It’s that time of year again, time for the annual Great Baseball Nerd Round Up: SABR’s annual convention, this time in Minneapolis.
More than the baseball, it’s the people that keeps me coming back every year. But yeah, the baseball is nice, too.
That old gang of ours. (Photo by Anthony Giacalone)
That said, here are some thoughts/observations/whatevers about this year’s Nerd Herd gathering. As I often do, I’ll steal the format from Bossman Studes’ old “Ten things I didn’t know last week” columns.
1. It sucks having to miss the first day
SABR takes about four days in all—three full days with an entry on Wednesday and a conclusion on Sunday. This year, due to work commitments, I couldn’t get there at all on Thursday. Well, technically I pulled in very late Thursday, but after a long day I just wanted to crash.
It sucks because there were a lot of presentations on Thursday I looked forward to seeing, including one by THT warhorse Steve Treder on Dick Schofield Sr. In news that should be surprising to no one who reads THT, Treder does good work. He also does a good job presenting his material at these conventions.
Another one I would’ve liked to see was a presentation by Robert Fitts on the 1934 baseball All-Stars tour of Japan. I’ve seen Fitts give a presentation before and it was fantastic. I heard the presentation he give this year was first-rate all the way. Word to the wise for any future SABR attendees: Fitts is in must-see territory.
More than missing presentations, I’d also miss chances to hang out with people I see only once a year. Among this year’s assemblage were: Treder, Aaron Gleeman (THT co-founder and uber-Twins blogger), Joe Dimino (the diminutive original THT writer who apparently has shaved his longtime goatee—a fact I didn’t notice until Saturday), always-sandals-wearing Colin Wyers (formerly of THT and currently with Prospectus; Sean Forman (the guy who created Baseball-Reference.com and its affiliated sites), and too many others to really discuss here.
I shouldn’t complain too much about missing the first day. Getting there late beats missing it altogether, and unfortunately some of the best characters in the cast couldn’t do it this year, including Chris Dial, the life-of-every-party-Mets fan-North Carolina chemist. Among others missing was the eternally pleasant Vinay Kumar, an original THT writer who made seven of the previous eight SABR shindigs.
Two pros surround a schmo: NBC Sports’ Aaron Gleeman, myself, and Baseball-Reference.com’s Sean Forman. (Photo by Anthony Giacalone).
2. Getting here isn’t half the fun, but it isn’t bad
Speaking as someone living in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago, part of the appeal of a convention in Minneapolis was that it’s in driving distance. And it’s in the best kind of driving distance—one where I didn’t have to plow through the entire Chicagoland area (unlike, say, the time the convention was in Cleveland).
And one thing I can say about that drive: Wisconsin is some absolutely beautiful country with all its rolling hills and trees. The western part of the state is especially impressive; it missed the glaciers that made so much of the rest of the Midwest so damn flat. That was the most enjoyable drive to a SABR convention I’ve ever had.
3. The Twin Cities: well, the little I saw of it.
When possible, I like to take a look around the city the convention is held in. That didn’t happen much this year as I didn’t have much extra time in the city. (Well, I have been here on three occasions in the past and always liked it).
Me, many moons and about as many waist lines ago, at Minneapolis’s Peavy Square. (Photo by Liz “Mom” Jaffe)
This time about all I saw was the drive in and the area around the hotel (which naturally was within walking distance of the ballpark).
Driving in, downtown Minneapolis looked spectacular. The state capital dome in St. Paul looked great lit up really well against the night sky.
The area around the hotel was interesting—certainly different. Within minutes from the hotel, you could walk up to the a statue of Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards character throwing her hat in the air. That’s a nice tourist-y thing. Then again, one guy in our crowd noted his wife was twice propositioned at the local shopping area.
We’re going to make it after all? From left to right: Joe Dimino, Anthony Milazzo (below Dimino), Mike McCullough, Aaron Gleeman, Steve Treder, and the aptly named I Forgot What He’s Called. (Photo by Anthony Giacalone)
There were some nice bars and restaurants, most notably a rooftop bar with lawn bowling. There was also a pizza place some guys went to late Saturday night that required all patrons to be frisked before entering. Like I said, interesting, and certainly different.
4. Target Field – huge improvement over the Metrodome.
A highlight of any SABR convention is the trip to the ballpark, and this year we got to see the Battle of Who Could Care Less between the last place Twins and fourth place Royals. The game itself featured a nice ninth inning comeback by the Twins that fell short, but the real treat was the ballpark.
Minnesota has itself a nice park in Target Field. It had an open feel to it, and a really nice Diamondvision screen in center. On the downside, the food I ate might’ve been the worst ballpark food I’ve ever encountered, but I was told that the park has some specialty shops for particular foods that are really good. Just avoid the hot dog and fries.
Despite that, I’ve been to 16 stadiums, and I’d rank Target Field in the top five.
