I met Rob Neyer in 1996 in Seattle, joining him at an amazing company called Starwave, which was charged with creating and producing what was then called ESPNet.SportsZone.com. (Really.)
Unless someone can prove otherwise, Neyer was the Web's first full-time online sports columnist. And there is a good chance he was the first full-time online columnist for ANY mainstream news company.
Rob was (and remains) a pioneer in not simply statistics in baseball media, but the application of those stats in talking about baseball.
And his contributions -- not to mention his longevity on the ESPN.com platform, basically for its entire existence -- is why it's such a big deal that he announced today he is leaving ESPN.com.
There is a strong argument to be made -- one that I personally believe in (and I'm not alone) -- that Rob has done more to popularize the understanding of baseball statistics by baseball fans than any writer in baseball history, including Michael Lewis.
(I hope that in the not-too-distant future, Rob receives the Ford Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame, because he has already earned it.)
I will leave it to someone else to quantify Rob's accomplishments by trying to figure out how many readers he has reached over his 15-year career at ESPN.com -- or qualify Rob's impact by figuring out how many baseball writers today found him an inspiration:
Not only can you make a living writing about sports on the Web, but you can be really, really good at it.
At ESPN.com, Rob combined accessible voice with smart writing. He wrote columns, did mailbags with readers, participated in marathon chats (at one point holding the ESPN.com chat-marathon record) and applied his style to his most recent project, the SweetSpot blog. (To say nothing of his amazing books, a totally different subject, but part of the whole Neyer story.)
I'll echo something I wrote about Peter King last week -- and Rob preceded King by at least two years. It can't be understated that back in 1996, people were just trying to figure out how to write for this new medium. Many were doing a lousy job at it, mostly applying what they knew from other mediums -- like newspapers -- and simply plopping in the same everything.
(This is the place where Rob would insist -- and I would concur -- that we pay tribute to Rob's longtime editor at ESPN.com, certainly during those formative, influential years of the late-90s, David Schoenfield. Without David's leadership and vision and collusion and sense of revolution as an editor, Rob wouldn't have had nearly the impact he did. Same goes for longtime ESPN.com publisher Geoff Reiss, who originally had the vision to hire Rob and give him that unprecedented role as sports' first full-time online writer/columnist. I count both David and Geoff as close friends and marvel at their impact, here and elsewhere.)
But perhaps because he didn't come from a newspaper or traditional media background, Neyer could allow his style and voice to flow more naturally. He was (and is) made for this medium, and the medium is better off for his contributions in its early formative years.
(I still have a copy of a column Rob wrote for me about college basketball -- I was ESPN.com's college hoops editor -- and it always made the coverage better to have Rob's contribution, almost always ideas he came up with on his own, noodling at his desk.)
Don't know what's next for Rob, but as he might describe it: 15 years creates a lot of data to draw conclusions, and it is easy to predict his continued success.
And it is easy to thank him for his 15 wonderful years at ESPN.com. In a medium as fleeting as online, it is perhaps the highest compliment to pay: Rob Neyer has mattered.