An interview with Rob Neyer

Editor’s note: The following conversation took place this morning by phone. For the second straight day, I’ve got to say it: Thank you Rob Neyer

First off, thank you so much for being up for this. I just got a few questions. I know you’re a busy guy. The first thing I wanted ask you was leaving ESPN, it seemed like you probably could have had your pick of going anywhere you want, any publication or being a consultant for any number of teams or baseball-related museums such as the Hall of Fame. Why did you choose SB Nation?

Neyer: Well, I wouldn’t say that I would have my pick. That would be a lovely situation to be in. Certainly, I’ve had opportunities over the years to leave and work with lots of great people, but none of those things ever felt exactly right. It never made sense for me to leave ESPN, which is a wonderful place to work, unless it felt exactly right, and this, SB Nation was really the first time I felt like that. It’s just an immensely energetic, creative place with just a huge roster of talent, a [ton] of sports blogs, very high quality. And it just seemed to fit in with what I’ve been doing my whole career.

How long was this all in the works?

Neyer: I think, like almost anything else, on some level it’s sort of always been in the works. There’s no real moment I can point to. Certainly, I’ve been admiring SB Nation for a long time time, and I became friendly with Tyler Bleszinski some years ago, just on a sort of professional level. Tyler’s the one who started SB Nation… and we certainly always thought it’d be fun to work together some today. But you have a lot of discussions like that with people. I certainly didn’t know that it was going to come together or think that it might until fairly recently.

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Does SB Nation, does it parallel at all the early days of ESPN, like maybe say the late ’90s?

Neyer: I would probably go back a little bit further than that. I joined, which actually was then called in 1996, and it very much had the feel of a start-up, you know a very well-financed start-up no question. Paul Allen (the co-founder of Microsoft) was behind it, and of course, Paul Allen was then a billionaire and still a billionaire. But there was an energy around that company, Starwave, which had a number of Web sites including ESPN. There was an energy around that company that you really couldn’t help sort of be imbued with. One thing I liked about being there at that point was that it sort of felt like you could do almost anything, that you could just try things. If it didn’t work out, that’s okay, and if it did work out, nobody would say, ‘Hey, you’re not really supposed to be doing that. You’re supposed to be doing this.’

That’s how I became a baseball columnist, essentially. I was hired as a– I think my official job title for awhile anyway was fantasy editor. That was job: edit and generate some fantasy content for the fantasy sports that we had on the site. But it really wasn’t what I wanted to do, and I discovered that fairly quickly. So I spent more and more of my time just writing, and nobody ever said, ‘Hey Rob, stop doing that.’ I was fortunate that I had editors and other people there who were very supportive of what I wanted to do and what seemed to be working for me. Within a couple of years, I wasn’t a fantasy editor, I was just a columnist, a baseball writer. And obviously, that’s what I’m still doing.

That culture at, does that still exist to a certain extent? Has it kind of gone away as the organization has gotten bigger?

Neyer: Look, I’m just one guy, and it’s a huge company. I certainly wouldn’t want to say that there aren’t still opportunities to strike out in different directions. I think that there probably are. I think there are people who do that. I just didn’t figure out how to do it. Over the last four or five years, I felt like I maybe hit– I don’t want to say I was in a rut, because it didn’t feel like a rut. I just felt like I’d maybe taken it as far as I could. But that’s not ESPN’s fault, that’s probably my fault for not being smart enough to figure out how to do other things.

I think a lot of people at some point in their career they just come to a spot where a change is good, not because of a problem with the old place, but because the new place sort of forces one to step back and say, ‘You know what? What do I really want to be doing? And how do I do that?’ And I think that SB Nation is really– I mean, I’ve been there for a day, and I’ve already been doing some things that– you know, small things but some things that I’ve never done before. And it’s been a lot of fun.

What’s an example of one of those things?

Neyer: This is a very tiny thing and will sound inconsequential to anyone, I suspect, but what I wanted to do for a long time in my blog at ESPN was write very short blog entries or short comments, maybe 100 words, 200 words. I never really felt like I had the right spot to do that. I was limiting myself, I think, in that regard, so I have nobody to blame but me. All I can say is SB Nation has a place on the baseball page that’s perfect for a short comment or commentary of 50 words or 100 words, something between Twitter and a full blown column.

I was a blogger at ESPN the last three or four years, technically or officially, but really all I was doing was writing more columns, column-length blog entries, and I didn’t really get the hang of writing the short, catchy stuff that I think really fits into a blog. Whether it was the format of the blog or what it was I don’t know, but all of a sudden, I feel very liberated like I can write anything between 50 words and 1,000 words, and there’s a place to put that.

