New WCL baseball commissioner hopes seventh book hits home run
Baseball writer and historian Rob Neyer recently added baseball commissioner to his resume.
The St. Johns resident has been hired as commissioner of the West Coast League. The summer wood-bat league for college players has 11 teams, including the third-year Portland Pickles, who have moved over from the Great West League. The WCL's 14th season begins on June 1.
Oregon native Jim Dietz, baseball coach at San Diego State for three decades, was the commissioner in the league's early years, but the WCL operated for most of its 14 years without a commissioner.
"The league has matured and gotten to a point where we need someone to be an arbiter and a regulator, and then someone to be kind of a spokesperson," says Dan Segel, owner of the Corvallis Knights and WCL treasurer.
Segel says Neyer is a great fit.
"He just has a really great demeanor, which I think will serve him well as commissioner. And he has a lot of great baseball contacts, which I think will benefit the league," Segel says.
"Hopefully this is long-term relationship. That's the plan. I think Rob has a ton of upside."
Neyer worked for more than a decade as a baseball writer for ESPN. He was the national baseball editor for SB Nation for two years and for FOX Sports for two years.
For the last two years, he has focused on freelance writing projects. He is putting the finishing touches on his seventh book, which is due out in October. Titled "Power Ball," the book looks at baseball through the lens of one game between the Houston Astros and the Oakland Athletics, played last September.
The Tribune sat down with Neyer at his home, where he lives with his wife, Angela Torretta, their 3-year-old daughter, Olive, and their dog, Buddy.
Tribune: You are known for your baseball writing and opinions. Why did you take a job as commissioner of the West Coast League?
Neyer: The question would be: What wouldn't attract me to it? What's the downside of being a baseball commissioner? If you are steeped in the history of the sport, as I am to some degree, ever since Kennisaw Mountain Landis became the commissioner of major league baseball in 1920, commissioner has always been a big part of the baseball world. Now, a lot of those commissioners I don't find particularly likable or effective. But still, it's part of the fabric of the game's history. Just the word 'commissioner' has a certain resonance for someone like me. That resonance all by itself is enough of a lure to get me to bite. What's the downside? I really couldn't see any.
Tribune: Have you been a commissioner before?
Neyer: The closest I could possibly get to this is when I was in college still at the University of Kansas. I was in charge of constructing a bizarrely extensive, intricate rule book for my Strat—O-Matic league. In my memory, whenever I had ideas for radical rule changes, they were shot down by the other owners.
Tribune: It has been more than a decade since your last book. How did the book due out in October come about?
Neyer: I had actually kind of given up on writing another book because I didn't have any other ideas that I or my agent thought were marketable. Sort of out of the blue, last fall an editor came to me and said he wanted to publish this book and he thought I might be the right person to write it.
Tribune: This book uses one specific game to explore trends in major league baseball. Tell us about the idea.
Neyer: The idea is to drill into a number of different major league baseball topics, great examples being the two biggest things that are happening right now — home runs are way up and strikeouts are way up. Strikeouts have been going upward, generally speaking, ever since baseball began. The home run explosion is different. Home runs have typically gone up and down over the course of baseball history, depending on various things. But they're up — I think it's between 30 and 40 percent from three or four years ago — which is obviously a massive jump.
But when I made a list of topics that I wanted to cover regarding the state of, as I call it in the book, "post-modern baseball" (my editor might take that out), I wound up with 20 or so things that I wanted to write about.
Tribune: How was the specific game chosen?
Neyer: My editor wanted a game with the Houston Astros because they sort of epitomized modern analytics in baseball. This game also features the Oakland Athletics, who epitomized analytics 15 years ago because of "moneyball."
It turns out it's not difficult to weave all these different stories into this particular game, even if it's not obvious. For example, there aren't a lot of strikeouts in the game, relatively speaking. Still, there are many chances to talk about strikeouts.
Tribune: What have you been doing since you left FOX Sports a couple of years ago?
Neyer: I'll be honest, it hasn't been that easy. I've done freelancing for a lot of different outlets. A few for the New York Times, Vice Sports, Complex and The National Pastime Museum, and a couple things from Yahoo!
