Neyer gets to second base as WCL commissioner
Rob Neyer's first season as commissioner of the West Coast League included some experiences he never expected.
He dressed up as a mascot. There were first pitches to toss and all-stars to select. And more than a few dustups to settle.
Entering his second season, the Portland resident has a firmer grasp on the job — and his name on the baseballs.
"It actually came out pretty good. I was pretty shocked when I saw it," Neyer says of his autograph on the Baden baseballs. "I mean, you don't expect to see your name on a baseball."
Those baseballs went into play last week, when the collegiate wood-bat league opened its 15th season. It's the second season in the league for the Portland Pickles, who play their home games at Walker Stadium in Lents Park.
Neyer's connection to baseball as an author, historian and writer/editor for ESPN, followed by work for SB Nation and FOX Sports, didn't prepare him for the duties that come with the commissioner job.
One thing he did not envision was being up at 2 a.m., studying grainy video of an on-field kerfuffle, which happened a couple of times while Neyer was out of town on vacation.
"There were times when it seemed a bit overwhelming and I wasn't sure if I was doing a good job," he says. "I knew I was being conscientious, and I knew I was being fair. But there's more to it than that. You have to make good decisions."
Having such disputes resolved by someone independent of the club owners who serve as league directors was one reason the WCL decided in 2018 to hire a commissioner. In Neyer, the owners found someone with name recognition in baseball circles for his work as an editor and columnist at ESPN for 15 years and as the author or co-author of seven baseball books.
His most recent book, "Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game," was published in October and won the 2018 Casey Award as the year's best book about baseball. It addresses trends in baseball through the lens of one game between the Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics late in the 2017 season.
Handing down suspensions was the part of his job that gave him pause. Neyer, who turns 53 this month, wasn't certain he wanted to continue as Commissioner Neyer.
"That said, all those situations were resolved, and the people in the league for the most part seemed pretty happy with what I was doing. I got to meet a lot of great people," Neyer says.
"I think this is true of a lot of things in our lives: While I was in the middle of it, it was difficult to escape thinking about the negative parts of the job. The further I get away from it, the easier it is to focus on the positives."
In addition to taking in games at 10 of the 11 WCL ballparks in 2018 — he did not see a game at Walla Walla, Washington, but intends to make that one of his first stops this season — Neyer was thrilled to throw out the first pitch at a couple of games, and to spend one inning playing the Port Angeles Lefties' mascot during the WCL All-Star Game.
"I've always wanted to do that," he says.
For one inning, Neyer wore the Lefties' marmot costume and "did all the things I'd seen mascots do for my whole life — patting bald guys on the head, high-fiving little kids. It was a blast. I would have enjoyed doing it for the whole game, except that after one inning I was covered in sweat. And it was in the 60s and windy at the game. You can imagine what it's like at games when it's 90 degrees. It must be almost unbearable."
Neyer was so nervous the first time he was asked to throw out a first pitch he doesn't remember delivering it, though he says both his pregame pitches were in the area of the strike zone.
Another thrill was picking the teams for the WCL All-Star Game, a chore he took seriously.
"It sounds like a trivial thing if you're on the outside. But if you're on the inside, it's a big deal. Most of the players want to be All-Stars. The teams want as many of their players as they can get on the All-Star team. It's impossible to make everybody happy," Neyer says. "You're always going to have to leave off somebody. I would say there were three to five players who had legitimate cases to be on the All-Star team, and I just wasn't able to make it work."
As the primary contact point for companies interested in doing business with the WCL, Neyer connects prospective clients with team owners/operators. This offseason, highlights included a new deal with New Era to produce team caps, the use of TrackMan technology in six WCL parks and a shift in umpiring.
TrackMan technology is used in every major league park to measure pitch velocity and spin rate, the launch angle of hit balls and other analytical data. Ballparks in Longview, Bellingham, Walla Walla and Wenatchee, Washington, and in Bend added TrackMan. Goss Stadium at Oregon State, home of the Corvallis Knights, already had the technology.
For WCL players, Neyer notes, adding the opportunity for major league teams to access those analytics adds to the draw of spending their summer in the league.
In a model similar to that of the minor leagues, the WCL is turning to young umpires who want a career in pro baseball. For this season, 10 young umpires have been recruited from umpire school and will work and travel in two-person teams to the ballparks in Oregon and Washington.
In past seasons, the WCL contracted with local umpire associations. That will continue on a more limited basis.
"There will be some growing pains. But overall, the quality of the umpiring will be on par, if not better, than it has been," Neyer says. "We see the league as an apprenticeship, a place where young players can grow. The umpires sort of fit that same model."
The most significant change for the WCL in 2019 is the addition of the Ridgefield Raptors. The team will play in a new 1,800-seat facility at the Ridgefield Outdoor Recreation Complex north of Vancouver, Washington.
With the Raptors, the league has 12 teams, much better for scheduling than last season's 11-team circuit. The Ridgefield team also adds nearby rivals for the Pickles and Longview-based Cowlitz Black Bears.
Neyer believes opportunities exist for further expansion. He would not discuss potential locations but says the league could grow to 14 teams as soon as next summer.
Neyer is looking forward to growing as a commissioner this summer.
"It won't be as much fun the second time," he says. "But now, having done it for a year, I get to really dig in and try to figure out what a commissioner should be doing, instead of just trying to survive, which was basically Year One."
NEYER KEEPS BUSY
Between writing projects, St. Johns resident Rob Neyer is hosting a new weekly podcast for the Society of American Baseball Research.
"SABRcast with Rob Neyer" digs deep on baseball trends and analytics. It can be found on most podcast platforms.
A recent podcast featured a visit with former pitcher and current New York Yankees broadcaster David Cone.
Neyer's most recent book, "Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game," was published in October and won the 2018 Casey Award as the year's best book about baseball.