The Unnatural

It begins, as it always does, with a dream. A kid grows up wanting to be a baseball player. He sleeps with his glove beneath his pillow, his bat next to his bed. His walls are adorned with posters of players; his drawers are filled with their baseball cards. He plays catch with his father, and no matter where he goes, the kid wears the cap of his favorite team. Sometimes that child will pretend to be a player on his favorite team, and always he's at the plate with the game tied in the bottom of the ninth with two strikes, three balls, two outs and the bases loaded.

If he's lucky, that child will grow into a young man who plays Little League. He will make his mother buy him cleats, and he will walk everywhere in them; the sound of clack-clack-clack will help him pretend he's a pro walking the tunnel out to the field, where the fans announce his arrival with a conquering hero's roar. And if that lucky boy is gifted, he will grow into a teenager who plays for his high school's varsity team, and he will go to bed each night dreaming of going even further, but for most the dream never materializes. The child will become a man with a job, a wife, a child or two of his own. The dream dies a slow death, till it vanishes as though it never even existed.

Jamey Newberg once had that dream, which is not what makes him special. He played ball all his life, in every league available to a young boy growing up in Dallas. He even started at shortstop for the Hillcrest High School varsity team when he was just a freshman; he pitched a little for the team when he got closer to graduation. In 1987, and again in 1989, Newberg tried to join the University of Texas at Austin baseball team as a walk-on. During one tryout game, he had four at-bats--tripled once, doubled another time, walked a third time. He walked off the field thinking, I may have freakin' made the ball team. Nope. Sorry. Still, Jamey's wife, Ginger, recalls legendary UT coach Cliff Gustafson remarking to her about how good her then-boyfriend was.

"Jamey didn't expect he would make it," she says. "He was disappointed, but he moved on." Instead Newberg played intramural ball, and later on his law firm's softball team, and he was better than most. He could throw a man out at home plate all the way from center field; probably still could, if he hadn't torn his rotator cuff and forced an operation to repair it.

So Jamey Newberg got closer than most to The Dream, but he came up well short. He knew guys who'd go on to play in the minors and even take a sip of coffee in the majors. But he went on with his life--off to law school and into a law firm, into marriage, into fatherhood, into a world where he'd be just a guy who watched baseball but would never again play it competitively. For most guys, that would have been enough. That would have been it. The dream? What dream?

Maybe it just becomes a different dream, that's all.

This very afternoon, Newberg will go to his job at a downtown law firm--Vial, Hamilton, Koch & Knox--where, for a decade, he has been paid well to defend insurance companies against personal-injury lawsuits. But this morning, as he has done for some eight years, he will get out of bed while the wife and daughter are sleeping, turn on the computer and check to see how well all of the Texas Rangers' minor-league teams did the night before. Some are close to home: the Frisco RoughRiders, the Rangers' AA team, and the Triple-A Oklahoma City RedHawks. Others are in faraway places such as Stockton, California, and Spokane, Washington, and Clinton, Iowa, and Surprise, Arizona, where teams have names like the LumberKings and the Ports.

He will check out box scores and game reports, which have been sent to him by another local attorney named Mike Hindman, who gets up each morning at 5 to pen detailed recaps of last night's action and select the stars of each game. (In case you were wondering, Emerson Frostad of the Clinton LumberKings, the Rangers' low-A team in the Midwest League, went two-for-four, with a three-run double, in the team's 13-5 win over Burlington on July 15.) Newberg will also look at the Web sites for the dailies around town and in the tiny papers in the distant farm teams' cities, scouring the fine print for revelatory tidbits. And, finally, he will see what Baseball America, the revered minor-league scouting publication, had to say about any of the Rangers' prospects.

He will then take all of this information and write his Newberg Report, an e-mailed newsletter sent to the most ardent Texas Rangers fans and nearly all of the families of players shuffling through the team's minor-league system. At the end of each season, he publishes an incredibly dense book touting not only next season's prospects, but recounting the highs and lows of the previous year. To read them is to glimpse into the Rangers' future and see Andrew Wishy and Jason Botts and Kelvin Jimenez tossing around the crystal ball.

Newberg says some 3,000 people subscribe to the report, gratis, and a few hundred people buy the books, which cost $22. But those numbers are misleading: He says his Web site, www.newbergreport.com, attracted some 2 million hits last month; at least 500,000 people went deep into the site. Beat writers at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Daily Oklahoman and other papers occasionally pull something from the report to use in their minor-league notes; ESPN's Peter Gammons is a fan. And then there are higher-ups in Rangers management who read the report, including owner Tom Hicks and the execs who run the farm system. Serious men take Newberg seriously.

"I've gotten the chance to speak to many fans who don't work within the game, and among those people, Jamey provides perspective and analysis on the upper end of thoughtfulness," says John Lombardo, the Rangers' director of minor-league operations. "Whether he is right or wrong isn't the point. He takes a very thoughtful, analytical and correct approach to what he's trying to formulate."

