Remember me

The End of One Thing and the Start of Something Else (4)

May 5, 2020
(This is the fourth in a series of articles. The first can be found here, the second is here, and the third is here.)
I went to a very small college on a hill in rural Vermont. The college had an educational model that emphasized self-direction, rigorous thought, and collective governance, a combination that meant that the three hundred students who found the college and made it through tended to be very bright.
Very bright…and very skeptical of a lot of the structures and traditions of American society. We were Bernie boosters before the rest of the population caught on.
I knew everyone I went to college with, and I could count on one hand the number of people who were interested in baseball. There was a student named Sarah, a year ahead of me. She mailed me a David Fleming baseball card many years later: it showed up in the campus mail at the University of Iowa. Tim Little, a history professor, would regularly chat with me about the Red Sox at breakfast. A student named Chip came along a year or two after I was there: he was a diehard Red Sox fan. And my good friend Andrew liked baseball, though he enjoyed it the way a lapsed Catholic might enjoy going to midnight mass. He was that, too.
And that was it, really. For the four years I was in college, my connection to the game was less-than-none. We didn’t have television at the college, and there was no way to stream the games online. There was probably a radio broadcasts I could’ve found in the wild, cold yonder, but I doubt my roommates would’ve tolerated listening for too long.
In the absence of real exposure to baseball, my interest in the game could have easily dissipated. Instead, my interest spiked.
Because of Rob Neyer.
I was not a Bill James disciple. Though my interest in baseball started in the years he was putting out his last annual abstracts, no one ever passed any Bill James texts to me. I didn’t actually read Bill James until his revised Historical Abstract came out in 2001, and I didn’t really dive into Bill’s work until I found one of his Baseball Books in a used bookstore in Cambridge in 2003.
Instead, it was Rob who was my gateway into sabermetrics, and my lifeline to baseball. He’d write a column just about every day on ESPN’s website, and I read all of them.
The timing for finding Neyer was perfect: if I hadn’t found a new way to think about baseball, I doubt I would have stayed interested in the game. But Neyer was thinking about baseball in a way that I hadn’t encountered before, and that new kind of thinking hooked me into the game all over again.
In the previous article in this series, I talked about exposures to the game. The internet was a new exposure…a new access. I didn’t have internet until I went to college…and then suddenly I did. I read Rob Neyer and Jason Stark at ESPN, and then I found Bill Simmons, who was making his name at Digital City Boston. Baseball-Reference came into existence, allowing anyone to access a massive database of numbers instantly. Later I found the Fire Joe Morgan writers, and Sons of Sam Horn.
But it was Rob Neyer who kept me interested in baseball enough to find those other places, and he laid the foundation for me finding Bill James’ work years later.
*            *            *
The website FanGraphs is in a difficult situation right now. The postponement of the baseball season has meant fewer readers to their website, which has meant less revenue from ads. They have had to lay off a number of their staff writers, and they are asking for contributions from readers to keep the site afloat. If you can, I’d encourage you to support them here.
A confession: I’ve applied to work at FanGraphs a few times. Whenever I’ve seen that they’re hiring new writers, I’ve sent over a few sample articles and a letter. They haven’t taken me up on my offer, but they’ve been polite in their correspondences, and generous about the work I’ve sent.  
Instead of hiring me, the folks at FanGraphs have given a platform to groups of new writers who provide the site with a diversity of perspectives and areas of expertise and backgrounds. In short, they’ve hired exactly the kind of people they should be hiring: people who will provide future baseball fans the same connection to the game that Rob Neyer gave me all those years ago.
Since we’ve entered lockdown, I’ve been thinking about the writers they’ve had to let go, the newer voices that they brought on to tell the story of a baseball season that might not happen. I imagine that it would’ve been a tremendous blow to those new writers, who were about to start the strange and thrilling process of finding their voice and their audience. I hope this setback is a temporary one for them: I hope they’ll all get their chances again.
I don’t mention this too often on these pages, but I do other writing beyond what shows up on this site. A few years ago I finished a novel. It wasn’t my first attempt, but it was the first one decent enough to have a shot at getting published.
I submitted the novel to agents and I eventually received a few offers of representation. I flew from New Zealand to New York to meet with interested agents, and I signed on with one. She had recently sold the novel of a friend of mine, and that friend spoke highly of her, and I liked her. She was pragmatic and direct and realistic. Most notably, she did not enquire about my interest in moving to Hollywood to write scripts.
I did a massive rewrite, and the agent delivered a better version of the novel to the desks of a lot of very excellent editors. Two of them came close to making an offer to purchase the rights to the novel. One was a prominent person at one of the chief publishing houses: he wanted to buy the book, but he couldn’t get the board of editors to bite.
So the book came close, but it didn’t cross the finish line.
That was three years ago, and I think I have been wrestling with that outcome ever since. I had a plan for what my next novel would be, and the one after that. We moved back to the States, at least in part, so I could more easily navigate the new territory of being a published author.
I did not arrive in that territory, of course, and it was a slow passage towards realizing that I would have to start again from scratch. At the outset of the process of selling a book, when you are hearing encouraging feedback from editors who have worked with your heroes, it is possible to imagine your own success as an inevitability. Then you hear less, and then your agent is talking about a second round of submissions. That happens, and sometimes you hear responses. Mostly you don’t.
That is not such a terrible circumstance, all things considered. At worst, it means existing in a space of perpetual uncertainty, a space of doubt. I imagine that those new writers at FanGraphs are in that realm of uncertainty, and I hope that they keep at it. In my most optimistic moments, I’ve sometimes convinced myself that the practice of writing has a value that transcends whether or not we are successful at it, whether or not we find our audience or our voice. I hope they’ll keep going.
That is not meant as any concluding point: I just wanted to say it.
*            *            *
Switching gears.
I have a lot to say and I am running out of canvas to say it, so I’ll have to crowd this here.
I used to love talking about the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was probably my favorite subject. I followed the voting and debated players. I’ve been interested in it since I was a kid: I have a clear memory of walking with my grandfather and brother and talking about the merits of Gil Hodges as a Hall-of-Famer.

