Normally, if a big site like ESPN or Deadspin links to ShysterBall, I know where the hits are coming from immediately, because my stat counter shows the referring link. At around 12:30 this afternoon, however, I looked at my counter and noticed that about 500 people had more or less simultaneously clicked on this blog, all as a result of a simple Google search for "ShysterBall." Over the course of the afternoon, a few thousand more popped in for a visit.
Uh-oh, I thought. I must be in trouble. Since I'm a lawyer, I'm a natural pessimist, so my first thought was that someone was saying some very bad things about me somewhere, and folks were coming to gawk and mock. A few minutes later I realized that the traffic uptick was attributable to Rob Neyer who, during his usual Tuesday chat, said that ShysterBall was his favorite baseball blog.
To say I am flattered is an understatement.
While Rob has no reason to know this, ShysterBall would not exist were it not for him. It was 1998, and I had just finished seven years of schoolin' and was about to start the day shift. Somewhere during those seven years baseball and I had gone from dear friends to mere acquaintances. Sure, I watched a lot of games -- watched my Braves win the World Series even -- but it wasn't the same as it had been when I was a kid. I was a passive fan, with the things that had charged my enthusiasm for the game in my youth -- baseball cards, computer simulations, and actually playing the game -- in my past.
That all changed when, less than a month after taking the bar exam, I discovered Rob's column on what was then called "ESPN SportsZone." It was a revelation. Five days a week, this voiceless man in red faux flannel would challenge nearly every lazy assumption I had about the game. Telling me things like RBIs weren't the most valuable measure of a hitter. That strikeouts weren't the worst thing in the world. That Dante Bichette wasn't really any good.
What's more, unlike all of the talking heads I'd known to that point (and most since) Rob didn't make his pronouncements from on high and expect you to take his word for it. He showed his work. He encouraged you to run the numbers yourself. Not that it was all numbers, of course. Sure, they drew me in at the beginning, but it was the prose that kept me coming back. Rob could friggin' write. Still can, by the way, in a clear and uncomplicated voice that made even the most complicated concepts seem quite simple, which was extremely important to a mathophobe like me. I read Neyer every day.
Flash forward to late 2001. Barry Bonds is about to pass Mark McGwire, and I get an email from my buddy Ethan, forwarding an article Bob Costas had written for MSNBC.com, complaining that Bonds' achievement (and McGwire's before him) had "ripped baseball from its historical moorings." This wasn't a steroids column -- if Costas claims today that he always knew about juicing he's lying, because he didn't go there in the 2001 piece -- but rather a simple rant about how the numbers didn't mean anything anymore because they were out of whack with what he, growing up in the age of Maris and Mantle, had come to consider normal.
I read the article a few times. A few short years before I would have taken it at face value, but knowing what I knew by then -- what Rob and others with whose work I had, through him, become familiar, had taught me -- I knew it was horse shit. Costas was too focused on raw numbers. He made no effort to appreciate the differences in eras and contexts. He was using his voice of authority -- and the popularity of his recent book Fair Ball: A Fan’s Case For Baseball -- as a bludgeon with which to bash away dissension against his particular brand of sepia-toned orthodoxy. As a thinking fan, I felt insulted.
So I wrote a screed. It was just a sloppy, expletive-filled email back to Ethan, explaining all of the reasons why I thought Costas was wrong, drawing on the basic sabermetric concepts I then knew as support. Ethan forwarded that screed to a friend of his who was starting a webzine, and that friend emailed me, asking if I was willing to come down out of the bell tower for a minute, edit the screed into a coherent article, and allow him to publish it in what would become Bull Magazine.
So I did. And then I wrote another article and another, and kept writing them throughout the 2002 season. Some people even read them. Joe Dimino -- who I knew only as "Scruff" at what was then Baseball Primer -- was the first guy to link anything I wrote. Then Repoz (secret identity: Darren Viola) played up my scribblings. I didn't have the keys to Bull so I have no idea how many people read my stuff, but I do know that Rob read it, because he sent me a nice note, telling me I did a good job. It pretty much made my year.
Circumstances (i.e. Bull going dark, my legal career getting screwy, and my wife having kids) led me to quit writing in 2003. At the time I thought it would be a brief hiatus, but it stretched on for years. Which would have been fine if I had never gotten that praise and encouragement from guys like Joe, Repoz, and especially Rob. I'd go months without so much as thinking about baseball during those years, only to one day see something that I felt I should be writing about because, dammit, I knew I had the chops to do it, because some smart people who knew from crappy baseball writing had once said so.
It all came to a head back in April, when I revved up my engines again and started ShysterBall. Writing little posts about Alyssa Milano wasn't exactly the same thing as Batman hitting the streets again in The Dark Knight Returns, but it was huge for me in that for the first time in over four years, I had a creative outlet. Writing the blog for the past seven months has brought some added focus and structure to my life that had been lacking in recent years. More importantly, I've been enjoying the hell out of it.
But I wouldn't be doing it if it weren't for Rob Neyer.