Interviews

Rob Neyer

If you're at all like the folks who visit Rob Neyer's website (www.robneyer.com), you might be wondering who the hell he is and where the hell he came from. (A lot of people must ask Rob those very questions because he addresses both in his FAQ.)

The short answer is, Rob is a baseball fan. A baseball fan who grew up in Kansas "Small Market" City, Missouri.

The long answer is he's a baseball fan who has been writing a daily column for ESPN.com for six years. A baseball fan who, nine months after dropping out of college, spent four years working with legendary baseball writer Bill James. A baseball fan who has written two books (Baseball Dynasties, in which he and coauthor Eddie Epstein ranked the fifteen best teams of all time, and Feeding the Green Monster, a fan's look at Fenway Park) with a third, his Big Book of Baseball Lineups, set to be published by Scribner in the spring of 2003. As for where Rob came from, let's just say that after he left KC, he spent some time in Seattle...and presently makes his home in the City of Roses.

But that doesn't tell you much about Rob Neyer the man. Or even about Rob Neyer the guy, because Rob is just a regular guy like the rest of us baseball fans. And being like us is what makes him so different. Because it makes his writing--whether it be in his column, in his books, or in interviews with volunteers like us--more personal. He writes about baseball the same way you or I would talk to a neighbor or somebody at work.

Neyer tells of Bill James offering him writing advice: "When you're writing about baseball, just imagine you're writing a letter to a friend. Be yourself." That's what you get from Rob, a friendly letter. No baloney, no sugar-coating, no holding back because he's afraid his comments might get him in trouble with the union or the owners or the boss. (Rob says ESPN doesn't care what he says, "as long as I'm careful what I say about us.")

Even before Rob and I traded "wuss" comments (e-male bonding at its electronic best), I realized that he was giving us a special interview. Straight-shooting? You bet. Serious but with a wry twist? Ditto. Even if you are not familiar with Rob's candor from his books or columns, you will clearly see his honesty and openness in this interview. He speaks his mind. With all the PR BS circling the world of sports these days, it's nice to know we have an outspoken baseball analyst of national prominence right here in town, someone who will cut through the nonsense and give us the facts the way a friend at the water cooler would.

Rob tells us he has made Portland his home because his wife is involved in a program at Oregon Health Science University. Let's hope she finds a long-term career there.

--Editor

History

OBC: Fenway is one of the last true neighborhood parks, and yet it is under constant pressure to expand or add luxury seating to promote sales. What do you think about adding seats above the Green Monster or making other changes to the park? Are we nearing the end of an era with Fenway?

Neyer: I don't have a big problem with adding seats above the Green Monster because one of the "problems" with Fenway is that it's so damn hard to get a ticket to a ball game. However, I do think we'll have lost something when it's no longer possible to smash a home run onto Lansdowne Street, or even over Lansdowne to the parking lot beyond. To the best of my knowledge, nobody yet has carried the parking lot and deposited a ball on the Mass Pike. To tell you the truth, I'd be more bothered if the Green Monster became plastered with advertising. Bottom line, Fenway Park is one hell of a cash cow, just because the Sox can (and do) charge huge prices for tickets. Whatever else they do is just gravy, revenuewise, so it's hard to justify altering the ballpark for economic reasons.

OBC: In 1946, the owners of the Yankees and BoSox nearly traded Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. What do you think the impact on both players might have been if this trade had ever taken place?

Neyer: I think the possibility of this actually happening has been vastly overstated. But even if it had happened, what difference would it really have made in the standings? The Yankees still would have won a ton of pennants in the 1950s, and the Red Sox still wouldn't have.

OBC: But what would have happened to the careers of Williams and DiMaggio? With Yankee Stadium's short right field porch and the Green Monster beckoning Joe D, wouldn't they have hit a hundred more homers each? How would our perception of them have changed? Would DiMaggio have become a gloomy, bitter, friendless SOB--instead of the nice guy he was--if he never won a single World Series? Would Williams have saved a lot of spit playing in New York? And would Marilyn Monroe's son be creepy enough to want either his mom or dad frozen?

