In a new and probably non-recurring feature here on the Griddle, I have an interview. The guest today is ESPN.com columnist Rob Neyer, who writes an Insider column which started out many years ago (1996 I believe) as Chin Muzak. After that ran afoul of trademark laws, the column eventually settled in to a name of "Rob Neyer".
Rob remains the only ESPN.com columnist with whom I have shared a taxicab that crossed a state line. Of course there was that one time that Scoop Jackson and I shared a high speed ferry between Helsinki and Talinn, but I digress. I did give some editorial advice on one of Rob's books Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups (Fireside, 2003). You can just skip ahead to page 123 for the important part.
And if you want to own the Rob Neyer canon, you can also find copies of Baseball Dynasties co-authored with Eddie Epstein (Norton, 2000), Feeding the Green Monster (iPublish, 2001) and The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers (Simon and Schuster, 2004). You can find out more about them at robneyer.com.
Bob: The 2006 season (and it is going to start one of these days isn't it?)
is, in theory, going to be a lot different from seasons past since
baseball is "clean", but do you think that the upcoming season is going
to be much different from seasons past in terms of teams making the
playoffs and in offensive production?
Rob: No, I don't think this season will be noticeably different from
last season. If the current drug-testing regimen was going to make a
real difference in the offensive production, it would have been apparent
last season (and maybe it was; ask me again in a few years). My opinion
is that the players who were really serious about their drugs simply
have switched to other drugs that are either untested or unknown by the
Bob: What about the effects of the World Baseball Classic on team's
preparations in spring training? Not necessarily injury worries (since I
think a player can get hurt anytime), but what about players who are on
the cusp of making the big league roster? And is there any time that
this event could be held that wouldn't be inconvenient?
Rob: Well, November wouldn't be inconvenient, unless they wanted to play
Sunday afternoon games, in which case ESPN would be going against the
NFL juggernaut. The real reason they won't play in November, of course,
is that it would cut into the players' vacation time. What they like
about March is that they're working anyway. And playing actual games on
TV is more fun than PFP.
Your question about players on the cusp is a good one. Now that you
mention it, I suppose that somebody on one of the lesser teams --
Venezuela or Mexico, maybe -- will blaze across the sky so brightly that
his professional employers feel compelled to give him an extra-long look
at the end of spring training. But generally, I don't see anything
serious happening because of the Classic (except for injuries and, as
you correctly note, guys can hurt in spring training, too). Sidebar: I
enjoyed the headline the other day . . . . "Villone might opt out of
WBC" . . . Villone? Ron Villone?
Bob: The WBC will likely sell a lot of tickets, but, more importantly, will
anyone watch it on TV since it will be going up against the NCAA
tournament, which has the benefit of history and being shown on free TV
going for it? It's not like anyone is filling out a WBC bracket sheet
and cursing their luck when there's an early upset. And can anyone
handicap an Australia-Italy matchup? And will Andruw Jones receive
intentional walks playing for the Netherlands at a Barry Bonds-like
Rob: Nobody's filling out a WBC bracket? (For entertainment purposes
only, of course.) Gosh, that sounds like fun to me. I can't handicap
Australia-Italy, but then again I haven't seen either team's roster yet.
I do think I'll be watching all the games that I can, but of course I'll
be monitoring the NCAA hoops action, too. Remember, though . . .
nobody's shooting for big TV ratings here. The real target audience is
Australia, Italy -- and, even more -- Japan, Taiwan, etc. Everything
must be viewed as part of Commissioner Bud's brilliant scheme to GROW
Bob: Well, we know that Italy likely won't have Ron Villone. But they will
have Mike Piazza. They might have Marco Scutaro. He's on both the
Italian and Venezuelan roster. I would really hate to see an
international incident start over Marco Scutaro.
But now I'll switch to a topic that may be closer to you personally,
that is, your attitude toward the team grew you up rooting for: the
Kansas City Royals? How would you characterize that now? Are you
resigned to their fate? Has time and distance and 100-loss seasons made
that easier for you?
Is there any hope?
