Interviews

Rob Neyer

Rob Neyer walks in to the coffee shop on a drizzly off-season day in Portland's Westmoreland neighborhood. Clad in an Indianapolis Clowns jacket, Louisville Slugger T-shirt, jeans and open toed sandals, he blends in with his surroundings. Coffee and food are added to the mix and the recorder is turned on. It’s when the discussion starts that the baseball in the man comes out, and it becomes clear why he’s one of the most popular columnists on ESPN.com, and why his books are in demand.

The image of the baseball writer has changed. The days of the beat writer living and working with one team, teeth clenching the stogie with a pad and pencil are done.

Since the inception of the Internet, there has been an evolution in the writer as the dynamic of “on-demand” has permeated the collective sports world. Now, the baseball writer may cover all games by having a dish and computer at the ready. Stats have become common place, and the writing style has become a synergy of that beat-writer style with “stat speak” to back up the gut feelings that have ruled the grand game for more than a century.

Against that background, Rob Neyer has become one of the faces most associated with the change. He’s in a constant state of absorbing information, and while he does not answer to the label “100% Sabermetrician,” he does associate himself closely with Bill James, and sees the merits of backing up his opinions with the numbers.

His latest book, Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups : A Complete Guide to the Best, Worst, and Most Memorable Players to Ever Grace the Major Leagues, has been selling well, and proves that just because stats are a part of your lexicon, doesn’t mean you can’t write entertainingly about baseball. The book is great for the casual fan or the SABR member, and above all a blast to read.

We interviewed Rob in August of 2002 when the MLB to Portland effort was just starting to pick up, and he was just settling into his home in Portland. Recently, Rob and I sat down again over lunch and coffee, and out of that came the following interview.

Rob discusses the relocation process, what makes a “rookie of the year” a true rookie in the eyes of the voters, what will happen to Bud Selig once he ends this possible last agreement with baseball, the off-season comings and goings, and above all, how Portland fits in the process of acquiring a Major League Baseball franchise. - Maury Brown


Portland and relocation

OSC:Last time we interviewed you, you had pretty much just gotten settled in here in Portland. After spending some extra time here is the City a good fit for you?

Neyer: My wife and I are thrilled to be here. I’ve spent time in a number of great cities – Chicago, Boston, Seattle – but for me at least, Portland is the most livable city in which I’ve lived. The only thing that’s “missing” for me is Major League Baseball, but frankly that’s not really so important. I travel enough to see plenty of baseball games, and otherwise I can watch all the baseball I want on TV.

OSC: In some of our past conversations you’ve made mention that the Expos is “the story that seems to never end”. Is the capacity for the Expos to exist in this baseball purgatory limited to just the next year, or do you think that this will continue on and on?

Neyer: Well, I don’t think it’s going to go “on and on”. But I think that a person would have to be very naïve and/or optimistic to think that they’re only going to be there one more year.

I remember when Selig said that baseball was definitely going to contract, and when that sort of died out then everyone was saying that the Expos were going to be in Montreal for only one more season, for sure. But when these things happen enough, if you have half a brain you stop taking what you hear at face value, and you look at history instead.

OSC: Well, I think that if you look back on the situation, at the time, no one foresaw the League sticking so closely to “no conditional award”, and the stadium-funding component.

Neyer: No, I think that’s absolutely right. Nobody did. But I think the point is that nothing’s changed since then. Nobody’s been able to fund a ballpark, and they’re not going to move until somebody does, I don’t think.

I suppose it’s possible that they’ll eventually give up and say, ‘OK, take the team, we’ll just trust you to build a ballpark.” Or, “We’ll pay more than we said we would.’ But, I’m not going to believe it until I see it.

Will it shock me to see them in Montreal in 2005, or 2006? Absolutely not. It’s one of those things that, as you know, could literally change overnight. But, until it does, we have to assume they’re going to be in Montreal.

I think the reason it’s lasted as long as it has, is that the downside for the teams – the losses – are spread around to every team. So, it’s costing every team, what? A million bucks, or two million a season to keep the Expos. That’s a lot of money, granted. But for a billionaire, a couple million isn’t that much money. I think a lot of them are thinking to themselves, ‘If we do give in it may cost us a million dollars now, but down the line it might, theoretically, cost me $100 million when I want a new ballpark.’ So, I don’t know if they’re thinking about that rationally, but I think that’s one consideration.

OSC: Also since we spoke last, Portland’s filled in some of the stadium funding and is directly in the running for the relocation of the Expos. You made mention in one of your columns on ESPN.com, that if Portland were given the opportunity, and did a stadium that fit the attitude of the City, that there was a good chance that MLB would work here.

What kind of stadium would be a “Portland Stadium”? Is it a matter of moving beyond the “Camden Yards” model of brick façade, and retro nuovo and moving into something a bit different?