Neyer: A hundred homers more? Nah, I doubt it. That's 20 more per season for DiMaggio, and he simply wasn't the same player after the war that he'd been before. As for Williams, he'd have hit more home runs playing half his games in Yankee Stadium, but I strongly doubt if such a move would have helped his overall numbers. Fenway was a GREAT hitter's park back then, even for left-handed hitters. Check out Williams's career home and road stats sometime. Bottom line, they'd both be icons if the trade had happened, though I suppose DiMaggio's star would be a bit dimmer because he'd be three or four World Championships shorter.

OBC: Now that Ted Williams has passed away, who is the greatest living player?

Neyer: I think the answer is Willie Mays, and I think the answer has been Willie Mays for quite a long time.

OBC: So you think Mays was better than Williams? Why? Because Williams was primarily an offensive player and Mays was a genuine five-tool player?

Neyer: That, but also because Mays was significantly more durable than Williams. One of the things that nobody ever talks about is Williams's inability to stay in the lineup; after 1951, he never played even 140 games in any single season.

OBC: From a historical standpoint, who's the greatest player that nobody knows about?

Neyer: Hmmm... I don't think there's a single good answer, or if there is I don't know what it is. There are a lot of great players who haven't got their due for one reason or another. Arky Vaughan, maybe? Bill James rates him as the second greatest shortstop ever, behind only Honus Wagner.

OBC: Arky Vaughan? Never heard of him! Second behind Honus? Don't you mean third behind Honus and Oz? Or are you considering offense in your assessment?

Neyer: I'm considering everything. And Vaughan is number two, or maybe number three behind Alex Rodriguez.



The dynamics of the game

OBC: Although the DH has been around for over 30 years now, many fans still hate it. Since it was conceived during the era of low scores and dominating pitching, has it become something of an anachronism (not to mention an abomination) in this era of juiced balls and juiced players? Is it time for the DH to go the way of the spitball?

Neyer: I've been a fan of the DH for a long time, probably because I grew up with it. (I became a fan of MLB after moving to Kansas City in the mid-70s.) But it wouldn't bother me at all if the DH were to go when Edgar Martinez does.

OBC: Has steroid usage tainted the game for fans and baseball historians? How will history look on the records (mostly batting) set during this era of performance-enhancing drug abuse?

Neyer: I don't think history, or at least popular history, will pay much attention to steroids. With rare exceptions, history forgets most everything but the numbers. I mean, does history remember that Roger Maris faced two expansion teams (in fairness, he didn't actually do that well against the Angels or Senators) or that he wasn't intentionally walked even once all season, because Mantle was next in the lineup? All statistics are, in some sense, products of their times. And steroids just happen to be one of the conditions of this particular time.

OBC: What do you think of the rate at which baseball records have been falling lately? Maris's single-season home run record lasted almost forty years, but McGwire's only lasted three. Are other records we once thought unbreakable going to fall any time soon? Will anyone break .400 or hit in 57 straight games?

Neyer: I happen to think that the right man, playing half his games at Coors Field, could hit .400 or thereabouts. Problem is, the Rockies haven't been adept at finding too many of the right men in recent years. Helton's a great hitter, but he's not that great. As for DiMaggio's streak, if they play enough seasons, somebody will hit in 57 straight, but simply on a mathematical basis it's unlikely to happen while any of us are alive. The odds are truly daunting.

OBC: Whenever anyone talks about the "dilution of talent" in MLB, the discussion centers around "weak pitching." Why doesn't anyone ever talk about diluted hitting? If we raised the mound a few inches to where it used to be, eliminated the DH, called a larger strike zone, and cracked down on performance-enhancing drugs, would we still have an alleged "dilution" problem?

