Rob Neyer

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Friday, November 1
 
The demise of the Handbook

By Rob Neyer
ESPN.com

Today, something is missing.

November 1 used to mean something special. For 13 years, November 1 was the official publication date of the STATS Major League Handbook.

There is no Major League Handbook this November 1, though. The book is dead, killed in part by the company's very own success. You see, a few years ago, STATS was purchased by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. And then last summer, STATS sold its publishing arm to The Sporting News (which is owned by Paul Allen, another media mogul).

The way I read this -- and if I'm being overly unfair or overly simplistic, please forgive me -- is that The Sporting News threw a hefty chunk of dough at STATS because The Sporting News was sick of competing with books that were published earlier and contained more information. Better books.

Ain't life grand?

In addition to my professional attachment to the Major League Handbook -- I use it every day, and so it's the most valuable book in my house -- I also have an emotional attachment to the book, having spent two-and-a-half years working at STATS. My contribution to the Handbook was small -- I think I came up with one minor idea that was implemented -- but I always thought it was the best thing STATS did. Nothing but numbers, including many that you couldn't find anywhere else in print. And best of all, available shortly after the World Series.

Granted, today there are few things in the Handbook you can't find on the Web, updated by the minute. But in many cases, a book is still the perfect tool. Even with high-speed Internet access, I can still go from Jaret Wright's 2001 ERA to Craig Biggio's career HBP faster with the book than with my computer. And there was plenty of information in the Handbook that is not available on the Internet, and won't be available in the Sporting News books, either. Their Baseball Register and Baseball Guide will supposedly contain new information next year, but they've been doing the same books for a long, long time, and they're not likely to make any big changes now.

You want to know how many times Biggio has been hit by a pitch? For that information, now you'll have to check the Web. You want to know how many times Biggio has grounded into a double play? Ditto. Apparently, the new Baseball Register will contain only three new stats for each player that it didn't have before: on-base percentage, slugging percentage and caught stealing for hitters; and save opportunities, intentional walks and home runs allowed for pitchers. Still missing will be categories such as intentional walks, home and road home runs for hitters, and holds for pitchers.

Essentially, the most indispensable tool in print for the statistically-inclined baseball fan is gone. No, this doesn't rank high on the list of tragedies that befall the planet every day. But yes, it does make me a little sad.

All that said, my emotional investment in the Handbook is but a trifle next to those of Bill James and John Dewan, the creative and business geniuses behind the first Major League Handbook. I was there for its creation -- before I worked for STATS, I worked for James -- but my memories of that creation are hazy, so yesterday I got in touch with Bill and John ...

Neyer: In 1989, there were two books -- Who's Who in Baseball and the Baseball Register -- that listed some stats for every major-league player. Both books had been published for decades, and neither had changed significantly in decades.

What made you think there was room for another annual, and that you guys were the ones who should publish it?

Dewan: Two major things come to mind: 1) We thought there would be interest in the complete listing of stats, not just the usual ones that other publications were showing. 2) We wanted to have the information available much earlier than the other publications. For the most part the other books were coming out the following year, even as late as March. We knew there were at least some people who would want it earlier, even if it was just us!

In fact, I would say that was the major impetus for everything we did. As baseball fans, we wanted the information ourselves -- in particular, better and faster information. And then hoped that there were enough people out there like us that felt the same way.

James: It was very simple: There was data about the season that I wanted to have in a convenient form, and I wanted that data as soon as I could get it, not six months later. Wasn't anything complicated about it.

As to being the right people to publish this. . .who says we were the right people to publish it? We had the ability to publish it; We had the desire to publish it. We decided to do it.

Neyer: At that point (at least as I remember it), STATS was just beginning to connect with individual customers? How did you market that first edition? And do you remember how many copies you sold?

Dewan: STATS was unknown, but Bill James was not. His involvement in the book was major, not only because he was well-known, but also his involvement in the design process. The concept for the Major League Handbook was primarily his from the start. Another example: the design for the career section was nearly identical to designs that Bill used in his Historical Abstract. STATS was the workhorse.

I don't remember the sales numbers but it was probably under three thousand copies.

James: I not only don't remember the sales numbers; I probably never knew them. I was thrilled to have the book, and I was amazed that John and Don Zminda had been able to produce the book essentially free of errors in about four weeks. My experience, in dealing with publishers, was that it would take eight months to set up a meeting to talk about a book. We set up a meeting, outlined the book, and they produced it. Wow.

Neyer: Oh, I wanted to ask this earlier ... whose idea was it?

Dewan: Bill, correct me if I'm wrong here, but my recollection is that the concept of doing the Major League Handbook was yours from the start.

James: My memory is that it was my idea, yes. I think I wrote up a three-page proposal, and we met and discussed it, and you guys ran with it. I think that I had wanted to publish a book like this since the 1970s. It was just that, by about 1990, we had reached the point where we could do it.

Neyer: John, without getting into specific numbers, how would you characterize the popularity of the book, going forward from that first edition in 1989?

Dewan: The sales of the book increased steadily over the first few years and I would certainly characterize the book as a success.

Neyer: So the first book was published in the fall of 1989, and then the years go by ... Both of you see your families grow, you see STATS grow, eventually the company is sold to Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, and your ties to STATS are cut. But still the Major League Handbook continued; the 2002 edition made it a baker's dozen. Thirteen editions, each better than the last.

And now it's gone, the victim of ... well, who knows? I don't believe the Handbook died a natural death, but that's neither here nor there. I guess what I want to know is, do you guys feel the loss? Was the Handbook something to which you had an emotional attachment?

James: It was, but I can't say I'm wounded or anything. Things run their course. What's next?

Dewan: Yes, I did have an emotional attachment. Don Zminda, my partner at STATS for so many years who did so much for STATS Publishing, sent me an article by Alan Schwarz at Baseball America about the demise of the STATS books. Here was my response ... "Don, thanks for forwarding the article. I was, sadly, aware of this. The hardest thing in life for a parent is the death of a child. Maybe that analogy is a bit strong, but it sort of feels like that."

James: What the world needs now changes from moment (apart from that "love, sweet love" stuff). What the baseball world needs changes from moment to moment. Until we see what The Sporting News does, what other people do, it's hard to know whether there is a space there or not.

Dewan: Even when we used to publish the Major League Handbook, I would still get The Sporting News Register and Guide every year. They have always been excellent publications, and if the Register comes out in December, that's a good improvement. I like to think we can take some credit for that improvement as a result of the success of the Major League Handbook.

Neyer: I've got every edition of the Register and Guide ever published, so of course I'll keep buying them, too. But sometime in December ain't the same as November 1, and the fact is that this winter will be the worst in a long time for baseball information on the printed page. And I think it's a real shame.





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