Neyer: I think either of those would work. I think that something totally different, something that nobody has ever seen before, would work here. But I don’t think [something totally different] is a realistic option. I think the architects and whoever is running the show are probably too conservative to try something “out there”. The architects are going to be very good at convincing whoever is in charge that, ‘Look, we have this model. It has worked in these other cities. You probably don’t want to mess with it.’ So while [something totally different] would work, I don’t think it would actually happen.

Using Camden Yards is good model in that, when you look at it, you see something that’s organic, or at least it seems organic. It belongs in the place where it’s at. And that’s not true of some of the other new ballparks. They have the retro look, but do they make any connection to the surrounding city, the cityscape? No, not much.

The buildings that always come to mind [in Portland] are all these old warehouses that have been turned into microbrews. I think that is pretty neat and they are fun places to go. So, I suspect whatever is built in Portland will have a lot of brick and it will look like a Portland building, which is what you want. You want it to look like a Portland building. And if it fits into the surrounding neighborhood, all the better.

You want something that says “You’re in Portland now.” That’s the key.

OSC: A lot of baseball insiders feel that the Expos in DC makes a lot of sense, but lately conditional award of the team has been added to the mix, Bobby Goldwater has resigned from the DC Sports Commission amidst cost overruns and Northern Virginia bid is in serious problems due to the political will and the fact that the key sites selected for stadium development are now off limits.

If a jurisdiction, such as Portland, comes up with what the East Coast markets cannot, is it time to consider other markets over a DC area bid?

Neyer: Yeah, I think so. I have said this before; I think that baseball wants to be [in DC] A) because it’s a huge market and B) to make a lot of politicians happy. At the same time I really think, as I said earlier, that if somebody can dangle a new stadium in front of MLB it would be too tempting. You know they’ll say, ‘We have this stadium here and we have these guys over here who have had five years and haven’t been able to do it. How much longer are we going to wait?’

And it isn’t like if you put a team in Portland or somewhere else that you’re locked out of Washington. If they ever get their act together you can still find a team [to go to DC].

You can expand, which I think is somewhere down the road, even though Baseball says it is not going to expand. I think it’s down the road at some point. Or you can move a team.

Granted, if you are going to move the A’s, for example, it makes more sense to move them to Portland since they are already sort of over here on this side of the country. It seems kind of crazy to move the Expos to Portland and the A’s to Washington, but you know, why not?

I don’t think moving the Expos to Portland precludes having a team in D.C. It just puts it off a little longer.

On the other hand, maybe that would cause D.C. to get their act together. If the Expos actually moved somewhere else they would say, ‘You know what, they’re not going to wait for us. We need to go ahead and build a ballpark.’

OSC: If Portland comes up with 100% of the stadium funding, and the Expos go somewhere else, how much of a chance does Portland have, realistically, of having a franchise move here, or an expansion team for that matter? Will we get a team or will we just be kind of like Tampa Bay was in the 90's (but without the stadium being completed), a pawn for other franchises to use in order to squeeze a new stadium out of their cities?

Neyer: I really think that, if Portland had ballpark funding, a team would take it. I really do. Probably the A’s, or some other team. I think that the lure of a new ballpark will be [too tempting].

I think it was a little different when St. Pete built the dome. Because that really wasn’t a very attractive place to go. And at that point, teams were actively discouraged from moving.

I don’t think that’s the case any more. I think MLB would like to have the upper hand they need to realistically threaten [other markets], and they don’t really have that unless a team actually moves.

Let’s say Portland had a new ballpark, and that’s a hammer that teams could use to get a new ballpark. But it would be at least as big a hammer to say “Look, if you don’t build us a new ballpark, we’ll move just like [they did to] Portland …eventually we’ll go too.” I think a new ballpark in Portland could be a hammer in both those ways.

I think someone would move here. I don’t think expansion is going to happen in the next five or six years, but I do think someone would move.

OSC: Did the extended travel imposed on the Expos last season by playing 22 games in San Juan wear them down to the point of missing the playoffs, or was it something related to the injuries that hit the team? Maybe a combination…?

Neyer: You could find eight or ten other teams that had similar records to the Expos on July 1st or August 1st and they faded just as badly as [the Expos] did. Did it help? No. Having those flights to Seattle from San Juan probably wasn’t a good thing, but I don’t think it was the deciding factor.

I just don’t think it was a good enough team. They had some good players, no question. It was a good team. It wasn’t a team that was going to win 90 games. I don’t think the pitching rotation was deep enough; the bullpen wasn’t that good and they didn’t have a good center fielder.

It was a good team, it wasn’t a great team, and I don’t think you can blame that on travel.

OSC: Vlad Guerreo is a free agent this season, and anyone that follows the game closely knows that he’s one heck of a player waiting to be picked up if given the chance. What’s your take on where he seems to be heading?