When I started writing for Bill’s site, I did a lot of writing about the Hall. I ran an alternative HOF ballot for a number of years, and I spent most of the months between the postseason and the voting results thinking about what would happen, and what should happen.

There is a thrill about the arc of baseball’s timeline. You can say to me the name ‘Eddie Collins’ and an entire life is evoked. This is a man who lived in the America of one hundred years ago, who played an entirely different version of baseball that had dimensions and complexities that his batting lines hint at. He played under Connie Mack and was a teammate of Joe Jackson in two cities. He went to Columbia, played through a war and a pandemic, and was one of the straight men on a Black Sox team that got tangled up with some of the worst people in Chicago. Collins was a fast contact hitter who drew walks and stole bases. He holds the career record for sacrifice hits by the same approximate margin that Cy Young has the career record in wins. He had a drawn face and big ears, and half the photos of him show him grinning. While I have never seen film of Eddie Collins playing baseball, I can imagine it.
I love the history of the game. I am a fool for it, and I was, for a very long time. I think I was a fan of the history of the game long before I was a fan of the present incarnations of the game. I followed the year-by-year accomplishments of the teams, but there was a part of me that was following the older years. My favorite player was Dwight Evans, who was playing some thirty miles from where I lived. My other favorite player was Lou Gehrig, whose distance from me was in decades of time, not geography. If you asked me which one felt closer, I don’t know that I could’ve picked one.
I loved the history of baseball, and so I have loved the annual conversation of how that history should be added to.
But I care about the Hall-of-Fame a great deal less than I did. I’ve just lost interest in it, utterly and completely. In a cruel irony, my detachment has coincided with a moment when the Hall-of-Fame is actually coming around to considering my favorite player for election: it is very possible that Dwight Evans will wind up being elected next year. I hope that happens, and I have not forgotten my promise to some day write about him, about what he has meant to me. I’ll get there. We still have time.
The history of baseball is another point of access, another exposure. I knew the all-time leaders in homeruns and career batting average and wins before I could name all of the teams. Is that something that anyone pays attention to anymore?
I still care about baseball’s past, but my connection to that past has frayed. I used to think that the conversations I had about the Hall-of-Fame mattered. I am not convinced of that anymore. A line has been broken.
But I am getting too close to the end, and I am running out of space here. I don’t want to deprive you, reader, of a proper culmination. You’ve come this far: I should make it the end count.
*            *            *
One last item.
Many years ago, Rob Neyer wrote a few articles projecting the future team of the decade. This would’ve been in 1999 or 2000: he ran a series about which player would be the best first baseman of the coming decade, or the best shortstop. It was a fun project, a good way to get something up during the offseason.
One of those articles guessed at who would wind up as the best relief pitcher of the ‘Aughts. I don’t remember who Neyer selected, but there were plenty of good choices. The Yankees had had some guy named Rivera who was doing pretty well, and Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner were working out in the Senior Circuit. Hell, Troy Percival was on a pretty good run.
When the article posted, I wrote Neyer a brief e-mail speculating that Ugueth Urbina would turn out to be the dominant relief pitcher of the decade. This prediction fared about as well as most of my guesses: Urbina ended up spending more of the decade in a Venezuelan prison than on a major league mound, on charges of conspiracy to commit murder. He did have one decent year in Boston, though.
So I wrote to Rob…and Rob wrote back. He sent me a quick e-mail thanking me for my note. He was kind enough to say I might turn out to be right.
Well…what did that matter?
It mattered because it narrowed the world for me. Before Rob Neyer wrote to me, I had no concept of what the gap was between the people who were fortunate enough to write about baseball, and everyone else. It wasn’t that I imagined I couldn’t write: it was more that I had no idea what the path was to becoming a writer.
I don’t know Rob: though we’ve occasionally had exchanges on this quiet corner of the internet, our paths haven’t crossed in real life. I know Bill, and I suppose that I have Rob to thank for the great fortune I've had in getting to know Bill a little. Through that I’ve come to know some of you, and I hope you’ve come to know me a little bit.
Rob Neyer made that possible: he wrote a quick response to someone who was interested in imagining who the closer of the 2000’s would be, and that interaction laid the groundwork for what I’ve done on this site.
I am laying another kind of groundwork in mentioning all of this. These last four articles have been a foundation and scaffolding. The next part is the building: we’ll see if it will stand up.
David Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at

