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The Rob Neyer Chats: Power Ball, Part Four

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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 last of 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.

Part One of this conversation can be found here. Part Two can be found here. Part Three can be found here.

You’ve lived in Portland for two decades. You talk about the future of the game and the likelihood of expansion in the near future (once Oakland’s stadium situation is settled). How do you feel about Portland as an option for MLB expansion?

Well, I think that the metropolitan area could certainly support a baseball team if it were done right. As usual, the devil’s in the details. You know, where is the ballpark? Is it accessible? Is it a place people want to go? I mean if you build—Tampa/St. Pete is a perfectly fine place for a baseball team if you situate the stadium in the right place.

Yeah, in Ybor City.

Right. You’re never going to find the perfect spot down there because there are places that are just hard to get to, but there are much better places than where it is now. It’s kind of bizarre they didn’t figure that out when they built it, but whatever.

And I think the same thing is true to some degree in Portland. Traffic here is terrible. So if you can’t find a ballpark that doesn’t allow relatively convenient ingress and egress, you’re going to be in trouble. But sure, I think the market is big enough. The weather is fine. Most people think that the weather’s not great. The weather’s beautiful this week. It’s perfect weather for postseason baseball. You’d probably want a retractable roof, but the weather’s fine. I think that if you do everything right, your chance of success is pretty good.

What’s not at all clear is where the money’s going to come from? The city has zero interest in financing a ballpark. I think the same is true of the state. Now we’re talking about a privately financed ballpark. There is a law on the books still that would provide some money via income taxes paid by team employees, but that would only cover a small percentage of stadium construction. Maybe 10 percent or 20 percent? Where’s the rest going to come from?

And unless I’m completely misreading the local politics, it would have to be privately financed, and to this point nobody has identified where that financing would come from. There are supposedly some big money players behind the scenes, but until we know where the money’s coming from, and until we know where the ballpark would be situated. I just can’t take it seriously.

Right. Where do you think MLB will eventually land for its presumed next two cities?

First of all, I’m not convinced there are going to be two cities. I don’t know if I write about this in the book, but I believe it is almost utterly true that every single round of expansion has come in the wake of external pressure. Either financial pressure or political pressure. Every single round, beginning in the early ‘60s, and right now neither of those things exist. So it’s not clear to me why the current owners would go to the trouble of expansion. Why they would happily share a small piece of the national television and internet revenue. I mean I just don’t know why that would happen unless they are to some degree forced to expand. Right now, I don’t see any reason, anything forcing them to.

Rob Manfred just said today [Friday, October 12] that he was pushing for expansion. Do you think that’s just posturing?

No. Not necessarily. I think Rob Manfred might think expansion is a good idea. I think there are probably plenty of people that think it’s a good idea.

The question is how do you get from some people thinking it’s a good idea to convincing however many owners it would take--twenty-some owners? I doubt if many owners have publicly said, “Yes, expansion’s a good idea. Let’s work on it and get it done in the next five years.” I haven’t seen any quotes like that. Now part of that is because owners are encouraged not to say things like that. They’re encouraged to let the commissioner speak about those sorts of things. But I just haven’t seen any real sentiment, any realistic sentiment or express of sentiment aside from Manfred, and even he’s lukewarm about it.

I think they want to keep--they love to have Portland out there, and Montreal out there, and various other places, if they need leverage to get a new ballpark in Florida or in the Bay Area. So it behooves Rob Manfred to keep options open, to discuss vague opportunities and possibilities, but until somebody’s taken just the tiniest concrete action I’m not really going to buy into it.

This was your first book in a decade. Did it feel good to get back behind the wheel on a longer project?

It felt good to have something to work on. I mean since I left Fox, I’ve done a fair amount of freelancing, but nowhere near as much freelancing as I need to make a living as a writer. So it just felt good to have something to do.

The actual process is—I don’t know that that felt good? I love delving into the history of infield shifts. That was fun. But sitting down with a blank piece of paper every day for three or four months in a row while I was working on the first draft of the book, that’s just, that’s work. That’s hard. Not to say that—I’m not complaining. It’s what I know how to do, and probably what I should be doing. I probably do that better than anything else.

I think the gratification--like a lot of writers, I’m fairly insecure about my work, and the gratification doesn’t really come until someone tells you they enjoy your work. The first person who does that is your editor. I actually hired a freelance editor as well to help out, Patrick Dubuque, because I needed another set of eyes on the book. But that’s gratifying when people say yeah, this is good, although Patrick was brutally honest--I shouldn’t say brutally, he probably could have been much more honest than he was. He was honest at least to a point, and I needed that. My book editor, Eric Nelson, was very complimentary. And then when people start seeing the actual book and seem to enjoy it, that’s gratifying.

