The Encyclopedic Mr. Roto
Matthew Berry [ARCHIVE]
July 19, 2012
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When the phone rang the other night, it was my mom, calling with some bad news.

"Donald J. Sobol passed away last night," she told me.

If the name doesn't immediately grab you, that's OK. It took me a second as well. He wasn't a household name.

But as the author of the "Encyclopedia Brown" child detective series, Donald J. Sobol was a huge part of my childhood. I read the first book when it was first released and, like millions of others, was instantly hooked. I read that first book and the subsequent ones many, many times over the course of my childhood.

I read a lot as a kid. I read and reread all of "The Great Brain" series. I wore out "The Westing Game." And I must have read "The Horse That Played Centerfield" a thousand times. Any nonfiction sports book I could get my hand on, like "Greatest Running Backs of All-Time!" (complete with a profile about how great a guy O.J. Simpson was!), I instantly read and remember to this day.

But first and foremost for me was always young Leroy Brown, "Encyclopedia" to the world at large and, specifically, to the seedy underbelly of Idaville. No one ever got away with a crime in Idaville, you see. No one, ever.

Sure, Chief Brown was a great police chief, brave and honest. But the secret to Idaville's spotless record was Chief Brown's 10-year-old son, who had "read more books than anyone and he never forgot a thing."

Whether it was listening to a case his dad couldn't solve at the dinner table or being hired by one of his fellow schoolmates (at the very reasonable price of 25 cents per day, plus expenses), the sneaker-wearing Encyclopedia Brown solved his cases by paying attention to details others had overlooked.

Long, long before Harry Potter ever showed up, Sobol gave a nerdy kid powers over those who were bigger, stronger and more nefarious than him. But never smarter. And never beaten up, either, thanks to his best friend and sidekick, Sally Kimball, "the prettiest girl in the fifth grade and the best athlete." Sally was the only one who could beat up Encyclopedia's frequent nemesis, Bugs Meany, leader of the local gang of toughs, "The Tigers."

Sobol created a world that was both simple and intricate. The crimes were never that serious, but the attention to detail was. And while Encyclopedia never ages, Sobol was ahead of his time in creating a strong female character. As Donald's son, John Sobol, told The Associated Press for their obituary of his father, "That was groundbreaking back in 1963, when the series was first published."

Maybe it was because I grew up in a simpler time, with no Internet, iPhones or even many cable TV channels to distract me. Maybe it was because I was kind of a brainy kid who really loved reading. We moved around a lot (I lived in five different cities by the time I was 12), so maybe it was because books were always there for me when I was the new kid. Whatever the reason, I loved those books.

The New York Times obituary tells us that the books were rejected by two dozen publishers before finding a home and since then have been translated into 12 languages and have sold millions of copies worldwide. It mentions that, in 1976, Sobol won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the series. It discusses Sobol's unique format for a mystery series: Each book has 10 stories, they are all stand-alone books (so a child can read them in any order) and the answer to "whodunit?" isn't in the story, as Sobol wanted children to be challenged and try to figure it out for themselves. If they couldn't, they could always flip to the back for the answer. (To be honest, I flipped more often than not.) Multiple online obits mention that next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Encyclopedia Brown series. And in October, Sobol's final book, "Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Soccer Scheme," will be published by Penguin. They mention all that and more, the way good obituaries about noteworthy people should.

But none of them mention that Sobol brought me to a different world as a child. That he opened my mind and did so by challenging me and making me think. That he taught me the importance of paying attention, that brains can overcome brawn, that a sense of wonderment is vital and to never just blindly accept what you are told. How crucial it is to seek out your own truth, that there is serious power in a question and anything is possible if you put your mind to it, even if you are a gawky 10-year-old in sneakers.

None of them mention how they taught me to love mystery. And how the books brought my mother and I closer together. My mom would also read the books and we'd talk about them, my parents would listen to me babble on about whatever EB book I was in the middle of. It's a tradition that continues to this day. Whether it's the newest Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais or any number of other authors, my mom and I will discuss whatever mystery we're both reading. And none of them mention the power of those books that, as a 42-year-old man, made me sad to have lost a man I had never met and hadn't read in close to 30 years.

But after reminiscing with my mom on the phone, I smiled.

Because I realized that in a few years I'll be able to share the books with my daughters, and with Encyclopedia's help, teach them what Sobol taught me. And that's gonna be fun as hell.

As you might imagine, I'm in a mystery sort of mood. So, as a homage to my favorite childhood author, I will tell you that one thing I've written above is completely and totally false. An Encyclopedia Brown mystery for you. See if you can figure it out. And of course, if you can't, the answer is at the end of the column.

And while you're thinking about that, I've put on my sleuthing hat. With William Cohen of ESPN Stats and Information as my Sally Kimball and ESPN Fantasy deputy editor Pierre Becquey in the role of Chief Brown, I'm going to tackle five mysteries currently plaguing fantasy owners.

The case of the disappearing act

They mystery is no longer "Why is R.A. Dickey good?" Now it's turned into "Why isn't he good anymore?" Dickey has now allowed five earned runs in back-to-back games, and in three of his past four going into today's start versus the Nationals. Should he be sold now while he still has value? Or is it just a blip and he's getting back to the guy who threw eight shutout innings with 10 strikeouts versus the Dodgers?

Great question. As an ardent Dickey guy all season, this little stretch has me worried, too. In his first 14 starts, Dickey was R.A. Diculous; a K/9 over 9, walking fewer than two per nine and inducing ground balls at a 54 percent rate.

Here's what was different in his past four starts. First of all, his location has suffered. Over the first 14 starts, Dickey located just 35 percent of his total pitches in...
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