"It amazes me the information this guy acquires," says Grady Fuson, the Rangers' assistant general manager. "Sometimes it feels like Jamey knows what we do before we do it."

In truth, his is less a newsletter than a fan's note, in which Newberg not only recaps the failures and successes of players from Spokane to Arlington but also offers his suggestions about what to do with certain players, speculates about what might happen to others, heralds the unknown heroes biding their time in the nowhere leagues and, occasionally, mentions his favorite band or talks about what his 4-year-old daughter's doing. In between insights into the meteoric rise of RoughRiders shortstop Ian Kinsler or the struggles of lefty pitcher Nick Bierbrodt or the promotion of outfielder Juan Senreiso from Clinton to Stockton, Newberg will throw you the occasional curve. Take this tidbit from his May 18 report, which began with a discourse on the upcoming Rule 4 Draft and ended with "I never was much of a Van Halen fan, but man, have there ever been more unique backup vocals than those wailed by Michael Anthony?"

Most who knew of Newberg before they came to know Newberg pictured him as the quintessential geek, one of the lonely and lost who had gorged himself on the minutiae of the minors. They envisioned him as a frumpy, disheveled and stained man locked in his room, with obscure players and their decimal-point stats as his only company. The Internet is crowded with fans who want to get in the game, be it sports or the movie business, but refuse to move out of their parents' basement.

"I think people who have never seen or met him probably expect to see some guy with a pocket protector and a lineup of pens and slide rules in his pocket," says Eric Nadel, the longtime radio voice of the Rangers. "He's exactly the opposite." Indeed, he's as normal as they come, a coat-and-tie man with a good job and a family, which will get even bigger with the arrival of a son in August. The worst thing you can say about him is that he's fanatical: He knows something about all the players signed to a contract with the Rangers, no matter where they play or how little they play. But he is no obsessive; his is merely the pursuit that became a small industry and an enormous necessity for the parents and wives of minor-league players, and the diversion that allowed him to stay in the game even when life took him out of it.

"I feel fortunate that I'm able to do both the report and my job and give what I consider to be all my energy to both," Newberg says. "When I'm in the office I work my tail off to do the best job I can for my clients, but when I'm watching a baseball game I'm not feeling guilty about watching baseball thinking, 'Oh, my God, I'm not thinking about the law right now.' So I think it's been a healthy way to not go insane sticking with just one of them. A healthy, if insane diversion."

Everyone interviewed for this story, from Rangers management to the parents of players, asks the same thing sooner or later: How the hell does he do this? And, also, they wonder: Why the hell does he do this? They're in awe of his commitment to the minor-league system of a major-league team that in the past often exhibited bush-league behavior by throwing big money after bad players.

But Newberg and Hindman, both in their mid-30s, don't care much about the yesterdays. That's not why these guys spend their free time poring over the statistics of kids playing in the nowhere leagues. They're all about the promise of tomorrow, when the first-round pick clicks and the undrafted nobody zips through low-A and lands in Arlington the anonymous hero. Look only at this year's team, thus far a worst-to-first success story in which the overpaid famous are all gone, to be replaced by the young heroes of Newberg's books: Mark Teixeira at first base, Michael Young at second, Hank Blalock at third. These are the "kids" Alex Rodriguez once grumbled about having to baby-sit; these are the kids, all in their mid- to late 20s, Newberg has been trumpeting as the Rangers' potential saviors ever since they were selected. While the rest of us wonder how this ragtag bunch of discount wonders managed to lead the American League West in mid-July, Newberg proudly and silently wears that toldyaso grin.

"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.

"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.

"It was always really hard to get information about the minor-leaguers," Eric Nadel says. "We rarely talked about them on the air, especially anything below Triple-A. We didn't really know anything about the draftees each year. But since Jamey's come along, now everybody's a lot more aware of it, and I think he has a lot to do with that. They don't have to work to go find out who the Ranger prospects are and how they're doing and what their stories are, because Jamey does it all for you."

At first, Newberg wrote for the fans, and for himself. Then, he discovered, word of his report reached the families of players drafted by the team. Moms and dads awaited Newberg's e-mails the way a parent waits on a child's postcards from summer camp. For the first time, they were able to read just how well their son was doing and what his chances--his real chances, not what the kid or his coach said--were of reaching the next level in the system.

"It's been a lifesaver for us," says Laynce Nix Sr., whose son was drafted in the fourth round in June 2000. "Laynce was in Florida, then Savannah and then Florida again, and it just enabled us every morning to have a chance to see what he did the night before. From the moment Laynce was drafted, Jamey had a sneaking suspicion about Laynce. He said, 'Keep an eye on this guy.'"

Newberg got to be close with a few of the players: He went to the funeral for Laynce Nix's grandfather, and he was especially tight with pitcher Spike Lundberg, a 26th-round pick in 1999 who had played shortstop in college but worked his way into becoming a real prospect. Lundberg was the first player to e-mail Newberg; he wondered how he got his info, said he liked reading about the other players in the system and got some teammates to sign up for the newsletter.