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I know you kind of got your start with Bill James, and Bill James was somebody who, 30 years ago, his stuff was considered too off-track of the mainstream, and he kind of had to create his own ideal. I don’t know, you think you were thinking at all of Bill James when you made this move?

Neyer: Good question. I sort of internalized Bill James, reading everything he’s written essentially, much of it multiple times and working for him for four years. I don’t think of Bill James every day. He passes through my thoughts, obviously, but I don’t sort of consciously think, ‘Okay, what would Bill do here?’ But it does happen. I think that some people might regard my writing style, for example, as a poor man’s Bill James. There probably is something to that. Sometimes, I’ll read something that I’ve written– I don’t read my own stuff very often after the fact–  but if I do, I think, ‘Oh wow, that was sort of me channeling Bill James, wasn’t it?’ I really can’t get away from it at this point, but I don’t know if leaving ESPN and joining SB Nation really has anything to do with an ethos that Bill might be an exemplar of.

I do think that one thing that characterized Bill for a long time, really for his entire career as a writer is a willingness to write things that might make people uncomfortable, an unwillingness to allow people tell him what to write. And one thing Bill’s never really done is write for a big entity with a structure and a hierarchy where someone could say, ‘You know what Bill? You can’t write that.’ Every writer would love to have that situation. Bill was able to make it work. Most of us can’t.

I certainly had standards at ESPN, some of which I found chasing, and I’ll have standards and practices and guidelines at SB Nation, maybe not quite as restrictive. I’ve been encouraged to push the envelope a little bit, which I really appreciate. But still, I can’t just write the thing that pops into my head and expect that it will pass muster.

Certainly, I mean the blogosphere is a meritocracy. I believe that.

Neyer: I think so. There are so many great writers out there on the Web, many of whom do it purely because they enjoy it, not for the money. It really is amazing how quickly it can happen.

I have a friend, Carson Cistulli who I started on, and it didn’t really work out for reasons beyond his and my control. It was discouraging for me because I thought, ‘You know what, I found this guy.’ I shouldn’t say I found him, I discovered him. But I appreciated him. I was convinced he was talented and had a really interesting voice, and I tried to get him out there where a lot of people could find him, and it didn’t work. Again, it was discouraging. Well it was then a month, two months, he was at Fangraphs, then he was at someplace else. Now, he’s all over the place.

That whole process took maybe two months, three months, and it really can happen. With a small break here or there and a voice, you can move up pretty quick on the Web, and I don’t know exactly if it was like that before the Web.

What do you think is the best course for a young writer starting out right now? Do you think it’s still smart to shoot for a place like Sports Illustrated or or do you think it’s kind of better just to sort of create your own thing?

Neyer: Look, I’m sure there are lots of ways to get where a person wants to be. I would never tell someone, ‘Don’t shoot for ESPN.’ If that’s your dream, then that’s what you should shoot for, and there are ways to do that. It’s very difficult to plan for a destination like that, though. I guess Bill Clinton wanted to be president when he was 19 or something, and he did it, Barack Obama did. I suppose that there’s something to be said for setting what seem to be unreasonable goals at a young age or early in a career. I’ve never known how to make that sort of thing work, maybe it’s just me.

To me, if you’re a young writer, the thing to do is read lots of good writing, do lots of writing and hope that it becomes good, and if you do that, there’s ways to move up. I think for a relatively long time, the notion has been, ‘Well, I’ll start a blog, and it’ll be so good someone will notice me, and I’ll get to write somewhere else and move up.’ And that works. It has worked. But now, there’s even another way, which is you can just write what are called fan posts. They actually show up, and people see those too. And if you’re good enough at that, you’ll move up. They’ll say, ‘Hey, we love your fan posts, will you write for the site regularly?’ ‘Yeah I will,’ and you’re on your way. This really is an exciting time for writers.

It’s funny because the notion is that there’s less money out there for writers. And certainly we see lot of people in the media get laid off and retire earlier, that sort of thing. It’s harder to make money writing books, I think, than it ever has been. But, by the same token, the barriers to entry whether it’s writing books or writing on the Web or whatever is much lower than it’s ever been before. Maybe you’re not going to make a lot of money writing, but if what you want to do is write and make some living or even just as a part-time job, the opportunities are out there like they’ve never been before. I think this is probably the best time ever to be a young writer.

Other interviews: Joe Posnanski, Josh Wilker, John Thorn, Hank Greenwald