Rob: Let me answer your last question first . . . No, there is
absolutely no hope. Not considering the personnel -- both on the field
and off -- in the organization now. Neither the GM nor the owner (nor
the owner's son) seem to have any idea what they're doing, and there
simply isn't enough pitching in the system for the big club to win more
than 70 games in the foreseeable future.
As for my attitude, you'll have to check back with me in three months.
At the moment, I've decided to stop caring because my love is so
obviously unrequited. But then I've said that before, haven't I?
Shouldn't the Royals be a little better in 2006? At least because it's
really hard to get much worse when you go 56-106?
Rob: Oh, they'll be better. They might even be halfway-competent, and
thus a bit more fun to watch than they were a year ago. If everything
breaks right for them, the Royals might win 70 games. And once the
season gets going, maybe that'll seem plenty good. But I try to maintain
some perspective -- during the winter, at least -- and my perspective
tells that while the organization took fine a leap toward 70 wins, they
took a large step backward from 90. And I think 90 should be the point
of this exercise.
Bob: But does it seem like a long time ago when the Royals where a model
organization? They were the dominant force in the AL West for almost a
decade after Charlie Finley disarmed the A's. Was there any one
particular event that changed the Royals (e.g. an owership change) into
an also-ran or was it more of an ongoing process (e.g. poor drafts, poor
free agent signings)?
Rob: Hmmm. That's definitely a question that I should be able to easily
answer. But I definitely can't answer it easily. It's hard to see the
promotion of John Schuerholz to general manager as a positive event,
though. Remember, this is the man who thought Ed Hearn would be more
valuable than David Cone. And also thought that Storm Davis was the
cat's pajamas. That said, I don't know that Schuerholz deserves all the
blame. I think what happened to the Royals was that everybody realized
that Ewing Kauffman wasn't going to live forever. And that realization
resulted in a lot of truly shortsighted, stupid decisions.
Bob: So the Royals started to make decisions like the Angels did during the
time Gene Autry was still alive? Without the benefit of having Disney and Arte Moreno to bail them out?
Rob: Honestly, I don't remember if that was actually the case.
Certainly, they jumped head-first into the free-agent waters in 1990,
when they signed Mark Davis and Storm Davis. Now, one might argue that
they were forced into that tactic by a non-productive farm system . . .
except what the Royals needed in 1990 wasn't pitching, but hitting.
Essentially, though, the farm system did dry up under Schuerholz's
guidance. And with Kauffman not in the best of health, nobody was
arguing for a new Five Year Plan.
Bob: So how do you explain how John Schuerholz went from that legacy in
Kansas City to becoming a GM in Atlanta that can seemingly crank out
division champions at will? Did the rest of the Atlanta front office
make Schuerholz a genius or was it the other way around?
Rob: Ah, now you've switched to the really tough questions . . . I
honestly don't know what happened. Certainly, having one of the all-time
greatest managers helped quite a bit. And by most accounts, the Braves
have done a good job developing young players, so some of the credit for
that goes to the people in that part of the organization.
Do I believe that Schuerholz deserves a great deal of credit for the
Braves' incredible run of success? Absolutely. But do I believe that
Schuerholz would have put together a Hall of Fame resume if he'd stayed
in Kansas City? Absolutely not.
Bob: Since we're now on the Braves and they've been a bit of a dynasty and,
according to my bookshelf, you've co-authored a book with Eddie Epstein,
on baseball dynasties (with the title of "Baseball Dynasties"
no less), can the Braves teams of 1991-2005 be considered a dynasty?
From 1997-99, the Braves averaged 103.3 wins a season and all they got
to show for it was one World Series appearance and Bobby Cox vainly
trying to write down the license plate of the pinstriped truck that hit
Rob: Well, everybody's got his own definition of "dynasty". A lot of
people think you're not a dynasty unless you win three straight World
Series. I think that's a pretty tough criterion, given 30 major-league
clubs and three rounds in the postseason. In my book, winning fourteen
division titles in fifteen seasons is just about as impressive a dynasty
as anybody's ever going to see. October be damned.
Bob: Even with the Braves losses, I'm so convinced in their ability to win
the NL East that I think they could suit up the Richmond Braves to fill
the six positions not manned by Joneses and still get 90 wins. But I
would have to think that the Mets are the presumptive favorites in that
division in 2006? Or will the Mets be consigned to the briny deep that
all contenders to the Braves seem to end up in?