Neyer: I think Baltimore is a real possibility. I think it’s pretty clear from the noises coming out of Baltimore that they are going to go out there and get somebody big, whether that’s Tejada and/or Guerrero, those are the two big ones this winter. I’m still not convinced he won’t end up in New York. Because they might just say, ‘You know what, we’ll just pay $20 million a year. We don’t care.’ I don’t think it’s going to happen, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it did. I think Baltimore is the most likely destination.

If you look at the ten biggest contracts out there right now, I would be willing to bet that half of them the teams would rather not have. Giambi? Maybe. Jeter? Yes. If you lock Brian Cashman in a room and you get him to tell the truth, I think he would rather not pay Derek Jeter $18/$19 million bucks last year.

OSC: Who else? Rodriguez, you know the Rangers want out from under that one.

Manny Ramirez, you know the Red Sox want out from under that one as well. I don’t know who the other biggest ones are, but the problem is those big contracts, they leave you without flexibility. Another thing the teams are figuring out, aside from the fact that you shouldn’t pay good players great money, is that in this environment one of the best things you can have in an organization is payroll flexibility. And if you’re paying one of your players $16 million bucks a year, you don’t have that flexibility. Also you have this guy that you have to pay, and if anything happens to him, if his performance goes down or if he gets hurt, nobody else will take his contract. I’m not sure if having Guerrero adds as much value to the Expos as a lot of people think. In the short term it certainly does. But who knows when they get sold. Maybe they don’t get sold until three years from now. Then maybe not.

OSC: The Expos also have a gifted GM in Omar Minaya. What’s your take on him as a GM, and was it surprising that he didn’t take the GM position with the Mets given the fact that he has roots in NY?

Neyer: I think he has done a good job. You can’t argue with the success of that club. I think if he made a mistake, and you never know what the orders were from up high, if there were any, he really went out on a limb in 2002 when he traded all his prospects to the Indians for Bartolo Colon. Basically, the Indians restocked their farm system with Expos prospects. But you can argue that at the time they were in a pennant race and everyone assumed that was their last year there and they should go for it. I didn’t disagree with it then because I figured it might be their last year in Montreal. So why not give it a shot? It just didn’t work out.

I think that most people believe he is very good talent evaluator. I think it is pretty hard to argue with his success. Would I hire him for my team? Probably not. I have my own biases. But he is going to be a pretty good GM. I think that one way or another he will end up on his feet. If the Expos move and he doesn’t get the Expos job, wherever they go he’ll get a job somewhere else. You have a guy who is, basically, working for the commissioner for two years now, and who falls under the heading ‘Minority’, and who has been successful. So there’s almost no chance he won’t end up getting a job that he wants. I am sure he knows what he is doing.


Marlins, the Rookie of the Year, CBA and Bud Selig

OSC: The Marlins Experiment in using single season contracts seemed to have paid off. Now comes the fallout.

How much of this team can be retained for next season?

Neyer: I just read that if they were to keep the team together for next year it would cost them $90 million. Which is a lot. They would like to have a $60 million payroll, which frankly, is pretty reasonable given the ballpark and how many fans they draw. I think $60 million is a lot; it is in the top half. It is going to be more than a lot of teams in similar situations in terms of a ballpark and revenues.

The Marlins said they wanted to do everything they could to keep Rodriguez, but he laughed at their offer. They’ve traded Derrek Lee. But who else has to go to stay at $60 million? I don’t really know. The pitchers should all be okay, at least the starters.

One problem, for some reason, after they traded for Conine they signed him to a two-year extension. Which was nuts. That wasn’t for a huge amount of money, but that just not the kind of guy you can afford if you are trying to keep your payroll down.

I think if they were going to keep everybody, they would have a pretty good shot next year. But if you lose Lee and Urbina and one or two other pretty good players they are going to be in trouble. I don’t think they have the depth of talent.

OSC: Angel Berrora beat Hideki Matsui to win the Rookie of the Year award in the AL.

Some will say the closest vote ever was due to two extremely good players having skills that matched. But, some will say that Matsui technically isn’t a rookie.

Do you feel that import players are being looked at differently now in this “post Nomo/Ichiro” era?

Neyer: Well, I think that looking at it from a performance perspective, and not anything else, I thought that Matsui was going to win.

And I thought he should have won. I would have voted for him. Mainly because his hitting stats were a little better than Berrora – not a lot better – but to me, the real deciding factor was that Berroa plays in a great hitters park. I mean, Kauffman Stadium has been like Coors Field over the last two years.

But, getting back to the original question, I think it’s likely that out of the 28 voters, I suspect a few of them down-graded Matsui because of where he came from. And in this case, all it would have taken was a few votes flip-flopping, then, Matsui would win. I think that it was the deciding factor.

OSC: Care to cover some of the off-season moves that have transpired, or those that you think will transpire?