COMMENTS (9 Comments, most recent shown first)

P.S. I wonder if the colon-usage thing is mostly just a matter of different practices in different countries.....​
11:16 PM May 8th
(oh -- wanted to red-circle a couple of "them" meant the English teachers, not the colons)
4:28 AM May 8th
I think if we also say Champlain and Bennington, we might only need Dave to wink at whichever is the right one. :-)
I knew a guy who went to a small Vermont college called Windham, but it's long defunct, and I don't think that school fits the bill anyway.

I enjoyed this too.
I'm rooting for you, Dave.

BTW, off any subject, but, I've noticed that you use the colon in an individual way. I'm not sure it's "right" (I think most of my English teachers would have red-circled them, but then again I wanted to red-circle a couple of them), but whether or not they are, the usage is interesting in a way that always makes me think. It seems usually to be where most people would rather go 'semi-colon,' which you seem to eschew.
(good word) :-)

BTW #2: I too was captivated by the history of the major leagues before I was captivated by the major league game itself. Like, I think I knew a lot of DiMaggio's and Ruth's history before I knew that you have to tag up on a fly ball. You see, that wasn't relevant for our kid "baseball" games because fly balls were never caught, so you just ran.....
4:22 AM May 8th
Can't be Middlebury (enrollment 2,626), which had, and still has, a baseball team that, it's fair to infer, had a bunch of baseball fans on it. I'm guessing Goddard College (enrollment 450).
4:25 PM May 6th
Bravo, Dave! You bring a lot to the table. I'm enjoying this series immensely.

I used to think my college was small. Everything's relative, I suppose...
1:35 PM May 6th
Did you attend Middlebury? You write like you did. They would be proud...even if you aren't an alumni.​
7:43 PM May 5th
Did you attend Middlebury? You write like you did. They would be proud...even if you aren't an alumni.​
7:43 PM May 5th
Steven Goldleaf
There's a limit on the canvas size you have here? I think if you tug a little bit, you'll find that more canvas just rolls right out. A virtually endless supply.

Rob is a very generous, astute, and helpful fellow, and not a bad place to get started on your sabermetric journey--you were lucky to find him when you began to look, lucky and skilled, and you jumped on both. I wish you the best in your writing future, and look forward to reading anything you write.
7:28 PM May 5th
All I can say is: Keep at it.

I'm a beta reader for a friend of mine in England who has written five novels, one of which got published. He gets an honest critique from me, from a reader who is favorably disposed. Those of us who like his work like it immensely, but it's a minority taste. So after each novel makes the rounds of the publishers and is rejected, he publishes privately, most recently at Lulu. He sells a few copies, keeps his readership alive and stays motivated to try again. Needless to say, he doesn't make a living at it, but that doesn't matter at this point.

Dave, based on what I've seen here, I'd give a novel of yours a shot.
3:56 PM May 5th
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