Rob Neyer Interview

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born in 1966. I grew up in the Midwest, mostly near Kansas City. Today I live in Portland, Oregon, with my wife and stepson, who’s almost 16.

Growing up, were you always a baseball fan? Who was your favorite player as a kid?

Gosh, that was a long time ago. My first memories of Major League Baseball are from 1973 or ’74. We lived in southwest Michigan, and my best friend Joel Proud must have been a White Sox fan, because I remember listening to the radio and hearing a great deal about Wilbur Wood and Richie Allen. But earlier we’d lived in Minnesota, and while I’d never become a Twins fan, at some point I did adopt Rod Carew as my favorite player, which lasted for a few years. When I was in the fifth or sixth grade, we had to make a photo collage on a silhouette of our head, and the dominant element in mine was a photo of Carew I snipped from Sports Illustrated.

Did you play? Were you any good?

I did play, and was not any good. During the summer, Joel and I played almost every day in the vacant lot next door to his house. I’ll never forget this as long as I live. We played “pitcher’s hand:” the batter would run the bases until the pitcher got the ball in his hand, but if you hit the ball to the street on the fly, it was an automatic home run. Joel hit a lot of home runs. I hit one. And my one was questionable. It might have just barely hit the pavement, or it might not have; Joel probably felt sorry for me, because he insisted that I’d hit a homer.

That was when I was eight or nine. Later, when I played in leagues, I did fairly well against weak competition until I decided I was a power hitter, after which my average plummeted and I got discouraged. I played the summer I turned 13, struck out to end the last game of the season, and didn’t play again for 28 years.

What’s your favorite team?

When I was in the fourth grade, my family moved to Raymore, Missouri, a few miles south of Kansas City. This was in the spring of ’76, and that fall the Royals won their first division title. I’ve been hooked ever since, though I have to admit that my passions have cooled somewhat over the years. Time and (especially) distance will do that, I guess.

When did you first become aware of sabermetrics and Bill James?

September 1984. I’d just started my freshman year at the University of Kansas, and the Royals were jammed up in a weird pennant race with the Angels and the Twins. This was the first time I’d been away from home, and I found myself even more obsessed with the Royals than usual. Didn’t have a TV, but I listened to the games on the radio every night. One Friday afternoon I was poking around in the university bookstore and happened across a book that looked sort of interesting: The Bill James Baseball Abstract. I bought it, took it home, and by end of the weekend I’d read every word.

How did you become Bill James’s assistant/intern? What were you doing prior to then?

Turned out I was not emotionally or intellectually equipped for college life. I did manage to hang around for four years, during which I somehow accumulated enough credits to be considered a junior. It ended badly when I didn’t bother showing up for finals in my last semester, having started a job roofing houses. That’s what I was still doing seven or eight months later when I got the word that Bill was looking to hire a research assistant; luckily for me, he lived about 30 miles away, and we had a mutual friend. Bill interviewed me, and a month or so later he called to hire me. That was a nice moment in my life, as previously I’d been blessed with little ambition and fewer prospects. To this day, I have no idea why Bill picked me.

What sort of things/projects did you do for him in that time? What books did he publish in the Neyer Era?

As I recall, the first thing I did for Bill was review the galleys of This Time Let’s Not Eat the Bones, the oddly named collection of Bill’s material from (mostly) the Abstract. Afterward, I assisted in the makings of all three editions of The Baseball Book (1990-1992) and the first edition of Bill’s Player Ratings Book. I also paid the bills, bought books for Bill’s library, indexed issues of Baseball America and The Sporting News, occasionally baby-sat Bill’s kids, and did anything else Bill asked me to do. I did a lot of research in the library, and a fair amount of writing, and Bill taught me some real good lessons about the latter.

Do you stay in contact with James? How often do you talk with him?