Neyer: Clearly, it’s been a good winter for the Red Sox and the Yankees. I think it’s been slightly better for the Yankees, because they added two excellent starters and one of the best hitters in the game. And you know, they’re probably not done. There’s a real good Cuban player who hasn’t signed yet, and of course the Yankees will have first dibs on him.

The big story, of course, has been the on-again, off-again deal that would have sent Alex Rodriguez to the Red Sox. But enough’s already been said about that one.

OSC: What’s your take on Bavasi getting the GM position in Seattle?

Neyer: I have a natural aversion to people that may have jobs because of who they are and not what they have done. You wonder if he would be where he is if his name wasn’t Bavasi. His father was a major league executive for many, many years.

I have never heard people say great things about Bavasi but maybe that’s just because I haven’t been listening to the right people. In all honesty, I’m not all that impressed so far. The Raul Ibanez contract is going to be a problem, and the M’s were apparently more than willing to spend way too much money on a season of Omar Vizquel.

OSC: What’s your take on the overall well-being of MLB, a full season after the last CBA was agreed to that pretty much saved the game in a lot of peoples minds? Have the small to mid markets are fairing better or is it pure luck?

Neyer: The small- and mid-market teams never struggled to the extent ownership wanted us to believe. That notion that you couldn’t compete unless you had a massive payroll was never the case. The A’s showed that. The Twins did well. Other teams were competitive before the new CBA. Did it make a difference? Maybe.

I have seen some people suggest, pretty convincingly, that the revenue-sharing system setup actually hurts some of the small-market teams, because they end up giving a significant percent of their revenues into the plan, and this hurts them more than it hurts the big ones. The system, the way it’s set up, really helps the teams in the middle, not the teams on the bottom.

OSC: Bud Selig is stepping down from the Commissioners’ position after his contract runs out. Who do you think would be a good replacement, and do you see any chance of moving away from the old-guard system that is in place now?

Neyer: First of all, I think Selig has about three years left on his term. That’s a long ways off. I think there’s a 50/50 chance that when his term expires, if he’s still ambulatory and not completely senile, he will keep the job. In his mind, I think, being Commissioner is like being a Supreme Court Justice.

OSC: Even though he’s said that he clearly wishes to end his tenure at the end of this agreement?

Neyer: Look, this is a guy who said 10 years ago that he would only be interim commissioner. The guy loves the job. It is very easy to say, ‘I’m retiring in three years.’ Because three years seems like forever, even when you’re an old man. But when that three years actually runs, out he’s going to think ‘What the hell do I do now? Here’s my choice: I can either retire, and wrestle around on the floor with the grandkids all day, or I can go run the Brewers again.’ What a bargain that’s going to be. I mean, the worst franchise in baseball.

You never know. He might age a lot over the next three years and decide he’s isn’t up to it any more. But I think he’ll keep the job. I believe that his term ends right about when they would be starting negotiations for the next CBA. You can’t tell me there won’t be a lot of owners who won’t try to convince him to stay, at least until this new CBA is done. Because who else is going to do all that stuff?

OSC: Who comes next?

I think it will be another owner or somebody like that. Everybody always talks about a return to an “independent” commissioner. Well, the fact is that there really hasn’t been anyone like that, for an extended period of time, since Kennesaw Mountain Landis.

I mean you had Happy Chandler, and certainly Bowie Kuhn did some things, he pissed off some of the owners. But he was basically an employee. And many a time when he pissed off one or more of the owners, he made more owners than that happy. For example, in the mid-70’s when he told Charlie Finley that he couldn’t sell three of four superstars for $8 million, or whatever it was, that is sort of seen as evidence that Kuhn is acting independently because he made an owner mad. Well, the owners hated Finley and they were probably thrilled that Kuhn vetoed that deal. Everybody was probably happy except Finley and the Red Sox.

We haven’t had a truly independent commissioner for a long, long time. A couple of them have tried. Giamatti tried and then Fay Vincent tried, and they fired him. So it’s just not going to happen.

You hear two names.

One is Bob Costas, which is certainly not going to happen because he’s too independent and he doesn’t want it. I think if they really asked him he would really consider it. But I don’t think they will ask him so there’s no point in talking about it.

The other name you hear sometimes is Sandy Alderson.

I don’t think he wants the job. It’s too public a job and he is a private guy. I also think he’s too strong willed and independent to be asked to take the job. So I don’t know who would be.

OSC: Finally, your latest book seems to be doing very well. Care to let readers know what your next book will be about, and when it’s scheduled to be published?

Neyer: I co-wrote the next book with Bill James, and it’s called The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. I think the title is fairly descriptive, but basically it’s all the specific information we could find, over the last dozen years, about how thousands of pitchers did their jobs. Should be out in April or May, if there aren’t any snags in the production process.