(See, I'm not a professional so the metaphors get mixed!)
Rob: I agree: the Mets look like the clear favorites to me. Their run
differential was nearly as good as the Braves' last season, and they've
added Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner. What have the Braves done? Oh,
that's right: nothing. Except get a year older, lose Leo Mazzone, and
replace Rafael Furcal with Edgar Renteria (a downgrade no matter how you
look at it). I think I actually picked the Braves as Wild Card winners
in another forum, and for the moment I'll stick with that. But I don't
think they're as good as the Mets.
Bob: Of all the divisions in baseball is the NL West the hardest one to
predict since it doesn't have any particularly outstanding teams as well
as having a lot of older and injured players? I suppose the AL West
could be hard to forecast, but you've got a 25% chance of getting the
team right there as opposed to just 20% in the NL West, provided you
think the Rockies have a chance.
Rob: I don't find the AL West at all difficult; on paper the A's are
easily the best team in that division, and they might be the best team
in the major leagues. I think the NL West is tough, though if the
Dodgers are reasonably healthy I think they'll win. I say the toughest
division to forecast is the American League Central, where three teams
are legitimate contenders. First you have the White Sox, who just won
the World Series. Then you have the Indians, who managed to win 93 games
despite being the least-efficient team in the league. And the Twins got
better this winter.
Bob: Then for the sake of completeness, whom do you see as favorites in the
two divisions not mentioned so far: the AL East and the NL Central?
Rob: The Cardinals don't have any obvious challengers, and it'll take
somebody a lot smarter than me to decide between the Red Sox and the
Yankees, though if pressed I'll say the Yankees, at this moment,
probably have the tiniest of edges.
Bob: Now, I'll switch gears as I head for the end of this. "The Neyer/James
Guide to Pitchers" seems to have done pretty well for a reference book
(although as a librarian I've spent more than my share of time reading
through reference books). Do you have another book planned? And if so,
would it be more of a reference book or are you looking to write
something historical or analytical?
Rob: Oh, I don't know that I'll ever be interested enough to work on
another "reference book" (quotation marks intended to express my sickly
feeling about seeing NJPG described that way, not that I can blame you).
I had a true passion for that material, and I still do. But I think that
book was a one-time, wow-I-get-to-work-with-Bill James sort of thing.
I have a new book out this spring: Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball
Blunders. As you probably know, a few years ago I did a Big Book of
Baseball Lineups, and this new book is intended to be the second of
three (or even four) Big Books. I'm not sure what the next one -- after
Blunders, I mean -- will be, but essentially it will be a number of two-
or three-page essays, all tied to some central theme. I do have designs
on someday writing a genuine narrative, but to this point I still
haven't found a subject that excites both me and my agent. Maybe it'll
never happen, but I figure I've got another few decades to come up with
Bob: For me, I don't think "reference book" is a bad thing and librarians
hope that the people who put it together labored over it. For the
record, here are the subject headings that the Library of Congress gave
Rob: Merkle makes a cameo appearance, while Snodgrass and Gowdy are both
completely missing. But Grady Little gets his very own chapter, and
George "Bingo" Binks stars in a sidebar (and I have to say, I'm
impressed with your reference, as Bingo's story is relatively obscure).
The book isn't about physical errors, or even mental miscues made in the
heat of the moment. It's about bad decisions made with plenty of time to
think of something different.
Bob: Bad decisions that you had time to rethink? That would appeal to fans in
L.A. who survived the Kevin Malone Era and watching Carlos Perez pitch
and Darren Dreifort not pitch. So more of the focus would be on managers
and front office people?
Rob: Yeah, that's right. George Binks isn't the only player in there,
but the book's mostly about managers and general managers and owners.
And Babe Ruth. Lots of Babe Ruth.
Bob: I'm sure the book will show up in my Amazon recommendations soon
enough. "Feeding the Green Monster" is still there. As an author does
Amazon recommend to you buy your own books? Also is there any other
baseball books (other than yours) coming out this spring that you are
looking forward to?
