Best Job in the World

Do What I Say, Not What I Did

by Rob Neyer


Every few days, I get a note from a high-school or college student, along the following lines:

Rob,

If you are not too busy one of these days, I was wondering if you could tell me how you got started in sportswriting and how you progressed to what you are doing now. I am 19 and I love sports, especially baseball, and writing. I would love to be a baseball writer and would be willing to work very hard to reach my goal, but I would really like some career advice from the best, and you are certainly the best. I don’t think anyone’s writing has ever been so practical and fun. Have a good day and thanks for the articles. They are a source of constant joy!

They’re generally much longer than that, but that’s always the gist. Sometimes, in response to these letters, I’ll offer a few words of counsel which go something like this: “I don’t know that I have much worthwhile advice for you. What success I’ve attained has been due to a combination of my great love for the game and its history, an incredible amount of luck, and some occasional hard work.”

I write those short answers for two reasons. One, I don’t want to take the time to respond in depth to all those letters. Two — and here’s the real reason — I don’t know that anyone can learn a whole lot from my example.

Like your majority of North American males, I grew up a sports fan, with baseball co-existing peacefully with the NFL and basketball (college and professional) in my obsessive head. I spent a few years of my small boyhood in the upper Midwest, and while there I came under the spell of the Minnesota Vikings. Later we moved to the middle Midwest, at a time when the Kansas City Royals and (pre-Sacramento) Kings were both enjoying periods of success, and so I fell in love with them, too.

When a game involving one of my favorite teams was on TV or the radio, I was watching or listening. But that was about the extent of my fascination. Sure, I read the sports pages and Sports Illustrated, but that was about it. I was, for the most part, a garden-variety diehard fan.

That all changed when I went to college. My first September in Lawrence, Kansas, three things happened to make me what I am today.

First, I joined the History Book Club (actually, I think I might still owe them money), and for some reason I ordered a book called Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers. With little else to do but study, I devoured Bums in two or three days. Or, more precisely, two or three late nights and early mornings. This book began my fascination with the history of baseball.

At the same time, my Kansas City Royals were in the middle of an unlikely pennant race, which they wound up winning with an unimpressive, yet nonetheless thrilling, 84-78 record. My roommates and I didn’t have a TV, so I spent practically every evening that month huddled around the radio, ravenous for news of the contenders. I still remember hearing the news of ex-Royal Jamie Quirk’s grand slam that seriously hurt the chances of another pennant contender.

The third thing was the most important. Shortly after finishing Bums, and particularly excited about baseball because of the Royals, I purchased the Bill James Baseball Abstract 1984.

At 18, I was at that point, a point most of us are lucky enough to experience, where anything seemed possible. Even though I could barely afford to eat, there was always another book to read, a lecture to attend, a subject to debate. Learning was a real thrill, and if you’re a baseball fan, there’s no place better to learn than at the figurative feet of Bill James.

I studied quite a lot my first year in college, but after that … I mean, I’m not accusing baseball of destroying my academic career. Quite likely, if it hadn’t been baseball it would have been something else. Playground basketball, The New Yorker, pool halls, pretty girls–something.

But no, the particular instruments of my academic demise were Harry Caray, his son Skip, and Bill James.

You’ll hear people say all the time, “Yeah, but I did well in the subjects I was interested in.” Well, I can’t even make that claim. After my first couple of years in college, I regularly skipped even the classes I liked, which is not a good prescription for academic success. When I did buckle down and study, the knowledge just didn’t stick in my head. I remember one semester, I took a course in Constitutional Law, and midway through the mid-term I realized I had no idea what I was writing about, even though I’d been to nearly every class and read every assignment twice.

By the end of my fourth year — notice I don’t say “senior year” — I’d had enough. With the end of the semester approaching, I took a job roofing houses, and in fact when all my classmates were taking their finals, I was getting a sunburn and learning how to use a staple gun. I never got an official notice from the University of Kansas telling me I was no longer welcome, but I clearly didn’t belong there any longer.

For those of you who aspire to journalism as a career, I don’t recommend skipping your finals in favor of blue-collar work (or anything else, for that matter). And it’s not like I used my newfound freedom from college life to further my career in baseball. Sure, I kept reading baseball books and watching games on TV, but I wasn’t exactly pursuing my dream of writing about the game. In fact, I didn’t even have that dream, as it would have seemed incredibly foolhardy to entertain such lofty hopes. I continued along like this for around eight months, with few thoughts other than the next paycheck. I certainly had no thoughts of becoming a baseball writer. But as it happened, a then-casual friend of mine, Mike Kopf, was also fairly close to Bill James. Bill, it turned out, lived in a small town not far from me, and he was looking to hire a research assistant.

An interview was arranged, somehow I came up with enough right answers–and nine months after dropping out of college with a GPA somewhat lower than Rafael Belliard’s lifetime batting average, I found myself in the employ of my idol, the Great Bill James Himself.

I spent four years with Bill, and in the process learned a lot of things, chief among them how to write. I’ll never forget the best advice Bill ever gave me. We were driving back from a game in Wichita, it must have been after midnight, and I said, “It’s frustrating. When I write letters to friends, they tell me how much they like them. But when I try to write baseball stuff, it comes out stiff and boring.”

To which Bill replied, sensibly, “When you’re writing about baseball, just imagine you’re writing a letter to a friend. Be yourself.”

So after some fits and starts, that’s what I did. If you and I spent some time talking, you’d find that Rob Neyer in person and Rob Neyer on the computer monitor are pretty much the same, except one of us eats a lot more. This doesn’t speak well for my literary skills, perhaps, but you’ve got to make do with what talents you have.

To sum up, then, here’s my advice to you aspiring baseball writers: Go to college, but don’t go to class. Or if you do go, don’t pay attention. Blow off your homework and watch the Braves and the Cubs on cable. Quit school and get a job in a lumber mill, then wait around and hope one of our greatest baseball writers decides you’d make a good office boy.

If that doesn’t work, go back to school, and study hard. Do the things college students do, but make sure you leave plenty of room for baseball games and well-written books (baseball and non-baseball). Learn how to write. Meet as many people in the business as you can, and convince them all that you’re the 21st-century version of Jim Murray and Peter Gammons, all rolled into one.

I didn’t do any of that. I loved the game, though, and I worked my ass off when the time came. It worked for me, but it probably won’t work for you.

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