With the release of his brand new book, Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game, I was afforded the opportunity to sit down and chat with the inimitable Rob Neyer. The book—which I would gladly have bought were I not fortunate enough to have been given a copy to read/review—is seriously fantastic. It’s a must-read for any serious baseball fan.
What follows is the first of what will be four portions of a 45-minute conversation between Rob and myself. Rob was gracious enough to sit down and answer whatever questions I had about Power Ball. I was ecstatic to have the chance to pick his brain.
Obviously the title of the book and the inclusion of the A’s as one of the focal teams is bound to invoke Moneyball. Were you glad to have the events of a single game for the jumping off point for your analysis of the post-modern baseball game?
Yeah, I mean we really wanted to have two teams that sort of exemplified modern baseball. I don’t think that—we weren’t locked into the A’s or the Astros, but I think that my editor wound up sending me a list of four or five games that might work. I really don’t remember why I chose that one in particular, but certainly having the A’s and the Astros who I think sort of bookend this era was pretty attractive.
I’m assuming you came down on which game to choose after the season took place?
It wasn’t after the season. It was right at the tail end of the season. I can almost pinpoint the date. It’s funny, when we first agreed to do the book together—my editor brought the idea to me, and I was immediately intrigued because I was such a big fan of the book Nine Innings, which was very much the inspiration for this book. When he told me he wanted to work on the book, and we agreed to do it, my assumption was that I would be going to an actual game and watching it and reporting it and then writing about that. which is what Dan Okrent did back 30-plus years ago in Nine Innings.
At that point, there were only eight or nine days left in the 2017 season, so I thought I better hustle up to Seattle this weekend and see the whole series and pick one of those games to write about. I mentioned that to my editor, and he said, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Let’s not do it that way. Let’s make sure we have a game that we want to write about.”
That’s when I went back and forth looking for the perfect game and failed, and then my editor sent me this list. That was probably during the last week of the season. So we knew the Astros were going to be in the playoffs. We didn’t know they were going to win the World Series.
So I and presumably a lot of the potential readers of Power Ball haven’t read Nine Innings, but there is a degree to which your book sort of plays like a Vin Scully broadcast of a Dodgers game if he was able to stop time and just dive into wherever his mind took him. Was this something you were cognizant of trying to recreate?
Well, it’s funny, I think the two precursors, the two inspirations for me at least, the two things that made me enthusiastic were my enjoyment of Nine Innings that came out in 1985 and a book called A Day in the Bleachers that came out in 1955. A Day in the Bleachers was also about a single game but written from the perspective of a fan sitting in the centerfield bleachers. My book, of course, would wind up coming out about 30 years after Dan’s book, so there’s sort of these two 30-year gaps. We’re now covering 60-plus years of history in three books. I wanted to be a part of that tradition.
I also knew that my book wouldn’t be exactly like either of those. I wasn’t going to sit in the centerfield stands. I don’t have Arnold Hano’s perspective. I knew I wouldn’t be reporting the book—Dan spent five years reporting on his book, roughly two or three years before the game in question and then a couple years after. HIs book came out in 1985. The game he wrote about was in 1982. So I knew it would be a different sort of book.
I still had every intention of rereading both of those books, and a few others like them. I wound up, for better or worse, not rereading their books. I think that subconsciously I was just afraid that I would be, I don’t know, intimidated by what they did. I would find myself trying to imitate what they did and failing and then being demoralized, so what I wound up doing was writing a book that is very much my own and inspired by the success of those books and the ideas behind them but not really the content all that much because it’s been quite a while since I’d read either of them.
Do you think that the single-game construct help limit your options for paths to venture down?
Yes, absolutely. It did. It’s funny, I have realized in the months since I sent in the last manuscript, the final version, that there were some things that I just didn’t touch on that I probably should have. The book’s long enough. I don’t think the book needed to be longer, but there were probably a couple of things that I could have written about with somewhat more brevity and then written about these other things, but they just never really came up.
For example, I didn’t really write much about the managers, in part because the managers just didn’t feel like central figures in this game. I actually started to write something about managers and just never quite finished it. Then I never quite went to the trouble of (A) finishing it, and then (B) figuring out where in the book it should be slotted. That just never happened because the book had grown to be large enough.
I can’t claim to have covered every subject that I would like to have covered. I would say maybe I got 95% of the way there, but there were two or three things that I wish I’d written about and didn’t, in part because of the way the game played out.
Was there any concern that recall of the game by the players, the managers, whoever, wouldn’t be especially sharp?
Well I didn’t really focus much on that game when I spoke to these guys. There were a couple of big hits toward the end, and I did ask the players about those. And they remembered them. Players tend to remember big moments.
I asked Blake Treinen, the A’s closer, about the batters he faced in the ninth inning, and he had pretty good recall. I asked him about that in spring training, so it was about five months later. He had pretty good recall. Not perfect, but pretty close. But it really didn’t matter to me how accurate their memories were because I had the video. I watched the game many, many times, so if they said something that didn’t happen, I just wouldn’t use it.
But that didn’t really come up. In Treinen’s case, he misremembered the location of a hit he gave up. I just mention in the book that he misremembered it. No big deal. I think that’s part of the story too, how our memories can play tricks on us, even ballplayers.
Tune back in tomorrow for the next part in the conversation. More importantly, buy Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game wherever you can. It can be found on Amazon here, but please feel free to support local business and hit your local bookstore to get this wonderful book straight off the shelves.
The conversation continues here.