Sure. There are positive markers all along the way, and I’d like to write more books. I mean it’s not easy, but it’s the best way I know. I don’t know of a more enjoyable way to make a living. And I’m only 52. I’ve got a lot of time left. I hope this is not my last book.

Do you have plans for a next one?

No. Nothing solid yet. Frankly we were waiting to see how this one did. You don’t really have any—you know, before your book’s out in the world, you don’t really have any negotiating leverage at all. I have lots of ideas. I have no idea which of them are commercial, if any. And I have no idea how interested my editor or other editors will be in my next project.

I’ll have a better sense of that I think when we see if people like this book. The reviews have been good. I’ve been gratified by that so far. The book’s been out for—what is it, three days?—so it’s hard to say anything about sales, but if the book sells and if people like it, I hope to figure out another project.

I’ve got five or six books in my head. I’d love to do one of those. Or maybe somebody else will come to me with another idea. I would love for Brandon McCarthy to call me tomorrow, and say, “Rob, I want to do a book. Do you want to help?” “Yeah, let’s do it.” One of the things you have to sort of accept, when you’re a freelancer especially, is that you don’t know where the next opportunity is going to come from, but you’ve got to be ready for it. So I just hope it’s something that’s interesting.

When Power Ball is adapted into a major motion picture and reprinted with Brad Pitt on the cover, who will play Jeff Luhnow, and will you lobby for Bill James to be involved briefly and represented by an animated baseball?

Yes, I want the cartoon version in this one. And let’s see, Jeff Luhnow. Who would play him? Good question. I don’t know my character actors well enough. Oh, you know who would be good? John Slattery. He’d be a good Jeff Luhnow.

So Portland recently welcomed Chuck Klosterman to its ranks, can we assume that you two have sat down at Stumptown to discuss how best to utilize footnotes?

Oh, does he live in Portland now?

Yeah, he moved there about a year ago.

Oh, I think I missed that news. That’s interesting. You know we used to have the same editor. My editor for my previous four books was a guy named Brant Rumble. I don’t know if Brant was—he probably wasn’t Chuck’s editor, but he’s definitely worked with him. But I’ve never met Chuck. I would love to get the opportunity.

You know, it’s funny, one of the weird things about my business is that while I admire a lot of other writers, I don’t have the self-confidence to actually approach them. Especially the famous ones. And Chuck is much more famous than me. I’d love to run into him sometime, and I know he likes sports, but I don’t think he’s a baseball fan.

Since this is for Royals Review, I suppose I have to ask an obligatory Kansas City question. What is your favorite BBQ spot?

I don’t eat meat.

Never? But you ate meat, past-tense, right?

I used to when I was younger. I rarely eat meat. I haven’t had beef or pork in a long, long time, but having said that, I was just in Kansas City for a few days last summer with my family. My wife had never been to Kansas City. She was very interested in sampling the BBQ, and we went to Joe’s Kansas City. We went there, and I was very pleased to find that they had a vegetarian option there. And I loved it. I think it was a giant mushroom with BBQ on it. So that’s my favorite because they’re the only place I know ever that has a vegetarian option.

You appeared on The Jonah Keri Podcast on Wednesday [October 10]. Do you have any other appearances scheduled where readers can find you?

Let’s see. I did the Baseball By The Book podcast. We recorded last week, but that dropped on Monday [October 8], I think. I’m going to forget a couple of podcasts. It’s been kind of a hectic week. I just recorded Joe Posnanski’s Passions in America podcast, which I don’t think is up yet, but I suspect will be quite soon. I’m forgetting some podcasts, but I don’t think I have any more podcasts coming up. I don’t have any more podcasts scheduled. I think probably a few will pop up that I will do, but nothing has been recorded yet, so those are the ones I can name off the top of my head.

Is there any talk of a tour or anything like that?

No, this book, to this point anyway, isn’t big enough to justify travel. Just a lot of phone calls and radio spots and podcasts. No signings.

Those things can happen if a book sells enough they can go “Oh wow, this is going better than we thought.” But to this point, no. You can find my two segments on MLB Network from Thursday [October 11]. Those are out there. Easily found.

One of the things I did for this book that I’d never done before, this is the first book I had done that I did an audio version, and I actually got to read the audio version, so there’s nine hours and 51 minutes of me out there talking, which is strange to think about. Certainly I will never listen to it, but I think my mom will. Maybe my wife.

I’d like to thank Rob for taking the time to sit down and talk. Once again, I implore you to 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. Or you can join Rob’s mom in the number of people who listen to the audio version of his book. Whatever you do, buy his book.