The gang that couldn’t geek straight. Clockwise from the far left corner – the back of Joe Dimino’s head, me, Mike Webber, Scott Fischtal, Neal Traven, Anthony Giacalone, Mr. High Standards (behind Giacalone), and Aaron Gleeman. Photo by Mike McCullough.
It happens every summer. Just like every year for the past 40-plus summers, a group of dedicated baseball nerds gets together for a weekend of baseball talk, socializing, and big heaping gobs of fun with fellow enthusiasts of out national past time. It was time for the annual SABR shindig, and this time we were inflicted upon the city of Philadelphia.
This was my 10th straight time at the annual get-together, and I’ve had a fun time every year. It’s the interest in baseball that first got me to go, but it’s the friends I’ve made that keep me coming back. This is our only real chance to meet up, so that makes it special.
This year’s meeting had a shaky start for me, but when it got going, it was something. Here are some highlights.
1. Hurrah for typos! And to hell with data entry errors.
Most people arrive in town for a SABR convention mid-day on Wednesday to get settled in and catch up with old friends before the festivities officially begin on Thursday. Alas, for me, due to real-world responsibilities, I couldn’t make it until late Thursday night, thus missing the first day and a half.
Ah, well. At any rate, I was going to take a connection flight from Chicago to Cincinnati to Philly (it’s cheaper than a direct flight, and I’m all about being cheap), and I went to print up my boarding pass on Wednesday.
Huh, that’s funny. They misspelled my name, “Jaffee.” Two “e”s is a common misspelling, but would that cause problems at the airport tomorrow, either going through security or at the terminal itself? Better find out, so I called the airline.
After some back and forth, they told me it wasn’t a problem. Apparently, someone mistakenly put my middle initial (also an “E”) at the back of Jaffe. That’s no problem to fix, they said. “Is there anything we can help you with, Mr. Christopher?”
Wait, Mr. Christopher? Why are you calling me by my first name like it’s my last name? Now it was their turn to be surprised, because they had Jaffe as my first name and Christopher as my last name. Yeah, I noticed it said “Jaffee Christopher,” but I figured this was some sort of situation where they intentionally transposed the name. You do run into that on occasion in some official forms.
And unlike the extra “e,” this was a problem. A fixable problem, but they had to reenter me in the system, and because it’s 2013, that means it would cost me some money to get it done.
There wasn’t much I could do. I had to pay the extra money. It’s not like I could threaten to get to Philly on short notice with a trusty pogo stick or a giant catapult or a big, friendly bird. They said their records had my name transposed, and I made a note to take it up with the travel website I made my reservations with, but when I checked, it turned out that I apparently typed my name in wrong there. When I booked my flights a month ago, the site’s confirmation email called me “Jaffe Christopher,” and I just didn’t notice.
It turns out the typo saved me. Had it not been for that, I would’ve gotten a nasty surprise at the airport the next day. Like they said, the extra “e” wasn’t a big deal, but the name would’ve been.
2. Getting there: something less than half of the fun
Of course, I still had a nasty surprise or two at the airports. My Cincinnati layover was about an hour long, so it was really important that my Chicago flight left on time to avoid a long, long night. Naturally, the Chicago flight was delayed … for almost an hour.
That left me with little time to spare. Fortunately, the flight itself was quick and, we got to Cincy just before my next flight started boarding. That was a very nice feeling of success. Of course, it turned out to be short-lived when the second flight also was delayed.
Check that, it was more than just delayed. It was deplaned. We boarded on time and were then told that, due to a technical issue, the plane needed to be repaired and that it would take until the next day to fix whatever the problem was. In the meantime they “hoped to find us a plane soon.” Folks, this isn’t what you want to hear as the sun is already setting on a Thursday night. It turns out they had one, and we got out an hour or so late, but that was somewhere south of ideal.
Still, I got into Philly and went to take the rail line that leaves the airport for downtown every half hour, only to see the train pull away as I approached the station. Bummer. Well, a nice 29-minute, 30-second wait later, I caught the next one and made it to the hotel just past midnight on what was officially very early Friday.
3. Friends absent, friends present
So I wasn’t in the best of spirits when I finally got to the hotel for the convention, but it’s amazing how quickly that evaporated when I saw the old gang. Ultimately, baseball is just a secondary reason that keeps me attending, behind the community.
Chris Dial wearing his Mets colors with a Lucas Duda
jersey. Photo by Mike McCullough
True, not everyone could be there this year. Longtime THT warhorse Steve Treder couldn’t make it. His son was getting married this weekend. Apparently, that’s a bigger priority for him or something. Also, original THT writer and frequent SABR attendee Vinay Kumar had to miss this one, as well, because a brother he rarely gets to see was visiting home.
Oh, well, that happens every year. But since it’s in Philly, we should get to see plenty of Sean Forman and Neil Paine. Sean is the founder, owner, and chief lord of Baseball-Reference.com, making him the worldwide leader in stats. Neil is his employee, and they both live in Philly. So we’ll see plenty of them, right?
Well, actually, no. It turns out Sean was standing up for a wedding this weekend. Let’s see, I believe the bachelor party was Thursday, the rehearsal Friday, and the wedding itself Saturday. He was around a little, but just a little. I got to say exactly two words to him—“Howdy, stranger!”—rather appropriate given the circumstances. And Neil? He was the guy getting married.
But plenty of the old friends came back. Some of us having been coming every year for a while now: Anthony Giacalone, my Kiefer Sutherland dobbleganger of a roommate; Mike Webber, our group’s ace restaurant recommender, THT co-founder turned professional writer Aaron Gleeman, and others.
Best of all, some guys made triumphant returns. Former THT contributor Larry Mahnken made his second SABR convention. He got in a car accident in the first one but managed to get through this one unscathed.