One random comment: Like an increasing number of places, the Twins have their own version of Milwaukee’s famous sausage race, but Minnesota’s version might be the most pointless. Milwaukee’s sausage reflects the city’s ethnic and culinary traditions. The Nationals’ presidents race obviously relates to the team playing in the nation’s capital. Atlanta has a race featuring various Home Depot products, which is a bit odder, but at least Home Depot is based in Atlanta.
Minnesota? Just a handful of entirely random mascots of no importance whatsoever. Watching the game with Colin Wyers and Anthony Milazzo, we tried to brainstorm alternate races they could have. Colin suggested cuts of beef, for Hormel Meats located in Minnesota. I suggested that they honor the famous duo from Frostbite Falls, Minnesota—Bullwinkle Moose and Rocky J. Squirrel. Boris Badanov could get the Teddy Roosevelt role as the guy who never wins.
Colin also tried to get some cheers going for Kansas City’s Yuniesky Betancourt, shouting “Yu!-Ni!-Es!-Ky!” with a nice up-down cadence. It didn’t take off, but the little girl in front of us joined along. The guy sitting behind us told Colin that he had the energy (and volume) to work for a club as someone getting the crowd worked up. Colin said they might like that, but they wouldn’t like his sarcastic attitude toward it.
A nice park, but they really need to do something about that race.
View from the cheap seats. (Photo by Anthony Milazzo)
5. Some quality presentations
I saw seven presentations this year, the smallest number I’ve even seen at a SABR convention. (Not that anyone cares, but in nine years I’ve given or seen 119 presentations in all).
This year, there were a lot of quality ones, but I’m not sure I can put my finger on the definitive best. Alan Nathan did the best job presenting his information. His talk on the last decade of bat research and how that led to the creation of new standards for bats in the NCAA featured the best use of PowerPoint I’ve even seen.
Mark Armour gave an interesting talk on the rise and fall of Astroturf. The interesting part from my point of view was the earlier portion of his talk, where Armour noted the early rave reviews the artificial grass received. All my memories of the stuff came later, when the tide had turned against it and people denounced it as an injury-causing blot on the game’s traditions.
Anthony Giacalone, my roommate for every SABR convention (and a Keiefer Sutherland doppelganger) gave a well-researched talk on the road to expansion in 1969 in which the efforts of a few owners (most notably Charles O. Finley) and rivalry between the AL and NL led to four new teams entering baseball.
Robert Garratt, a retired English professor working on a book on former Giants owner Horace Stoneham, gave an interesting presentation on the creation of Candlestick Park. Aside from being a wind-blown hellhole, the place’s construction had a sordid history of insider land deals and cost overruns.
By and large, the presentations were pretty damn good.
6. Michael Humphries on fielding
The last presentation of the convention was on fielding, by Michael Humphries. He’s written a book Wizardry on the subject (a fact he made sure the audience knew), and this presentation was to revise some of the findings in his book.
It’s an interesting topic because fielding is one area where almost everyone agrees work needs to be done, and Humphries seems to know what he’s talking about.
That said, while maybe Humphries has figured it all out, it was impossible to say for sure based on the presentation. He noted at the outset that he didn’t want to discuss the math behind his formulas, as that would just put everyone to sleep. Speaking as someone whose given presentations, I understand why he’d make the choice. You don’t have much time up there, so focus on what the audience is more interested in: the results. But ultimately, if we don’t know much about the process, it’s hard to get too involved in the results.
He made some critiques of other systems, noting that there is some systematic bias in batted ball data that tends to compress the overall range of fielding ability, pushing the best and worst fielders back to the middle.
7. Terry Ryan is a panel of one
SABR likes to have some panel discussions every year, and this year put together a GM panel. Last year’s featured then-Padres (and current Cubs) GM Jed Hoyer and a few former GMs. In Cleveland four years ago, SABR hosted Mark Shapiro, Mike Veeck, and one or two others on the panel.
This year SABR had a bit more trouble, and the GM panel became a one-man show: Longtime Twins front office honcho Terry Ryan held court. He’s a really good public speaker with a clear, strong voice. He also got his share of laughs from the crowd.
He said he wants the minor league relievers to pitch multiple innings, and if a prospect has 35 innings pitched in 35 appearances, the manager and pitching coach will both find themselves in hot water. (Please note the Twins have probably the best record in getting good work from their relievers in recent years.)
He also said the biggest change in the game in his days is the ballpark revolution ushered in by Camden Yards. And speaking of agents, Ryan said that super-agent Scott Boros has a better player developmental program than some major league franchises. “He’s got some organization,” Ryan noted.
Ryan was at his most passionate when asked if he regretted not having a retractable roof at Target Field. “ABSOLUTELY NOT!” The crowd, many of whom were Twins fans from Minnesota, cheered loudly at that one.
8. The cell phone revolution
Every once in a while you have one of those moments that make you realize how times have changed. I had one of those at SABR this year.
A gang of us were sitting around in a restaurant waiting for food to arrive, and I noticed that half the people at the table were checking their cell phones for info, or to check tweets and messages, or to surf the internet, or whatever else. And I realized that this occurred at seemingly every meal or get-together. People weren’t always doing it, but it’s fairly common for one or two people to be doing it.