Some really fun stuff included an oral history of Michael Jordan's baseball career, an oral history of David Wells' perfect game, an oral history of the relationship between "Seinfeld" and baseball. Those were all immensely time-consuming and a lot of fun. I love reporting. Reporting is more fun for me than writing or researching … but I didn't do any reporting for many years of my career. I always fell back on essentially writing opinion pieces or doing historical research.
Tribune: Thoughts about the current effort to bring major league baseball to Portland?
Neyer: I think there are three huge questions that nobody has answered yet: Where is the ballpark? Where is the team going to come from? Do the people who are backing the Portland effort have the hundreds of millions of dollars that it would require to do this?
Tribune: Challenges for siting a ballpark?
Neyer: To me, the ESCO plant site is impractical because of the transportation issues. I drive right past that on Vaughn Street every single day. I will admit to a lack of imagination generally, but I would challenge anyone to drive down there and tell me how you're going to get 30,000 people in and out of a ballpark 80 times a year.
That leaves the PPS site that we know about and there's already been some resistance to that spot. Logistically, it would make a lot of sense because the MAX is right there. Two interstates come together there. So, at least you can imagine a ballpark there and people being able to get there.
Tribune: Relocation or expansion?
Neyer: There are only two teams that aren't completely locked into their homes at this point: the (Tampa Bay) Rays and the A's, and there's no indication either of those teams is moving anytime soon. I don't think expansion happens unless they can do it internationally and create a massive new market.
Or, as has always been the case historically, there was some external incentive or pressure to expand. The first expansion in the early 1960s was due to the pressure of a potential third major league — the Continental League. Some heavy hitters were part of that effort, and one of the reasons the Continental League fell apart was that the National League said it would put a team in New York (the Mets). It was difficult for the Continental League to continue unless they had a team in New York.
In the late '60s, you had some political pressure because the A's had left Kansas City. So the AL said, we'll put a team in Kansas City. But we can't just have one team, we need two, so we'll also put a team in Seattle. The National League didn't want to let the American League be a bigger league than it was, so they added Montreal and San Diego. And then because the Pilots left after one year you have legal pressure to put a team in Seattle, which is how you end up with the Mariners and the Blue Jays.
At this moment, I don't see any external pressure. I don't see any financial pressure. I don't see any political pressure, and I don't see any legal pressure to expand.
Tribune: What about the cost of bringing MLB to Portland?
Neyer: We don't even know who the people are, so how can we know how much money they have? It's logical to think that they wouldn't have taken the steps they've clearly taken if they didn't have the money. On the other hand, they could be people with X amount of dollars, enough to do what they've done, trying to attract the Y dollars that they need to get to Z.
There are just so many unanswered questions. This seems like the most serious effort yet to make something happens. But until at least one of those questions are answered, it's hard for me to take it too seriously.
Tribune: Do you think Portland will support baseball?
Neyer: Maybe (fans) show up. Maybe the people don't. I think Year 1, Year 2, the novelty is going to bring people out. The tricky part is Year 5 or Year 6, especially if you're not winning.
(Mariners) attendance is not good. But I believe it's still a profitable franchise because their TV deal is great. There's a lot of money there. It's a much bigger market than Portland, which helps. Even without Portland, they can sell TV rights from Vancouver (British Columbia) all the way down to Olympia. That's a lot more people than Portland could ever lay claim to TV-wise, so that's definitely a part of it.
There is obviously a place in Major League Baseball for the Denvers and the Pittsburghs of the world. Portland is a lot bigger market than Milwaukee or Cincinnati or Kansas City. What you don't have that they have is the tradition. With many thousands of people with parents who grew up with the game.
Tribune: Last year, MLB brought in more than a billion dollars by selling a spinoff of its Major League Baseball Advance Media Division to Disney, with each franchise getting $50 million from that. Where will baseball's revenue come from in the future?
Neyer: Nobody can guess because nobody knows what the technology's going to look like. Nobody saw this Major League Baseball Advance Media money coming in 10 years ago.