Neyer: "Dilution of talent" is a load of bullcrap, invented by crotchety old bastards who spend way too much time thinking about how great things were in the 1950s. Or the 1960s, or the 1970s, or even the 1980s, depending on when they were in high school. With all of the baseball that's now played in various countries besides this one, there's plenty of talent to go around.

OBC: "Besides this one"? Do you mean there is a much bigger pool of quality players to choose from now that these other countries also produce major league caliber player? Or are you also implying that we need Japan, Dominican Republic, and other countries to fill the gap left by Americans who are opting to play other sports?

Neyer: Both, I guess. While the population of this country has obviously grown, it's also obvious that the other sports siphon off a lot of the top athletic talent. My point is that the larger population of this country AND the popularity of baseball around the world means that there's plenty of talent to stock thirty (or more) Major League Baseball teams.



Business and economics

OBC: It's August already, and arbitrator Shyam Das has postponed delivering a ruling on contraction for a second time. What's he waiting for? The Expos to move into first place so he can cancel their season?

Neyer: I've been wondering about that. I mean, who's dumb enough to pay this guy's salary? When you hire an arbitrator, isn't he obligated to arbitrate in a timely manner? I keep meaning to get to the bottom of this, but I haven't started the endless round of phone calls yet.

OBC: Is contraction a ploy or not?

Contraction is a ploy. And it's not.

OBC: Whew! Thanks for clearing that up for us. So owners DO and DON'T want to eliminate teams, eh?

There really are plenty of owners who would happily jettison two teams--because that would make the national TV pie bigger and theoretically would give the owners a bit of leverage against the players. However, it is a ploy in the sense that most owners have to know that it's not really viable for various reasons. But they still hope that at least the threat will still give them some leverage against the players. And a lot of leverage against Minnesotans who don't want to spend half a billion bucks on a new park.

OBC: Yeah, isn't it funny that the one city that refused to buy its billionaire a new ballpark had its team volunteered for elimination? Also curious that this guy Pohlad was caught in several lies about moving the team, selling the team, and.... Well, that's probably all just coincidence.

Neyer: Right. Just like it's a coincidence that Cliff Floyd got cycled through the three teams involved in the Red Sox sale-fixing. But seriously folks, I hope that someday an investigative reporter gets to the bottom of Selig's many "indiscretions," because it'll make for one hell of an interesting book.

OBC: What is your opinion of the league managing the Expos? Are they purposely creating a situation whereby they can sell the team to the highest bidder, wherever he may reside? What do you think MLB's real plans are for the Expos?

Neyer: I'm a bit ashamed to say that I don't really have any idea what MLB is doing with the Expos. But I'm fairly certain it's not anything benign. A year from now, we'll all know what was in Selig's sick, twisted soul when he set up the current arrangement, but I suspect it has something to do with further enriching one of his buddies.

OBC: If there truly is an economic problem in baseball that makes it impossible for franchises to succeed in places like Montréal, would relocating these "struggling teams" to growing markets just shift the problem elsewhere?

Neyer: There's no reason that relocation couldn't work, if MLB does its homework. You put a team in northern New Jersey--not that it's going to happen--and people will show up every night at the ballpark.

OBC: We won't see the New Jersey Expos any time soon? Thank God for that! One thing we DON'T need is another New York team sucking up all the league's stars. But then again, that's part of the revenue disparity problem. Would revenue sharing or a salary cap/floor even the field between small- and large-market teams?

Neyer: They're never going to "even the field." The big-market owners all owe one debt or another to Selig, but they've got their limits. Revenue sharing and/or a salary cap could help, though, and that's good enough. The Yankees and Mets have always enjoyed an economic advantage, and they always will. It's a matter of degree. And I do think a salary floor is a good idea. Well, not a salary floor, per se. But every team that's guaranteed a certain amount of revenue should also be forced to spend a certain amount of that revenue on payroll, bonuses for draft picks, etc.

OBC: Throughout the history of baseball, owners have claimed to be on the verge of financial collapse, but no team has ever declared bankruptcy. Could we one day see a franchise fold?