Rob: It's funny, actually . . . mostly the new baseball books I know
about are those I've been asked to endorse (generally with a cover
quote, or "blurb" as they say in the publishing biz). And I'm a bit
reluctant to mention any of them here, because I'll forget some and thus
offend one or more of my friends. But since you mentioned Amazon, I
suppose I'll tell you this: the three "Recommended for you" items on my
Amazon homepage are John P. Rossi's The Philadelphia Phillies
(which I already own), Arrested Development -- Season One (don't own, but will someday), and The Office -- Season One (ditto).
My books aren't recommended to me, because I order one -- as a delivery
test -- as soon as it's offered. And since you asked, the single book to
which I'm most looking forward is Baseball Between the Numbers,
by the crew at Baseball Prospectus. Well, that and Joshua Prager's book
about Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson. But that one won't be out until
October. And I suppose I will mention two of the books on my desk right
now: Mark Lamster's Spalding's World Tour and Peter Morris's
truly amazing A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations
That Shaped Baseball. I've read most of Lamster's book, and it's a
good tale well told. Morris's book is simply essential to anybody with a
passion for the game's history.
Bob: I had the privilege of seeing Peter Morris's presentation at last year's SABR convention in Toronto and his work is tremendous. I'll finish up with some quick questions.
As a kid, I loved the name "German Barranca," and actually thought he
was good enough to play in the majors (which I suppose he was, if only
for a moment). Biancalana came along a bit later, by which point I
didn't harbor illusions quite so childish.
With the Winter Olympics on, I find myself watching curling. And find
myself starting to understand it? Is this a good thing? Or do I need
spring training to start?
Rob: With all due respect to the wonderful athletes, I'm not sure why
I'm supposed to suddenly care, for two weeks every four years, about
Nordic Combined, four-man bobsled, and (yes) curling. I do watch college
basketball during the winter, but otherwise this season is for
recharging my batteries. I probably read more books in January than I do
during the entire baseball season. And spring training really doesn't
change anything for me. I know I'm supposed get fuzzy warm feeling deep
inside my gut when the fellas show up in Arizona and Florida, but I
really don't begin to care until the games begin to count in the
Bob: The Lords of Baseball certainly want you to get all warm and fuzzy
about spring training. The MLB.com website was trying to get people
excited about the trucks leaving for spring training. But there will
be real games, in a sense, starting on March 3 with the WBC. So going
back to one of the topics we started out with, I don't want you to
pick a winner, but it will be in March, so how about a Final Four of
the WBC? I'm leaning toward one of Japan, US, Dominican Republic and
Venezuela with Japan being the shakiest choice.
Rob: I haven't taken the time to figure out how the tournament is set
up. But yes, those seem to be the four best teams, though it's not easy
(for me at least) to evaluate the Cubans. I just read somewhere that
Matt Holliday is one of the outfielders on the U.S. team.
Matt Holliday? I don't mean to be unkind, but I just sort of assumed the
U.S. team would be populated almost completely by All-Stars and future
Hall of Famers. Granted, Holliday might not play much. And the U.S. will
cruise into the final round even if Holliday plays every inning of every
game. But this isn't exactly what I had in mind.
Bob: Matt Holliday is the only one of the six outfielders on the roster who
regularly plays left field. There are four center fielders and one
right fielder in Jeff Francouer. And Chase Utley is the only everyday
second baseman, but I think Michael Young is supposed to switch over.
Cuba is the wildest of wild cards because its players are little known
and they are in the middle of their regular season and are used to
tournaments. Their problem could be that they just might be
overmatched by Major League pitching.
But the tournament is set up so that one semifinal will have two teams
from Pool A (Asia) and Pool B (North America and South Africa) and the
other two will be from Pools C and D (which have the Caribbean teams
along with Australia and Europe).
Well, thanks a lot for your time. I don't think I've ever interviewed
someone where a resume wasn't involved. I hope this won't end up in
Rob Neyer's "Big Book of Boring Interviews." Any parting thoughts for
people (aside from entreaties to buy your book this spring)?
Rob: Let's see . . . "So long, and thanks for all the fish" is already
taken, right? Then let me close with some words of Will Rogers, words
that I don't often enough take to heart: "Never miss a good chance to