most authors will tell you, if you write books expecting to make good money you’ll quickly be disillusioned. And the psychic income is nice, but the ego gratification decreases with each new book. I write books because I know I’ll learn from more writing one book than I would from reading 20. Not because my books are so educational. But because I get so immersed in the research and the writing that a fair amount of it actually sticks to my brain.

Brown: What’s the biggest blunder in the book? The #1?

Neyer: Gosh, that’s hard to say. Most of the worst player deals—the Red Sox selling Babe Ruth, the Cubs trading Lou Brock, the Reds trading Frank Robinson, the Cardinals trading Steve Carlton—actually didn’t look too bad at the time. I put all those in the book because I felt like I had to, but I wasn’t too rough on the men who made the deals. Maybe the biggest blunder in the book, at least regarding personnel, is not one trade but three. After the 1959 season, Bill Veeck made a series of deals that quite possibly cost the White Sox three pennants over the next eight seasons.

Brown: Do you think we all have someone inside that is attracted to the disaster of a blunder in baseball? The head slap as you’re watching it unfold?

Neyer: Of course. Because we figure if only we’d been in that spot, we’d have made the right decision. Is there a Red Sox fan alive who doesn’t think he’d have pulled Buckner? Is there a Devil Rays fan doesn’t think he’d have kept Bobby Abreu? It’s these obvious mistakes—even when they’re obvious only with the wisdom of hindsight—that make us think hey, we could do that job if only they’d give us a chance. Baseball’s version of Monday-morning quarterbacking.

Too, there’s just something more interesting about failures than successes. How do you second-guess a success?

Brown: Any blunders that you’ve ever committed you’d like to publish?

Neyer: [smirking] Not necessary; my blunders have already been published, for many years now, in book, magazine, and (especially) column form. Seriously, leaving aside my various mistakes and misbehavior relating to various lovely women (before I was married, I mean), maybe my biggest blunder was not learning Spanish when my brain was still pliable enough for such tasks. It’s pretty ridiculous for anybody who wants to be involved in baseball to pay as little attention in Spanish 101 as I did (though, in my defense, at that time I had no reason to think I would actually be a professional baseball writer someday).

References & Resources

  • Rob Neyer, Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders, 2006, Fireside, 320 pages (28 B&W photos throughout).

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