12 September 2004

Weirdness with Rob Neyer, Steve Kettman, and Amazon.com...

I love Rob Neyer. I really do. Besides being someone who appears to be a very good, accessible analyst of Major League Baseball he, like Bill James, is a great writer. Entertaining, informative, funny- one of my very favorite baseball writers. His work for ESPN.com and his books/ essays are some of my favorite to read on the modern game. His most recent, a collaboration with Bill James, is called The Neyer/ James Guide to Pitchers and it is excellent.

But, to put it bluntly, Rob Neyer did not like Steve Kettman's new book, One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America, and quite honestly, I can't blame him. I didn't read the entire book, but a sizeable portion of it was overwrought, childish and silly- I can't claim authority on the tome, but I certainly think the disgust with the material Rob showed was called for.

What happened next is interesting. Rob, on his website, describes his reaction to the book:
Immediately I sat down and read a few pages. I didn’t care for it much, but neither did I pass immediate judgment. I wanted to like this book. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind for those particular pages. It happens. So I gently laid the book down, with plans to give it another try later, when I was in a different frame of mind.

That’s exactly what I did, the next day. But while my frame of mind might have been different, my reaction was not. Or rather, my reaction was not better; it was worse, much worse. After reading a dozen or so pages, I stopped. And threw the book across the room. I’d never thrown a book in anger, and I hope I never do again. It’s not something I’m proud of, because I love books and anyway there’s nothing rational about throwing one.

But this book offended me. I don’t know why, exactly. I’m offended when a baseball writer won’t consider a pitcher when he’s filling out his Most Valuable Player ballot, because the rules clearly state that pitchers must be considered. That offends me because it’s just so bloody unprofessional. But this is different. I’m sure that Steve Kettmann tried to write a good book, and I’m sure his editor tried to turn Kettmann’s manuscript into a good book. It just didn’t happen, not even close. And I guess what offends me -- as a writer, yes, but also as a reader -- is that thousands of people will wind up spending something like $25 on a book that’s not worth the paper on which it’s printed, mostly because they don't know any better. There are so many wonderful baseball books sitting on the bookstore shelves, waiting for good homes, that it offends me to think about how many unsuspecting readers will spend their money on this one instead. I wasn’t personally offended. But I was offended.

So, in reaction, Rob decided to act. His mode of action was to be a negative review of the book on amazon.com, and he intended to do it under a pen name.
Why a pen name? Because I didn’t want this to be about me. If I used my real name, people would notice. It wouldn’t do Kettmann any good (because people would, I figured, take it more seriously), and it wouldn’t do me any good (because Kettmann’s cronies might, I figured, take revenge by savaging my books). I’m not saying it was the right thing to do, but the truth is that I didn’t give it a lot of thought. There’s a long and honorable history of anonymous writing in this country, and I didn’t even imagine that it could do anybody any good if I wrote as myself. Instead the review and its (anonymous) author would be ignored.

Here's where things get slightly sticky for Rob. Though I certainly empathize with what he's saying and can see his point vis-a-vis not wanting to draw attention to himself, unfortunately, rarely would a discovery of such an act by a member of the media be treated entirely (or at all) with logic. Instead, you'd get reporters like Tracy Ringolsby, who filed the following report in his Rocky Mountain News column yesterday:
Rob Neyer went too far last week.

Neyer used an alias in a review posted on Amazon.com that shredded the recently released book, One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Fenway.

Neyer is entitled to his opinion, but hiding behind a fake name to trash a book seriously undermines his credibility, particularly considering he also wrote a book about Fenway. Among Neyer's complaints was having to pay $25 for a book. But he received a free copy because the book wasn't available for purchase when he made his review public.

The alias quickly was exposed, much to Neyer's surprise, because of Amazon.com's setup. Once he was outed, Neyer put his name on the review, which was removed from the site the next day.

On his personal Web site, Neyer resumed his war against One Day at Fenway, explaining that he wanted to use a fake name because - and this is a sign of self-importance - he believed using his own name would bring too much attention to the review.

But if he didn't want to bring attention to the review, why did he write it, then post it on Amazon.com?

Neyer said his reaction to the book - which received a rave review from Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane - was not personal but merely the result of his repulsion to the book. Nobody knows for sure, except Neyer.

But his boorish complaints about being exposed, his attempt to divert the attention from his own misstep and his complaints that positive reviews of the book were written by friends and family of the author (Steve Kettmann) create the appearance of a temper tantrum by someone with an ax to grind.

What can't be denied is Neyer left himself open for criticism because he wasn't honest enough to put his name on the review he wrote until his ruse was exposed.

First, the inaccuracies, which appear above in bold.

  1. Firstly, Neyer didn't complain that HE had to pay $25 dollars for the book. Part of his criticism of the book included the hope that no one would waste $25 on the book. Neyer never included himself in those ranks.

