Continuing our series of email interviews with some of our favorite writers around the web, we move to Rob Neyer of SBN. These pieces are designed to get a sense of how these writers got to where they are, so we didn’t pester Craig Calcaterra, Matthew Leach, Murray Chass or Shannon Drayer with controversial questions in previous iterations of this column. Instead, the focus is on what aspiring writers can learn from their ascension. Neyer, an inspiration to many, was gracious in giving us a little perspective on his past.
Eno Sarris: Where did you grow up? And go to school? Did you always love baseball? Did you play it?
Rob Neyer: I grew up in the Midwest, first in the upper part (Minnesota, North Dakota, Michigan) before moving to the Kansas City area just before my 10th birthday. I always loved the team sports, played them all and was just passable in all. I didn’t really begin to love baseball — the kind the big boys play, I mean — until we moved to Kansas City and I discovered the joys of the late-’70s Royals, who were immensely entertaining.
I went to school at the University of Kansas, which is where I discovered Bill James and first developed my passion for baseball’s amazingly rich history.
Eno Sarris: When did your love of baseball enmesh itself with your love of writing? What was your first job out of school? Was your focus, as you thought of your future career, more on the numbers or the stories?
Rob Neyer: Do you mean my love for the *act* of writing? I don’t think I can answer that question, because I don’t know when I developed a “love of writing” … There are certainly times when I feel love and times when I feel hate, but mostly I’m in the middle somewhere. I will tell you that I know precisely when I realized that these two things I loved — baseball and reading — could come together in a magical way was September of 1984, when I discovered Bill James and Peter Golenbock’s book about the Brooklyn Dodgers (“Bums”) at almost exactly the same moment. This was the nexus of my two passions.
Out of college my first job was roofing houses. That’s the sort of job you get when you drop out of school without any known talents or prospects. My first job after that was working for Bill James, as his research assistant, etc.
I never thought of my future career. Not with any sort of consciousness, anyway. I guess I did have more interest in the stories, though. That’s primarily what Bill had me doing, mostly because that’s where his focus was then, and also because he probably recognized that I don’t have any great affinity for numbers. Certainly not compared to him, anyway.
Eno Sarris: We’ve been asking if that first job you held has any influence over your current writing, but I guess I’d be surprised if you’ve been using roofing metaphors that I’ve missed all this time. Instead, what was it like working with Bill James? Were there some discoveries that cemented your love of baseball going forward? Was there a particular story, either from baseball, or working with James, that was significant in your development as a writer?
Rob Neyer: What was it like working for Bill James? Well, it was humbling. Bill’s two little fingers contain more intellect than my whole head. And it’s not really a close competition. It’s not easy working for someone who you know, down deep, spends much of the time frustrated with your inferior intellect.
Or maybe that’s just my low self-esteem showing. I don’t know. It was definitely humbling, but also thrilling and I never lost sight of the fact that my dream job, literally, had been to work for Bill James, and there I was actually doing it. In terms of my development as a writer, I trace everything back to something I wrote for one of Bill’s books, a short biographical article about a banjo-hitting shortstop named Bill Almon.
Bill (James) returned a printed-out version to me, covered in red ink and dripping with disgust with all the obvious stylistic mistakes I’d made. I’m pretty sure there were at least a few profanities in there. You know what, though? I took it, and I learned from it, and those lessons in red ink are the most important lessons about writing that I’ve ever learned. When I help friends with their work today, I’m just passing along those same lessons (but without the swear words).
Eno Sarris: Are there times you wish you were still up on that roof? Or has your experience been only rewarding? What have been some of your favorite moments as a baseball writer?
Rob Neyer: Have I ever wished I was back on that roof? Hell no. Partly because I had a propensity for falling, and eventually I would have broken my pelvis or something. Seriously.
Favorite moments as a baseball writer … That’s tough, because 1) there have been so many incredible moments, and 2) I spend very, very, very little time thinking about the past. Interviewing Jerry Mathers on the radio. Visiting the set of “The Office”. Spending a whole season at Fenway Park. Talking to Ernie Harwell and Dave Niehaus in their broadcast booths. I’m forgetting many dozens of moments.
Really, though? The most rewarding thing about my job has been all the wonderful friends I’ve made. It’s not literally true that all of my friends are the result of my career, but it’s close enough that I really can’t imagine what my life would be like otherwise. Everything I have, I owe to baseball.
Eno Sarris: What would you say to a person trying to break into the business of writing about baseball? Any words of advice or warning?
Rob Neyer: One word of advice: Write.
More words: Write a lot. Also, read a lot. It’s not easy to learn to write well, and it’s even less easy if you’re not at least occasionally reading high-quality stuff. And not just baseball writing. There’s a big wide world out there, and a writer who doesn’t read about anything except sports is going to be a few arrows short of a full quiver.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.