We talk three or four times every week, whenever I need a confidential Red Sox source to tell me what’s really happening in the front office. . . Not really. We talk only when I’m visiting Boston, every couple of years. We e-mail back and forth about stuff, particularly Kansas basketball during the winter. But he’s got a lot on his plate, and I try to avoid pestering him too much. I did e-mail him last week when Manny Ramirez hit a walk-off homer on Bill’s birthday.

You once wrote that prior to working for ESPN.com you were a freelance writer. What publications or places did you get published in?

I was the least successful freelance writer in the world. I got one big (for me) job, writing text for some of the baseball cards in the Conlon Collection. That kept me going for a few months. I also did a crummy job on some pre-season giveaway booklet—for Fram or Midas or something similarly automotive—and wrote some bios for STATS, Inc. that were never published. I also did some baseball research, and a little work for Bill on his Hall of Fame book. My freelance “career” lasted for 10 months, and I think I made something like $8,000. At best. Those were some lean months, during which I was occasionally reduced to buying food at gas stations with my mom’s credit card. When I did that, I would drive 20 miles from town, to avoid running into somebody who knew me. None of my friends knew I was destitute, and a lot of my meals were made with pancake mix I swiped from my roommate (by the way, I owe a very belated thanks to John Cheffey).

How did you get hired by ESPN.com? How long have you been there now?

Well, you skipped a stop. Just before my poverty forced me to get a real job, STATS, Inc. hired me to work on various writing and publishing projects. This was in November of 1993. I moved to Chicago, and was there for two-and-a-half years. My boss, Don Zminda, was fantastic. But the hours were insane, the pay low, and the work often numbing. I won’t get into any details, as I’m now on good terms with my then-employer. But without blaming anybody, or the job, I was not particularly happy at the time. So when an ex-STATS employee recommended me to Starwave—then running the site called ESPNet SportsZone—I jumped at the chance to interview for a job.

They made me an offer, and I jumped. My first day was March 15, 1996.

How many of your pieces for ESPN.com are available in its archives?

It looks like the archives go back to the beginning of 2000, which actually surprises me; I didn’t think that much was available. Everything before that, I think, exists in only one place: on paper in a few loose-leaf binders in my office. Honestly, though, I really don’t care whether any of it survives.

When you had to choose a head shot for your ESPN column, you gave them one with you wearing a red and black flannel shirt. For a while, for better or for worse, it was something of a signature for you. Why did you choose that photo? Did you ever think it would make that big an impact?

I didn’t think anybody would even notice, and anyway I didn’t “choose” anything. That was just a shirt that I happened to be wearing. See, our art director had been talking about taking a photo of me for a while, and finally one day I shaved and wore a decent shirt to work. He forgot to bring his camera. So I forgot about the whole thing. Then one day he did bring his camera, and we did the thing even though I was wearing a decidedly non-professional shirt. And thus a phenomenon was born.

It wasn’t actually flannel. It was just your basic cotton, with a flannel sort of look. Anyway, it’s been gone for a long time. We left it on the porch some years ago, and those guys who take clothes off your porch took it away. I just hope it found a good home.

What’s the angriest feedback you ever got from a column?

The angriest feedback probably came after a column I wrote about Derek Jeter’s defense, I believe in 2001. You always get a lot of e-mail when you write anything negative about the Yankees, so I wasn’t surprised by that reaction. But apparently somebody in the media picked up on the column (which, by the way, was loaded with facts). I believe Suzyn Waldman mentioned it on the air somewhere, and John Sterling and Michael Kay had me on their radio show. What I didn’t know is that the goal apparently was to embarrass me, as the two of them spent most of the time yelling at me. This was my first time on New York radio, and not particularly pleasant. Sterling was particularly nasty. I don’t want to get Kay in trouble or anything, but it’s been more than six years, so I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this . . . Sterling was so rude that Kay e-mailed me the next day to apologize for his partner. I’ve always considered him a mensch for doing that. He certainly didn’t have to.

As one of the most prominent sabermetric writers on there, how good are you at math?