  2. Neyer's "ruse" was never discovered by Amazon- it was discovered by New York Daily News writer Ken Davidoff, and NOT because of a "setup"- simply because Davidoff did some homework. How Davidoff was tipped to the review's true author is something Neyer has the right to be curious about.

  3. "This is a sign of self-importance..." Of course, this is in no way part of the factual reportage Ringolsby would presumably be aiming at. It's childish speculation, something that has spread through most baseball writing like a cancer. Neyer explained his actions fairly reasonably and logically, even including the caveat, "it probably wasn't the right thing to do." He didn't like the book, and he wanted to comment on it in an anonymous way given his name-recognition. I don't get any self-importance here. Ignoring that including his name on the review would skew the issue and Neyer's intent is just being silly.

  4. The reference to Beane is intended to make Neyer look stupid, as it has zero relevance to the rest of the issue. Of course, for an "I hate statheads" guy like Ringolsby, it is incomprehensible that two men who share a point of view on player evaluation would have different tastes in books (!). If Neyer possibly tipped off an agenda with his missive, so does Ringolsby here. Any reading of his columns with some regularity would notice a sizable ax to grind on HIS behalf over such an issue. His eyes surely lit up when this story came down the pike.

  5. The idea that Rob knows Kettman or has a personal interest in letting people know (possibly with no merit substantively) his book is horrible would be a fair question -- open to criticism based on what Rob wrote on his site regarding the matter... if he hadn't also written this:
    Kettmann, who I’ve never met, nor heard of before the book arrived, apparently came up with a pretty cool idea. He would, with the help of various other writers and reporters, document a single Red Sox-Yankees game by tying together the experiences and reactions of various fans (most famous, a few not), players, and team employees (most famous, a few not).

    So unless Ringolsby is calling Neyer a liar too...
  6. Neyer never complained about being exposed, he complained about the double standard towards the fraudulent POSITIVE reviews being ignored while his very real and impassioned review was killed. He could have approached his idea better, but he certainly had an informed and objective opinion he was expressing. I fail to read any complaining in Rob's website missive over being outed, only alterior issues.

Here's the problem though- the last line of Ringolsby's article- "Neyer left himself open for criticism because he wasn't honest enough to put his name on the review he wrote until his ruse was exposed"- is entirely correct. While his original intention- simply to remove the inherited subjectivity his name would have carried (though erroneous- he claims to have read the book with a critical eye, and is certainly allowed to hate a book)- was perfectly acceptible, he must realize that as the public figure he fully understands he is, someone uncovering the review's true origins would leave him open to substantial criticism. That doesn't make it well-reasoned criticism, but that should surprise no one either.

Part of Neyer's explanation on his site (see link above) does get a little heavy handed. His scathing response to Kettman's relatives pumping up the book with falsified praise is a little disingenuous- does he think that doesn't happen often? Does he think the Amazon.com review boards are some bastion of credibility, bound be the same prohibitive unwritten rules of journalism?
And now I was personally offended. For one thing, somebody -- Kettmann, or somebody close to him -- was shitting all over what I wrote, orchestrating a campaign of disinformation in direct response to my honest and considered opinion. For another, somebody was shitting all over every single Amazon customer who relies on customer reviews for help with buying decisions. If every book comes with half a dozen five-star reviews from the author’s friends and family, then what good are the reviews? They’re not worth the bandwidth they’re printed on, that’s what good they are.

Though he's right, the anger strikes me as being a bit misplaced here. Being offended for future readers who may one day unwittingly buy this book on the strength of some vaguely worded, poorly written Amazon reviews is probably a waste of one's emotions. Though I'm assuming, it seems natural he's angry that a book as bad as this one may be gaining a foothold in a field he is both a master at, and a commercial disappointment at. I'm not saying Neyer hated the book out of jealousy- I'm saying he really hated the book, and understandably raged at the thought that it may become successful because of a few bullshit reviews, while his brilliant books simply don't get bought on a level they most certainly should.

At the end of the day- this was some compelling story for a nationally recognized writer, but for one with a number of certain enemies (Bill Simmons, Joe Morgan, Peter Gammons, Tracy Ringolsby), he may have made life a bit easy on them, which is something he's been good at avoiding. He may be right in principle here, it made him look bad.

BUT! You should buy his books.

Buy/ read up on Feeding the Green Monster here.

Buy/ read up on Baseball Dynasties here.

Buy/ read up on Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups here, which includes expanded articles discussing and examinging Rob's selections.

Buy/ read up on The Neyer/ James Guide to Pitchers here.

Article references:
Neyer's Website explanation: http://www.robneyer.com/OneDayFenway.html
Tracy Ringolsby's Rocky Mountain News column: http://rockymountainnews.com/drmn/sports_columnists...html
Ken Davidoff's amended column (per Rob's request): http://www.newsday.com/sports/columnists...columnists
One Day at Fenway's Amazon.com page: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews...0DER

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