It seems obvious that ticket revenues are going to become a lesser share than they already are. Local TV will still be probably the most significant share. And national TV will be important, but it's hard to say how much because as baseball becomes more and more a local sport, that has little interest for people outside the market. Maybe those national dollars go down. But nobody can predict what's going to happen in 10 years. All you can really do is build your ballpark and run your franchise the best way that you can in your market and then see what happens.
Tribune: You are from the Midwest. How did you end up in Portland?
Neyer: I moved to Seattle in 1996 to work for ESPN's website. In 2002, my first wife chose OHSU for her next round of education. So we moved down here.
Tribune: There's no big league baseball here. Why did you stay?
Neyer: I have stayed because I just love it. Once I'd been here for a few months, I realized this is where I belong. So I've stayed. I just am crazy about Portland, so that's why I'm still here. It might have been better for my career if I had been in a major league city. But when I had full-time employers everybody was always great. And it's so easy now to work from anywhere, especially with all the games on satellite or now on the computer.
Tribune: You will touch on this in your new book, but will home runs continue to increase like they have in recent seasons?
Neyer: Power historically has been cyclical. It's gone up and down depending largely on what the baseballs were like at that time, but for other reasons such as ballpark sizes, too.
You can find quotes from people in the 1940s and '50s and '60s saying, "Look at these hitters now swinging from the heels with two strikes, using these thin-handled bats and everybody in the lineup can hit a home run." These quotes go all the way back, so that's not new.
It is true that hitters are trying harder now, with more tools at their disposal to optimize their swings for power. I'm sure it's been called the launch-angle revolution, because now you can measure it.
Launch angle, the idea of it, there's nothing new about that. Ted Williams preached launch angle. Williams always said you should upper-cut the ball. For one thing, if you upper-cut the ball it's going to go farther. And second, the pitch is coming down so you should swing up if you want to meet the ball. But there was this notion that, sure it works for Ted Williams, but most people can't do that. They should swing on a level plane.
I saw a video with Albert Pujols talking to kids about having to swing down on the ball. But when you watch Albert Pujols hit the ball, he was upper-cutting. It's like (hitters) didn't even know what they were doing. Well, now everybody knows because of high-speed video. And because of technology, every single batted ball comes with a precise launch angle.
Tribune: What about strikeouts?
Neyer: Strikeout rate is essentially a straight line going up throughout baseball history. There is no reason to think that is going to change unless the rules of the game change or the field is somehow altered. If the mound was lowered, strikeout rates would go down, as they did in 1969 when the mound was lowered.
The reason for all the strikeouts is that pitchers throw harder than they used to because they're bigger, because they're not throwing as many pitches so they don't have to pace themselves. And for really the first time, many of them (and this is true of younger pitchers especially) they are training specifically to maximize the speed of their pitches. That didn't happen before. Sure, guys wanted to throw harder, but they didn't know what to do to throw harder.
There's a whole essay in my new book about this. When I was a kid, if you threw 90 (mph) you were a hard thrower. There were a lot of relievers coming into games 30 years ago who didn't throw 90.
In the book, I run a list of all the relievers in that (Astros-A's) game and the slowest of them, his fastball is 90. Most are 93, 94, 95. Then, toward the end of the game, there's a 98 and a 99 average fastball.
They're not going to start throwing softer. Everything is sort of stacked in favor of relief pitchers throwing really hard, because the way the roster rules are now you don't have a five-man bullpen like they used to.
Tribune: Thoughts on the 2018 Mariners?
Neyer: The Mariners aren't a so-called super team, and they're not one of the teams that is not trying (to win), which leaves them in the middle. The middle isn't a great place to be, because most of the teams in the middle don't end up in the playoffs. But, some of them do.
The Mariners came into the season projected to win somewhere between 78 and 84 games. Those teams with a little luck and a little skill can surprise you.
You need to have two or three guys have surprisingly good seasons, and you need to be a little healthier than average, and the Mariners certainly weren't that last year, especially on the pitching side of things.
If Felix Hernandez and James Paxton are healthy for most of the season, that's something that you didn't have last season.
I have found it very easy to forget that last year the Mariners were in the thick of the wild-card chase into early September. The Mariners as an organization are more akin to the team that was competitive for five months (in 2017) than the team that was not competitive for the final few weeks.