25th anniversary: Rob Neyer writes a letter

Today marks a rather strange anniversary. For most of the baseball world, it doesn’t mean a thing. It had nothing to do with any game being played. (Who plays games in November anyway?) It wasn’t any transaction or front officer maneuvering.

It was one guy who was underemployed writing a letter to another guy who was self-employed. And they all lived happily ever after.

On Nov. 13, 1988, a young man who had just dropped out of college and didn’t know what to do with his life wrote a letter to a writer/thinker he admired, asking to be his research assistant.

The letter writer was Rob Neyer. The recipient was Bill James.

I’m assuming that most of you out there in reader-land recognize those names. Bill James is the biggest name in sabermetrics, and did more than any other person to popularize the new way of approaching the game that has become part of the mainstream in the 21st century. Rather fittingly, James has joined the mainstream, joining the Boston Red Sox front office about a decade ago.

Today’s anniversary, though, is more about Neyer. James had already made his mark 25 years ago, with his series of annual abstracts, and his Historical Abstract. But Neyer was the guy getting off the ground.

Much to his own surprise, James called Neyer up and offered him the job as research assistant. Neyer stayed on for the next four years, before moving on to become a freelance writer. By the late 1990s, he’d found his niche, writing five columns a week for ESPN.com.

Sitting behind this keyboard, I have no idea how many of you were paying attention to the burgeoning online sabermetric community back in those days. But if you were, you’ll remember that in those days before Twitter, before blogs caught on, before Moneyball, if you wanted sabermetrics on the web, there were two places you could go. There was this little site just starting to get attention called Baseball Prospectus. And there was this guy at ESPN named Rob Neyer. Given the size of the platform ESPN gave him, Neyer was the most public and prominent sabermetric writer working on a regular basis back then. Bill James is great, but he’d broken the wand years ago. Prospectus was, as noted just getting started.

I remember that ESPN even gave Neyer his own message board wherw statheads like me could congregate. I spent plenty of time at the late, great Rob Neyer Message Board posting under the name clespider99.

Neyer’s central role gradually diminished. Prospectus took off (helped by Neyer giving it some attention). Generation Blog got going. Baseball Think Factory arose as a central watering hole for sabermetrics. Oh, yeah—The Hardball Times showed up, and so did FanGraphs and various other sites. Neyer still churned away, his series of columns changing into blog postings at ESPN. Eventually, he and the four-letter parted ways, and Neyer now resides at SB Nation.

But Neyer’s trek all began with that letter to Bill James—a letter written 25 years ago today.

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  1. Richard Barbieri said...

    That’s pretty cool, Chris. I am—literally—writing this now because Neyer wrote that letter. I discovered him on ESPN, and that led to Prospectus and BBTF and (in time) my contributions to THT.

  2. Chris J. said...

    Rob M – can’t help you there. I just got this info from the book What Bill James Taught Me or What I Learned from Bill James or whatever its called.  A dozen people with brief bits on what they learned. Neyer looks up his letter & gives the date, which is how I have it.

    Ask him.  He might still have a copy of it.

  3. Dave Cornutt said...

    I was a regular reader of Neyer’s columns in the late ‘90s.  After James quit publishing the Abstracts, I had lost touch with the saber community.  Neyer got me interested in it again.

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