PORT ANGELES — Attempting to avoid a public speaking engagement nearly cost Rob Neyer a shot at becoming the West Coast League commissioner.
Installed in the position in May, Neyer is visiting Port Angeles for the first time as “the commish” Monday and Tuesday for the league’s All-Star festivities — the Saltwater Splashdown home run derby that was held Monday night at Hollywood Beach and the All-Star game at Civic Field tonight.
Scheduled to speak on a January evening at the annual banquet of the Old Timers Baseball Association of Portland, Neyer was working on a different project at a Portland coffee house that afternoon.
“I have a conscious desire not to speak in front of people, so I was subconsciously avoiding the event.
“A friend texted me and asked if I needed a ride, and I said, ‘Oh, yeah that’s tonight.’ ”
Neyer made it on his own and offered his talk about baseball’s status as American’s national pastime.
“The thesis is it remains the national pastime even though we don’t watch as much of it on television,” Neyer said. “The game is still very healthy and still part of our culture, especially at the minor league level, and collegiate summer leagues like the WCL are thriving.”
Corvallis Knights’ CEO Dan Segel was on hand for the banquet.
“For whatever reason, Dan thought I would be a good fit [as commissioner],” Neyer said. “The league hadn’t had a commissioner for a while, it used a president model which rotated between team owners.”
Neyer said the league had a desire to find someone who wasn’t involved in league as an owner or a partner, with no business interest to serve as a relatively objective arbitator and as a longtime baseball writer, he fit the bill.
He spent 1996 through 2011 at ESPN, followed by stints at SB Nation and Fox Sports, and is the author of seven books, with his latest, “Power Ball,” due out this fall.
“Dan sold me to the WCL’s Board of Directors, the principal owners of all 11 teams, and we went from there,” Neyer said.
Now an insider
In his first few months in the position, Neyer has been “seeing how everything works” as the “ultimate insider,” a change from much of his career writing columns — many with more of a statistical analysis bent.
“I’ve spent 25-ish years in baseball as mostly an outsider,” Neyer said. “I didn’t talk to a lot of players and the majority of my career as a writer I considered myself as an outsider. In this league I’m the ultimate insider. I have the phone number of all the owners and head coaches.”
“In the past few days I’ve spoken to Alan Embree [former MLB pitcher who now coaches the Bend Elks] and I spent some time with Brian McRae the Victoria HarbourCats manager. I was a big fan of his dad [former player and manager Hal McRae] when I was a kid.”
Having the pulse of the league and the ability to hand out league discipline in the form of suspensions, isn’t always enjoyable, but Neyer said it’s “incredibly interesting.”
“At my age 52, and working in this profession for as long as I have, some subjects start to seem old,” Neyer said referencing his reluctance to write another in a long line of “Who was snubbed in MLB All-Star balloting” articles as an example.
Neyer is responsible for reading objection reports filed by WCL umpires and taking any action he feels is necessary.
“We basically follow the NCAA rulebook and the coaches and players are accustomed to it,” Neyer said. “Some of the discipline doesn’t need discretion. If a player or any coach besides the head coach is ejected it’s an automatic one-game suspension.
“I do have discretion if somebody want to push it, to remove or increase the length of a suspension, but that hasn’t happened yet.”
Neyer considers ruling on these umpire-manager conflicts as the hardest part of the job.
“I take zero pleasure in suspending anyone and there are times when you don’t know if you are doing the right thing,” he said. “We do have video for almost all of our games and in some ways it makes the job easier. But you become concerned with words and we don’t have audio. So you ask umpires about how many F bombs a coach dropped. And it’s specific in the report, the ump says six, the manager says two and the ump started it and that’s a tough situation to have to choose between two conflicting accounts.
“I believe most of the time everybody is being sincere in their reporting but our memories are faulty and there is science on this.”
Neyer said the best days are when nothing comes up, and the second-best days are when coaches and umpires can reach middle ground.
He recently had the chance to let Corvallis catcher Cole Hamilton know he had made the South Division All-Star team.
Neyer called it his favorite moment as commissioner so far.
“I had just sent word to the teams about their all-stars and I was at the game in Corvallis near the Knights locker room and this catcher walked up the hallway and Dan Segel asked me if I wanted to break the news to him,” Neyer said.
“Cole got a kick out of being name an all-star and it made me wish I could have gone around and informed all 42 WCL All-Stars that they had made the team.”
Neyer has enjoyed what he’s heard about how well the Lefties have been embraced by the community.
“It’s a huge improvement over what we had with the [Kitsap] Blue Jackets,” Neyer said. “Matt Acker deserves an immense amount of credit for locating a better market and building it up. I know he does a ton of community outreach and has worked to establish all the right relationships. It’s great to have a team right across the Strait from Victoria, the travel issues are better, so it’s basically full-speed ahead.”
That goes for the WCL as a whole, which recently announced the league’s 12th team will play in Ridgefield in booming Clark County north of Vancouver, starting in 2019.
“It’s great to have a team only 15-20 miles away from the Portland Pickles and the Cowlitz Black Bears are about the same distance to the north, so it will make road trips easier for those teams, should foster some good rivalries between those teams and even Corvallis to the south and gives us a good cluster of teams along I-5.
“Ultimately, some folks think growing the league to 14 or 16 teams would be a good thing. Lots of good markets, and the Pacific Northwest, including British Columbia, is obviously a huge expanse and there lots of places you could put more teams.”