April 9, 2008

E-mailing With ... Rob Neyer

This blog has never been much for interviews, but I've been reconsidering that of late and if nothing else making an exception was an obvious move once Rob Neyer agreed to answer some questions via e-mail. As a follow-up to my review of Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends that ran yesterday in this space, one of my heroes and all-time favorite writers talks about his new book, the unique path that he took to ESPN.com, the world of online baseball writing, and his Minnesota connections. Enjoy ...

AG: The book's opening line is something that I've often said to people who complain about my blog being too critical of the Twins: "This book isn't for everybody. Seriously." Do you feel like the same thing that drives the style of your ESPN.com column and blog is also what makes you inclined to investigate the accuracy of baseball lore?

RN: Sure. At some point in my life I stopped believing anything. What does Billy Beane say? "In God we trust. All others must provide evidence." I feel sorry for my wife, because she's the only person--well, her and my readers, I guess--who get the full brunt of my skepticism.

AG: Maybe I've just gotten used to the attack-style "fisking" of articles and stories that populates blogs, but it seemed like your book was more skeptical than cynical and was a lot more about investigating than attacking.

RN: I'm not sure if I'm clear about this in the book, but I'm full of affection for the stories in the book and the men who tell them. I do believe that anything is fair game, but I also believe in treating a "story" somewhat differently than "analysis." Maybe I'm more sympathetic toward storytellers because I'm a lousy storyteller. Analysts, though? I believe they should be held to the highest of standards, because we don't ask them to entertain us; first we ask them to be right.

AG: In the foreword Bill James makes the observation that increased availability of information and a focus on accurary has robbed baseball stories of their intrigue. I tend to think that's true to an extent, but applies every bit as much to movie stars, musicians, politicians, and writers as it does to baseball. If someone today was as dominant as Babe Ruth or as spectacular an all-around player as Mickey Mantle, it still seems impossible that they'd be able to build up the same sort of aura around them.

RN: Yeah, I think that's right. One of the reasons there are so many stories about the old-timers is that there was so much we didn't know about them. About today's stars we know a lot, and some would argue too much. Fifty years ago, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds might well have been considered "characters"; today they're just perpetually adolescent jerks.

AG: After looking into the history and accuracy of so many stories, would you say that for the most part the cliche is right? If a story seems too good to be true it probably is?

RN: Yeah, definitely. Usually, when a story seems perfect it's because somebody did a lot of work, adding and rearranging details, inserting famous players, etc.

AG: I'm sure 99 percent of people would rather be telling these stories than fact-checking or debunking them. Do you feel differently or was it one of those "it's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it" things?

RN: More the latter than the former. I mean, we know that I enjoy poking a hole in conventional wisdom (who doesn't?). But I do love baseball stories, and this book simply gave me a decent excuse for collecting and studying them.

The other day I ran across this quote from Aristotle. The difference between history and poetry, he said, is that "one tells what has happened, the other the kind of things that can happen. And in fact that is why the writing of poetry is a more philosophical activity, and one to be taken more seriously, than the writing of history."

I'm not going to argue with Aristotle. Maybe poetry is more important--and most of the stories in the book do qualify as poetry--but I think there's a small place for history, too. And since I'm no poet, I'm happy to fill that small place when I can.

AG: Did investigating all of these stories shed any light on human nature and the way information originates and spreads?

RN: I would say that's one of the through-lines in the book. I'm not smart enough to put it all together, but someone reading the book from cover to cover will probably gain at least a few notions about memory and exaggeration, notions that certainly are applicable to anybody telling stories (i.e. not just baseball stories).

AG: One thing that amazed me was how many stories contained details that were clearly false. Jim Palmer tells a story about Mike Cuellar pitching against the Twins, where he says that the next three batters were Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, and Harmon Killebrew. Except that trio never batted in that order when Cuellar was in the league. Palmer also got the specific details of the inning in question wrong and there's no way that Cuellar could have thrown 135 pitches in that game, as he claimed.

The story was about Earl Weaver and pitch counts, so that was basically the whole point. In situations like that, do you think it's more about the limitations of memory or the temptation to punch up a story?

RN: Hard to say. One thing I wish I’d done better in the book is address this sort of question, whether implicitly or explicitly. But memories certainly are faulty, often within just a few years of the events in question. And players certainly do purposely change details to make the story more entertaining. Which, as I mention at the very end of the book, is exactly what we want them to do. So we can hardly fault them for it.

AG: Your "Big Book of Baseball ..." series now includes Lineups, Blunders, and Legends, so is there a fourth installment coming?

RN: Nothing is in the works. I'd like to revise, update, and expand the Lineups book at some point, but that would be in 2010 at the earliest. I have a couple of other books in mind. But at the moment, all my professional energies are devoted to being a better blogger before all you kids zip right past me (if you haven't already).