I’ve got a solid aptitude, or so all the standardized tests used to say. But while I’ve been meaning to take a statistics class for a few years, until I actually do it, you’re not going to see me bragging about my ‘rithmetic.

You’ve written some books. Any personal favorites?

I’ve written three and co-written two (with another due next spring). I wouldn’t want to label one of them a “favorite,” because somebody reading this might wonder why my favorite and his favorite aren’t the same book. Anyway, when I look at my books I tend to see only the things I wish I’d done differently. For what it’s worth, the most popular book I’ve done is Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups (or as I call it, “the lineups book”). My favorite single thing in one of my books is the Charlie Brown entry in The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers.

How did you end up with top billing over Bill James in that book?

Bill simply thought Neyer/James sounded better than James/Neyer, and I certainly wasn’t going to disagree with him. At my suggestion, though, we listed Bill’s name before mine among the authors. Seemed fair to me.

Two of your most recent books have similar titles: “Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball __.” Are the Big Books your “thing” or did it just happen that way

I proposed the first one, with the lineups book, almost as a joke, expecting my editor to shoot down the idea. But he never said a thing, so that’s what we went with: Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups. It reminded me of a book I had when I was a kid, plus I figured if that one worked, we might be able to do other “Big Books.” And I’ve always liked series.

Are you working on a new book? If so, what’s it about? When should it be out?

Well, yeah: Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends. I think this will be the last Big Book, unless I do a revised Lineups at some point. Three books constitute a series, right? Anyway, the new book is full of baseball stories that might or might not be true, with the catch being that I actually check their veracity. But the book’s really not about fact-checking, or at least I hope it’s not about just that. It’s about memory, and myth-making, and the truths we might glean even from stories that seem to have little truth to them.

What are some of the most exciting achievements/studies in sabermetrics in the last few years?

The work being done by your colleagues with the PITCHf/x system, and with video analysis, is easily the most interesting work being done lately. Well, that and the various play-by-play-based fielding metrics. Publicly, at least. Really, the most exciting stuff is being done by the teams, except it’s exciting only to them because it’s all proprietary. Which is frustrating for the rest of us.

If you never met Bill James, what would you be doing with yourself nowadays?

Well, assuming that I’d eventually got my #### together, academically, I probably would be teaching English or history to teenagers, somewhere in Kansas or Missouri.

OK, now for my favorite part: STUPID STUFF! How old were you when you first got drunk?

I was 18, and at that time it was perfectly legal in Kansas. Coincidentally enough, that was also the first time I threw up, and the first time I had a hangover. Also the last time for quite a while.

Who was the first celebrity you had a crush on growing up?

I think Pam Dawber, in Mork & Mindy (she was Mindy). There was this particular TV guide cover that I saved for a long time. I guess I’ve always had a thing for girls with dark hair and bangs. (Also, my mom thinks I had a crush on Tracy Austin, though I don’t remember that.)

What’s your dream car?

The next-generation Prius that’s supposedly going to get 110 miles per gallon. With racing stripes.

What are, in your opinion, the five most overrated films you’ve ever seen?

Let’s see . . . I liked American Beauty the first time, but now I think it was wildly overrated and probably won’t fare well in future retellings. That’s one. Four more: Saving Private Ryan (has its moments, to be sure, but wasn’t even the best World War II movie in 1998), King Kong (technically brilliant, but overly indulgent), Field of Dreams (don’t get me started), and . . . Oh, I don’t know. Why don’t we award co-fifth place to Rocky and Ordinary People, both of which beat out brilliant Scorsese films for Best Picture Oscars (to be fair, Rocky’s quite good and I haven’t actually seen all of Ordinary People).

Favorite Warner Brothers cartoon character?

Gee, I don’t know. I think I liked the Roadrunner when I was a kid. My favorite cartoon characters are Stewie Griffin and Eric Cartman. It’s all about the id.

Junk food of choice?

Chocolate. Pringles potato chips. Peanut butter cookies. Parmesan-flavor Goldfish. Did I mention chocolate?

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