And I thought back to my first SABR convention eight years previously in Cincinnati. That year, while sitting in a restaurant, Sean Forman showed us one thing he was working on. It was a bare-bones version of Baseball-Reference.com that could work on one’s cell phone. It was really cheap looking and nowhere near as good as today’s technology, but it still had some guys shaking their heads.
“Can you believe this! Would we really need this? Well, I bet we probably would check it a lot if it was that available to us so easily.” That was eight years ago. I don’t think any of us had seen anything like it then. Times, they’ve changed.
I know it’s hardly original to note the big cell phone revolution that’s occurred, and the revolution’s second wave with the rise of smart phones. But every once in a while it really sticks out at you.
Heck, during a lull in the Twins-Royals game this year, Mets fan Anthony Milazzo took out his cell phone to start watching his Mets play their game. So he was watching one game on his cell phone while at the park to see a completely different game.
Me, Joe Dimino, Aaron Gleeman, Kyle the Whiffle Ball Fanatic, Mike McCullough. (Photo by Anthony Giacalone)
Maybe the most interesting cell phone moment came before I arrived, though. During the very first presentation on Thursday, a speaker had to suffer through a cell phone debacle as several people in the audience had their phones go off. They weren’t on vibrate, either, but ringing. One guy’s phone went off —loudly—three times during the talk.
Another actually took the call. One of the members of the Baseball Think Factory crowd, Mike McCullough, was so surprised and disappointed by the cell phone-a-thon, that he jokingly asked the people if he was sitting next to if he should play his phone’s sound for an incoming call. He meant it as a joke, but managed to activate it anyhow, sending out the blaring horn sound of a hockey goal that he uses on his phone. Oops.
The speaker, to his credit, plowed through and didn’t let it affect him. Anthony Giacalone told the people he was sitting by that if this happened in his presentation, please punch the phone person. It didn’t happen, though. After that, SABR room monitors announced prior to all speakers that the audience should make sure their phones are turned off.
9. What’s left of Aaron Gleeman
The same year I began attending SABR conventions, so did THT Founding Father Aaron Gleeman. Though his weights have had their ups and down over the years, he’s always been a big guy. This bottomed out in early March of last year, when, at 28, he weighed 355 pounds.
He started a diet and exercise regimen, quitting crap food, counting his calories, and working out virtually everyday. As he’s noted on his own blog, the results have been a huge success.
Gleeman, who stands slightly over six feet, checked into SABR weighing about 166 pounds. That’s impressive.
The amount of weight he’s lost is enough for a person. In fact, if you took the weight he lost and created a new person out of it the same height as Gleeman, that person would be borderline overweight by BMI.
Me (rather strangely trying to avoid the sunlight despite being in the shade), Joe Dimino, Anthony Milazzo, I Forgot What He’s Called, and Aaron Gleeman. (Photo by Anthony Giacalone)
So yeah, Gleeman looks a lot better. He says he feels much better and has a lot more energy. And he is eating—it’s not like he’s starving himself. He’s just been really consistent in doing all the right things for months on end. It’s gone from being a diet to just how he eats. He notes that in the future he’ll have to shift more toward building up muscle instead of sweating off calories when he works out, but for now he’s a helluva success story. Kudos to him for pulling it off.
10. R.I.P.: Greg Spira
At the risk of ending this on a downer, one part should be noted. The membership of SABR’s Baseball Think Factory online chapter lost one of our friends in the last year, Greg Spira.
He went to six of the first seven SABR conventions I attended, and was always a nice guy. He had the ability be simultaneously shy and helpful. He never had a bad word for anyone and I never heard anyone have a bad word for him.
My main memory of him comes not from a SABR convention but from a phone call I once had. A few years ago, I wrote a book, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, and asked friends and acquaintances for help. This was right up Greg’s alley, and he offered his services.
He went over one short chapter with me on the phone. He went line by line offering any advice he could, and there was plenty that was good. For example, I remember him discussing the pros and cons of saying “previously” versus “before”—something I’d never even thought about. He clearly spent a lot of time and effort on it, and it was just to lend a helping hand.
Spira always had his health problems. I never knew exactly what they were, and I never asked because it wasn’t my place. Last year they were serious enough to keep him out of the SABR convention, and in December he died at the too-young age of 44.
On Saturday night after dinner, Sean Forman, who was probably the closest of all of us to Greg, proposed a toast to Greg. That was a nice tribute to him. He’s done, but we’re all glad we got to know him while he was alive.
Greg is the guy at front on the right. The photo is from two years ago, at the last SABR convention he attended. Photographer unknown.
As usual, SABR’s annual convention was an enjoyable time. Next year it’ll be in Philadelphia, and the year after that it’ll be in Houston. So if you’re interested, you can start making plans to attend.
References & Resources
Thanks to Anthony Giacalone and Anthony Milazzo for taking photos.