Mark Teixeira's father, Tex, began reading The Newberg Report within a week of his son's being taken in the first round in June 2001. They met and became friendly, to the point that Tex, who lives in Annapolis, Maryland, and acts as his son's financial adviser, felt comfortable enough to ask Newberg if there was an attorney in his office who could help Mark establish Texas residency. "Just from reading his stuff I felt comfortable with Jamey," Tex says. "Here's a guy I can trust. It's not just about how the kids are doing on the field but how he [and Mike] and others view these kids as people."

That intimacy can occasionally lead to some gloomy moments. Newberg and Hindman had chronicled the Rangers' 2000 first-round draft pick Scott Heard, a catcher drafted right out of high school in San Diego. His parents signed up for The Newberg Report, as they all do. But it became evident within a couple of seasons that Heard, who was struggling in Stockton, was one of those prospects who was nothing but potential. Newberg and Hindman began wondering aloud whether his career had permanently stalled; a batting average around .200 spoke for itself. Even so, Hindman says, actually putting it in print was "uncomfortable," because nobody likes to tell a parent his son is a disappointment.

Because Newberg and Hindman have become friendly with players and parents, they're privy to information long before the local media--and, on occasion, even before Rangers management. But they will not report something they've overheard, be it clubhouse whisper or a tidbit they get directly from a player or his parent. They did not write about how struggling pitcher John Barnett had to be talked into not quitting after his second season, though his folks had told them so; he eventually walked out of spring training in Arizona, having come to realize a life in baseball wasn't meant to be.

Newberg and Hindman do not want to be known as The Drudge Report of the Rangers' minor-league system; they will not say anything bad about a young kid for fear of labeling someone a failure before he's had time to prove himself. They share their opinions, but never in a nasty tone; they're honest but forgiving, fans first and journalists, they insist, almost never.

"I'm not selling papers," Newberg says. "That's not my purpose. People say I'm baseball media, and I say I'm not. I'm a fan. I'm just writing my opinions, and people care enough to read them. There have been things over the years that I've found out; players will tell me, or players' parents will tell me, maybe even the Rangers will tell me something, but I don't write it. And if a player tells me something, who knows if it's true? They've got an agenda. They're all fighting their own teammates to get up to the big leagues."

At first, Rangers management was suspicious of Jamey Newberg. Who the hell was this guy? What was his agenda? Why was he writing all this stuff about these unknown, unheralded prospects? And where was he getting his information? Their attitude bordered on paranoia, to the point that execs high up within the organization worried that maybe he was working for some player's agent or even a scout for another team who was out to sink these guys.

Newberg never hid his report. From the very beginning he sent it directly to Reid Nichols, then the head of the farm system, a position he now holds with the Milwaukee Brewers. At first, Nichols was spooked. It was his job to protect these players, and here was a guy who made the whole organization feel a little vulnerable. So a few months before the start of the 2000 season, John Lombardo, who was then Nichols' assistant, sent Newberg an e-mail that said Nichols wanted to meet at the Ballpark in Arlington, where some prospects were gathering for a sort of career development day. Newberg was giddy. At last, someone in the Rangers organization wants to meet me, he recalls thinking. Pinch me.

When he got to the ballpark he found Nichols alone, sitting in the second row behind third base. Some guys were on the field taking batting practice. Newberg was ecstatic. But he was greeted with the cool skepticism of a man who just couldn't believe the only motivation behind all this was a fan's good will. For the first 45 minutes, Nichols peppered Newberg with questions, wanting to know how he was getting his info. Newberg told him, repeatedly, it came from newspapers and prospect handbooks and box scores--all public stuff, man, seriously. Nichols finally figured out the guy was on the up-and-up.

"I found out he was a genuine fan and a bright, intelligent person," Nichols says now. "He serves a great function. We would talk on a pretty regular basis. You have to be careful with the media, and I never had to be careful with him because he had the players' best interest at heart. I am sure he has a lot of dirt on a lot of players." He laughs.

Perhaps one day Newberg will finally get what he wants--a shot at working for a big-league club. People who know such things say he's exceptionally gifted at crunching the numbers and evaluating the talent, and God knows he loves doing the research. So, yeah, just maybe he could get into baseball after all, if he's willing to take the pay cut. Or maybe he'll do his report for a little while longer, then decide he'd rather play with the kids and just watch baseball like the rest of us, with a hot dog and a beer rather than a notepad and scouting report.

"Jamey's never tried to make a name for himself," says Nichols, the skeptic who became the fan's biggest fan. "I wish we had somebody like him here with the Brewers. I actually think he would be a great assistant to a farm director or somebody in the front office who needed research on players. He'd have to spend time learning the system, but with what he does now, if he could do it full time, he'd be an asset to an organization."

Say, Milwaukee?

"If he's ever ready to make that step," Nichols says, "I'd talk to him."

The dream is not dead yet.

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