Neyer: Yeah, I think it could happen. But the franchise won't fold, it'll just declare bankruptcy and continue operating while restructuring debt, just as companies do every day. I don't think MLB will allow a team to just STOP, because it would cause so many other problems.

OBC: But whenever someone declares bankruptcy, the federal bankruptcy judge takes a close look at the company or individual's assets. Do you think Bud and Krew would allow the world, through the eyes of the US Bankruptcy Court, to get a glimpse of even a single franchise's ledgers?

Neyer: Good question. One could argue that they'll do anything necessary to keep that from happening, and in fact Selig controls a substantial "discretionary fund" that's big enough to bail out virtually any team in serious financial straits.

OBC: A lot of fans believe a strike would be good for baseball--that it would clean house in a way that making little concessions over several negotiated labor agreements would not. Would a no-nonsense, extra-strength strike/lockout do more for baseball long-term than a band-aid compromise? Would it solve baseball's problems?

Neyer: What you consider problems, I might not. And vice versa. If you're asking about competitive balance, one, it's not nearly as much of a problem as Commissioner Bud would have us believe, and two, whatever agreement we end up with, that issue will be addressed. But the Yankees will still have a huge advantage.

OBC: Commissioner Bud would also have us believe he's done a good job while allegedly half the teams are about to go under and we're nearing another labor stoppage. What do you think Selig's legacy will be when he retires?

Neyer: If there's a serious labor war this year, Selig will someday be regarded as baseball's worst commissioner. If there's not, we might someday be inclined to cut him a little slack. I do think that once he's retired--or dead, whichever comes first (no, I'm not joking)--somebody's going to expose Selig for what he really is: a twisted man who has spent a decade telling Big Lies every day of his life.

OBC: What needs to change in the office of the commissioner to make it one that truly works "for the good of baseball" and not for the benefit of the owners? Or is such a thing even possible today?

Neyer: Not possible, not even really worth thinking about.

OBC: Why not?

Neyer: Because neither the owners nor the players really want an independent commissioner. The owners don't want one because they know they'd get taken out behind the woodshed and flogged for their misdeeds, and the players don't want one because... Well, why should they want anything other than what they've got now? They make many millions of dollars, and they never lose the labor wars.

OBC: We at the Oregon Baseball Campaign are planning to throw our considerable weight behind one of two candidates to be Bud's successor, but we need someone like you to help us decide which one is better: Conservative political columnist George Will or the brash governor in the pink tights and spandex. (Note: That's not Kitzhaber...as far as we know.)

Neyer: Honestly, this is one of the few baseball-related subjects in which I have virtually no opinion. Both Will and the brash governor would be tools of the owners, just like Selig. But if you're looking for someone with a reasonable public face, then I guess you'd have to go with Will.

OBC: Ugh! Never thought of it that way. All right, I guess we'll be pushing for pink spandex.

The City of Roses

OBC: Let's turn to the City of Roses. A number of Portlanders have expressed doubts about the commitment from the city's leaders and the community in general to do what needs to be done to bring MLB to Portland. What should proponents do to change the minds of those who can make this happen? And would enticing a billionaire owner to town by subsidizing construction of a new ballpark be a good idea?

Neyer: I'm generally opposed to taxpayers financing ballparks. And no, I'm not one of those people who think taxes are, by their very nature, a bad thing. In fact, I suppose I'm part of the tiny minority who think we're not taxed enough. I just don't think we have any business subsidizing businesses, like baseball teams, that are awash in money and do NOT add anything to the local economy.

OBC: When the Field of Schemes folks and other ballpark opponents mention that new ballparks don't add to the local economy, they are talking about replacing old ballparks with new ones for existing teams. But here in Portland, we're talking about putting in a new ballpark for a new team and keeping some of our local money from migrating 170 miles north. The Seattle Mariners have admitted that 10% of their season ticket holders come from Portland. If we had our own MLB team, don't you think we'd end up on the plus side of the equation? And if we had a National League team, we might even attract some of Seattle's money.