AG: OK, let's talk about your ESPN.com blog. As someone who works from home and writes every day, I'm always curious about this: What's your average day of work like?

RN: I have a regular job now! When I was writing columns--basically, the summer of 1996 through the winter of 2007--I didn't have any sort of real routine. Don't let anyone fool you: writing columns for a living is one of the easiest gigs around; I mean, assuming you've got the requisite discipline and talent. That's why so many columnists write books: they've got plenty of time on their hands and figure they should be doing something with their off days.

Blogging, though? It's like a real job. I get up early every morning and start scouring the Web looking for stuff I can use. And of course the process never really ends; I'm always worried about the guy who's smarter than me, more committed than me, funnier than me.

AG: On that subject, how has the dynamic of internet writing and baseball writing in general changed in the decade-plus that you've been at ESPN.com?

RN: Oh, I don't know. The big players on the Web are roughly what they were 10 years ago, and really we're not doing anything all that different than we did then, except now we're doing everything bigger. The big change is elsewhere. Ten years ago, the only independent site offering analysis was Baseball Prospectus, but now there are many others, and then of course you've got all the blogs. In a sense it's still the Wild West, and for every blog that gets gobbled up by a big player, five spring up to take its place. Seems like a great time to be a young, ambitious writer with time on your hands.

AG: Do you feel like you've created a monster in all the people like me who grew up reading your column and then sort of adopted your style as their own, and along the way removed much of the uniqueness from your work?

RN: That's flattering, but I didn't know I had a style anyone would want to adopt. If so, please be my guest.

AG: Who will the Baseball Writers Association of America vote in first, steroids-tainted players or online-based writers?

RN: You left out steroids-tainted writers. Anyway, Keith Law will make it next year.

AG: Having worked for James in the 1990s, does it seem surreal that he's become such a big celebrity and within that become sort of the buzzword for people looking to pick fights with sabermetrics? He was featured on 60 Minutes last week and not a week goes by where he's not included in some horrible newspaper column taking "people like Bill James" to task for some random thing.

RN: Not surreal, exactly. Partly because it's been a fairly gradual process over the last five years. Partly because once he went to work for the Red Sox, it seemed apparent to me that the Sox would finally win a World Series--though I didn't guess they would win two in four years--and that Bill's profile would grow as a result. I couldn't be happier for him, even while I wish he had more time for writing.

AG: While the 60 Minutes piece was certainly very complimentary, it bothered me that they essentially painted him as a mathematician without really getting into the thing that's made him who he is today, which is an extraordinary writing ability. He's certainly heavy on numbers, but the great writing is what drives the whole thing. It's like doing a story on Willie Mays and focusing on his home runs.

RN: Yeah, well, it's not easy to describe how well someone writes. I suspect that 60 Minutes has done segments over the years about Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, and I'll bet they had a tough time explaining what made them great writers.

AG: As a college dropout myself I'm fascinated by other non-graduates who go on to find success doing something they love. So while you'll probably cringe hearing this, you were one of the ways I rationalized my decision. I've written about my dropout-to-doing-something-I-love story several billion times here and I'm sure everyone is beyond sick of hearing it, but can you give me your version?

RN: There's not much to tell. My last semester was a disaster, and while I might have been able to salvage a couple of passing grades, it was clear that my college career was about to end, so I didn't even bother showing up for my finals, having already started a job roofing houses.

AG: What was it about college that didn't work for you? For me it was being forced to take biology labs and foreign languages as much as writing classes, even though it was clear to me that I wanted to write about sports since I can remember.

RN: Honestly, I don't know. Sometimes it was due to general apathy, which resulted in long stretches during which I skipped classes and didn't study. But there were other stretches during which I attended classes religiously, took notes copiously ... and still could barely survive. After my freshman year, my head just wasn't in the game. At all. I've sometimes wondered if I simply wasn't smart enough, but college isn't that hard, is it?

AG: I know you're a big Royals fan and until recently blogged about them on RobNeyer.com alongside Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus, but I remember you saying somewhere that Rod Carew was your favorite player at one point and I'm pretty sure you've made your Vikings fandom known before at ESPN.com. You lived in Minnesota for a brief time as a kid, right?

RN: My family moved to St. Paul when I was three, and later we lived in Mankato, Rochester, and Fargo before moving to Michigan when I was eight. So when it comes to sports, all my early childhood experiences were tied to the Minnesota teams. Aside from Carew, the Twins didn't stick with me. But as a kid I was obsessed with the Vikings, and to this day they're the only NFL team in which I have even the slightest of interest.

AG: True or false: You're a little bit scared to hang out too closely with the group of drunken idiots I'm typically with at the SABR conventions?

RN: It's not that I'm scared, precisely. I'm just worried that I won’t be able to keep up with you guys.

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Read my review of Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends here or buy the book on Amazon.com.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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