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Neyer is a hit with stats and stars set

Author, sportswriter and baseball nut now lives in Westmoreland

Is Rob Neyer the greatest sportswriter of all time?

Who knows? He's still in his prime. Without question, we can say Rob Neyer is the greatest living 36-year-old ESPN.com baseball writer and author residing in Westmoreland and coaching Little League in Southeast Portland.

'To be the greatest ever, you have to look at their peak and durability,' Neyer explains.

Given his philosophy, consider Neyer's recently released work, 'Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups' (Fireside, $16). It portrays the greatest players in the history of the 30 current baseball teams and six of 'yesterday's teams' such as the Brooklyn Dodgers and Washington Senators.

It is meticulously researched, minutely detailed and wonderful reading for baseball fans Ñ hero worshippers, nerds, numbers munchers and people who just love to argue. It's all his opinion, of course. It's why he wrote the book.

He breaks down each team with lineups: all-time, all-time No. 2, single-season, all-rookie, homegrown, traded away, Gold Glove, iron glove, all-bust, used-to-be-great and all-name. He does it position by position, as to provide the most fodder for diehard fans.

He doesn't just list greatest Yankee outfielders, for example. He picks Mickey Mantle over Joe DiMaggio as the best Yankee center fielder of all time.

'A lot of hype' Neyer calls DiMaggio lore. 'It wasn't one of the tough choices.'

Jayson Stark, Neyer's colleague at ESPN, gave him grief about picking two old-timers, Granny Hamner (1944-59) and Dave Bancroft (1915-20) as Philadelphia's top shortstops over Larry Bowa.

Neyer does not list his all-time greatest team of individual players, but he rattles it off for the Tribune:

Pitchers: Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove. Catcher: Johnny Bench. First base: Lou Gehrig. Second base: Joe Morgan. Shortstop: Honus Wagner. Third base: Mike Schmidt. Left field: Ted Williams. Center field: Willie Mays. Right field: Babe Ruth.

'Ruth towers over every player,' Neyer says, 'because he dominated in batting and pitching.'

Of the current players, he says, history cannot decide on the status of pitchers Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez or left fielder Barry Bonds. 'We lack some perspective right now.'

One of Neyer's favorite players is Morgan, Cincinnati's little big man who 'did everything well except hit for average,' he says. 'What drives analysts like me crazy is the continuing obsession with batting average.'

He says the true indicator of greatness is reflected in walks, home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Someone who intrigues him is Roy Cullenbine, an obscure player in the 1940s who had great production, but nobody kept him. 'I appreciate players undervalued by history,' Neyer says.

He loves the knuckleballers and wants to write a book about them. He calls Hoyt Wilhelm his favorite reliever and Tim Wakefield one of his favorites because 'he was very gracious and forthcoming when I interviewed him.'

An avid Kansas City fan, he listened to a game on the radio one night, and utility player Bill Pecota hit two home runs. He became a fan. Simple as that.

Neyer has written two other books Ñ 'Feeding the Green Monster,' after spending the 2000 season living near Fenway Park in Boston, and the self-explanatory 'Baseball Dynasties.' He plans a book with famed author Bill James on great pitchers and wants to write a duel biography about 1940s-era managers Joe McCarthy and Billy Southworth.

Neyer played baseball, but only until age 14. Living in Kansas City, he followed the Royals when Amos Otis, Freddie Patek, George Brett and Bret Saberhagen were the standouts.

He attended the University of Kansas but did not get a degree, his career instead launched by numbers, nurtured by fantasy and enhanced by the Internet.

Neyer started working with James in 1989, and then for STATS Inc. As a hobby, he put together stat analysis of the 1996 NCAA basketball tournament, and ESPN bought it.

A friend suggested he apply for a job as an online fantasy baseball editor. He did, ESPN hired him, and he moved to Seattle.

'One of the things about the Internet in the 1990s, it wasn't uncommon for people to define what they did,' he says. 'I started writing a fantasy column or two a month, and nobody said 'don't do it.'

'That quickly evolved, or devolved depending on your point of view, into a baseball column.'

Neyer moved to Portland last June, following his wife, Kristien, a physician's assistant at OHSU. He coaches his 11-year-old stepson, Micah, in Little League.

He spends his days combing the Internet, scouring box scores and other stats and watching baseball. He rarely travels Ñ maybe twice a year to Arizona and California Ñ to watch games. He talks regularly with one baseball general manager, Oakland's Billy Beane, preferring to let the numbers and history be his guide.

'I don't work the phones like Peter Gammons,' he says, referring to another ESPN colleague. 'If you're a good columnist, you don't give a damn what people think, anyway.'