The Unnatural

Jamey Newberg's a major-league hit with his minor-league reports

"Every day you wake up with hope," says Hindman, who has been contributing to the Newberg Report almost since its inception. "There are kids you notice that something's starting to happen for them, and every day you look at what that kid did last night and imagine that kid being in Arlington. It's a good way to start the day. There are no problems. It's what-if, best-case scenarios. It's the joy of minor-league baseball. Anything is possible for these kids."

When we were kids, back when Steve Garvey and George Brett and Willie Stargell and Reggie Jackson were household names even in homes where no baseball was ever watched, Newberg and another friend and I would get together during summer afternoons to trade players' cards. We would buy them in bulk, in long boxes containing complete sets made by Topps or Donruss or Fleer. Sometimes we would leave the boxes unopened, in their plastic shrink-wrapping; occasionally we would bust open the collections and fondle the colorful cardboard and try to chew the dry slabs of gum that came in those wax packages.

I was more interested in the front of those baseball cards, the action poses of diamond heroes slugging and mugging for the camera. Newberg was interested only in the backs of the cards, where every statistic was contained, from the player's height and weight to what he hit in college. That was how he connected with players--not by seeing them on TV and reveling in their on-field heroics, but by knowing who they were and how they got there.

The pee-wee: The kid may yet get back in baseball.
The pee-wee: The kid may yet get back in baseball.

"I knew which guys were traded for which guys," he recalls. "They didn't even have to be Rangers. I always cared about player personnel and how teams are built. That always fascinated me, and I figured that would be something I wanted to do someday. Of course, I came to realize that getting a job running a major-league baseball team was about a hundred times more scarce than actually getting to play major-league baseball, but it was always something that I was interested in as long as I can remember."

But his passion for the pastime would not manifest itself till years later--1998, to be exact, and Newberg likes to be exact about such things.

Back then, he was a regular contributor to the Rangers message board on The Dallas Morning News' Web site, and there weren't many; this was, after all, when the Internet was still more rumor than fact. Newberg was writing about a 25-year-old right-handed pitcher the Rangers acquired in January, a nobody who had excelled in the Independent Northern League named Jeff Zimmerman. Newberg loved his story as much as the guy's potential--this dude from Canada who'd gone undrafted, played two seasons at Texas Christian University, ended up pitching in France in 1994 and wound up in Texas after faxing sign-me letters to every team in major-league baseball. Newberg became Zimmerman's biggest cheerleader on the site, while touting a few other prospects killing time, most notably Ruben Mateo, the outfielder who was poised to become this team's next Juan Gonzalez.

"I'd read maybe an article or two about Jeff in Baseball America, so I knew his background, and being a relief pitcher he's pitching every other day, and so I'm posting what he's doing, and I'm figuring out the Ranger bullpen, as always, needs a little boost and this Zimmerman guy's gonna help," Newberg recalls. "And I'd actually gotten the chance to see Mateo play in the minors a few times, and I've always been in love with big outfield arms. When I see a guy who can throw, he can do anything offensively and I have a soft spot for that. So I'm writing about Mateo and Zimmerman, and nobody else really knows about these guys, or really doesn't care."

Just as the 1998 season was starting, when the Morning News' site went down for a little tweaking, Newberg found out how much a few folks actually did care. Stranded without a place for hardball chitchat, a handful began e-mailing Newberg for updates about these minor-leaguers he'd been writing about. So Newberg would type up a few lines, using whatever he could find in Baseball America or some other far-flung source, and dash it off. Then his few friends told their few friends told their few friends, and Mike Rhyner, co-host of The Hardline on KTCK-AM (The Ticket), asked Newberg to appear on the show as a frequent guest.

"I started talking to him online a little bit, and in short order it became apparent I was talking to a guy who not only shared my affinity for minor-league baseball, but knew a hell of a lot more about it than I did," Rhyner says. "Over a period of time I found a lot of his analysis to be right on target. I don't have any doubt that if he wanted there to be a place in baseball for him, and he was willing to give up the legal profession, he could make it happen. He's that good."

Not long after that, he started showing up on TXCN's sports-news shows. And, like that, Newberg became a de facto expert on the Rangers' farm system.

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