Neyer: Sure, it might be a plus. But a big plus? A plus big enough to justify spending a couple of hundred million dollars when funding for education is taking a big hit? I'm skeptical.

In the final analysis, bringing a baseball team to a city--at least a vibrant, growing city like Portland--is about selfishness. The selfishness of the owner who hopes to make a lot of money while becoming famous, the selfishness of the unions and the politicians, and the selfishness of the baseball fans who want to have their own team to cheer for.

The first and second of those disgust me; the third doesn't, but of course that's because I'm a baseball fan, and I'd enjoy having a team here. But to pretend otherwise is, in my humble opinion, fooling ourselves.


OBC: ESPN's SportsNation survey determined that Portland has the highest percentage of MLB fans in the nation among cities without a team, even more than several cities that do have teams. What does this say about Portland and baseball?

Neyer: My uneducated guess is that if ESPN had conducted the same poll three years ago, before the Mariners took the Northwest by storm, the figure would have been a hell of a lot lower. See, it takes more than interest; it takes deep interest, at least in most places. I'm sure that surveys in Tampa/St. Petersburg showed a lot of interest five years ago, but what did it really mean?

OBC: You're probably right about the Mariners' recent success having an effect on Portland's interest. But doesn't a 72% interest in baseball compared to a 26% interest in hockey say something about which sport Portland should pursue?

Neyer: Again, that poll is just a snapshot, as all polls are.

OBC: What do you think of PGE Park? Would it work as an interim stadium when MLB comes to Portland? Would 20,000 in a minor league park like PGE Park for a few years until an adequate new ballpark is built be better than 5000 in Olympic Stadium or 10,000 in Tropicana Field?

Neyer: Sure, there's no reason that PGE Park couldn't house a team for two or three years. A team here--and I sure hope they'd be called Beavers--would sell out every game at PGE, which would give them an attendance better than a few teams have now. Throw in high ticket prices and a good TV deal, and they could keep their heads above water while waiting for the new ballpark.

OBC: Many people oppose publicly funding a ballpark, but if there were a way to fund construction that would not use taxpayer money nor take funding away from schools or education, what should we watch out for?

Neyer: I think that when somebody promises to build a giant public work without any public help at all, you should keep your hand on your wallet. These things have a tendency to involve costs that the supporters somehow forget to tell you about when they're selling it.

OBC: Many people who moved to the Portland metro ten years ago liked Portland the way it was then and didn't want it to change. Unfortunately for those folks, the metro's population grew by 26% and now has more people than Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Kansas City. People who have moved here in the last year or so probably like the city the way it is now and don't want it to change either. But census estimates predict that within another ten years, Portland will have 3 million people, more than current MLB cities such as Pittsburgh, Tampa/St. Petersburg, and even St. Louis are projected to have. If the city is going to change and grow regardless of what nongrowth folks want, does it make sense for MLB, NHL, and NFL to ignore Portland as a destination for a second and third sports franchise?

Neyer: I'm one of those people who just moved here and don't want it to change! But of course, I know that's unrealistic; Seattle didn't magically stop growing when I moved there, either. I am, however, certainly one of those "nongrowth folks." (I sense a bit of disdain in your label, but nobody's yet been able to show me that the positives of growth outweigh the negatives). Your point is a good one, though. Portland's going to be a huge market in ten years--even if I'm not sure where all the people will fit--and it's silly to think that the big leagues aren't going to notice. I'll be surprised if the city doesn't have another franchise or two in the next decade.

OBC: Besides the great beer, what brought you to Portland, and how do you like the City of Roses so far?

Neyer: My wife just started a program at OHSU, and I have to go where she goes. I love Portland. It's a lot like Seattle, but better. I was just back there last weekend, and I realized that the only things I miss are Major League Baseball, Puget Sound, and a few friends. I wouldn't mind settling down here, and if "here" includes MLB someday, that'll be just fine with me...especially if I can take the MAX!