Most notably, life of the party Chris Dial came back after missing last year’s festivities. And no one makes the festivities more festive than North Carolina’s leading Mets fan. Dial is an outgoing, engaging guy who gets as much enjoyment out of each 24 hours as he can.
And boy, did he ever. While some guys stayed up late each night, and others of us got up at a reasonable hour each day, Dial was the only person to do both. And he didn’t even nap. I don’t know how he does it, but he just kept motoring on all weekend long, every bit as lucid as he typically is.
There were others worth noting, too—the exuberant Joe Dimino, the eternally sandals-clad Colin Wyers, Chicago lawyer Mike McCullough—but you get the idea. No wonder my travel annoyances quickly left me when I got in town. Most of the time in town I spent hanging out with these guys. Basically, whenever I was free, I’d find the crowd and enjoy.
From left to right: Chris Dial’s girlfriend, Chris Dial, Colin Wyers, the back of someone I probably know, Phil Birnbaum, and Larry Mahnken. Photo by Mike McCullough.
4. Philadelphia, a great place for history lovers and food eaters
Whenever possible, I like to spend some time in each convention city and see some of the sites, and history nerd that I am, I definitely wanted to do that in a place like Philadelphia. Fortunately, SABR rented a hotel just a half-dozen blocks from several historic sites. On Friday morning I walked over the big place, the hall where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed.
As I walked over there, I realized that it was Aug. 2: the 237th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. (The Second Continental Congress approved of it on July 4, but the big signing was on Aug. 2.) So that was pretty nice timing. The next day I saw the Liberty Bell. I skipped it the first day because the line looked so long, but Larry Mahnken told me not to worry, it moves really quickly, and it did. That was also nice.
Philadelphia’s two most famous sites – the Liberty Bell in the foreground, and the building in which the USA was born in the background. Photo by Larry Mahnken.
But as great as the historic sites were, they were damn near overshadowed by the wonder and glory that is Reading Terminal Market. This place is a wonderland of food. It’s a big building packed with an insane variety of mini-restaurants, and all of them great. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s a like a food court, except with four times as many places to eat per square inch. And instead of the most expected fast-food places serving their most generic items, you get all kinds of things.
Joe Dimino enjoys a drink while Aaron Gleeman eats.
5. Citizens Bank Park: thumbs up
Speaking of nice things to see in Philly, the ballpark really impressed me. It had a nice, open feel to it, and when you looked out beyond center field you could see, well, a parking lot, but beyond the parking lot you had a real nice view of the city skyline. They also had a nice scoreboard out in left.
This is the 11th park I’ve been to in 10 SABR conventions (we saw both LA parks two years ago), and I’d rank Citizens Bank second or third best, safely behind Seattle’s Safeco Field and contending with whatever Toronto calls the SkyDome these days. (I’m aware that most people disagree with my feelings on Toronto’s park, but then again, I’m also aware that I’m right and they’re wrong. That’s just how these things go.)
Speaking of how I’m right and everyone else is wrong, a lot of my friends had problems with the seats SABR got for this game. Philly sells well, so the only section SABR could get was way back in the upper deck near the last row. Yeah, it was far back, but at least it was in the infield, so you were still on top of things (far back, but on top).
A bunch of attendees ended up opting to do standing-room-only in the lower deck behind the right-field stands. I get that lower-deck outfield beats upper-deck outfield, and I get that lower-deck infield beats upper-deck infield. But I really don’t get how lower-deck outfield tops upper-deck infield, and I hope I never do. Unless there’s a ball hit to right, you’re still really far from the action, but now everyone is facing away from you.
6. Chris Dial: scientist, sabermatrician, and eagle-eyed scout
One truly awesome moment happened at the SABR game on Friday, courtesy the one and only Christopher Dial.
Through three innings, Phillies starting pitcher Ethan Martin was devastating the Braves. Okay, so they manufactured one run against him, but he’d fanned five batters (including four in a row at one point) and looked like he was on his way to a win.
Then, in the top of the fourth, Dial noticed something interesting. Martin noticeably slowed up his notion when throwing the curve. Dial mentioned it to Mike McCullough, and McCullough agreed he did slow up. Then Dial figured that if we can see it up here, the Braves should be able to notice it in the dugout.
A few batters later, Dial was so sure of his own scouting report, he offered a bet to all challengers: if the top of the order led off the fifth for Atlanta, Martin wouldn’t get out of the inning. McCullough thought Dial was onto something but agreed to the bet to make things interesting.
Martin barely escaped the fourth unscathed. He left the bases loaded but got the pitcher out to end the inning without allowing another run. The bet was on: would Dial’s scouting report work out? Well, a double, a single, back-to-back homers, and a walk later, Martin headed to the showers. He took the loss, giving up five more runs in the fifth while getting just one out. Dial won his bet for a beer.
7. Another year, nine more presentations
More than anyone else in this gang of ours, I try to see as many presentations as I can. Since I missed the entire first day, I could see a maximum of nine, and see nine is just what I did.
Looking at the list of presentations, none really jumped out at me as potentially fantastic. On paper, it seemed a bit underwhelming, but I was pleasantly surprised with the results. Oh, there was a clunker of two, sure. That will happen sometimes. But most of the presenters did better than I expected.
For example, Jack Rooney gave a presentation Friday on some rooftop bleachers that used to exist across from Shibe Park from 1909 to 1935. Like the rooftops at contemporary Wrigley Field, people could see the game from across the way. Well, it turns out that Rooney is a 90-year-old who grew up in one of those houses. That gave his presentation a nice, personal touch that made it a lot better than it had any right to be. (Also, may we all be in as good a shape mentally and physically at age 90 as Rooney is.)
Mark Armour gave a talk on former Cardinals manager Solly Hemus, (in)famous as the manager that young Curt Flood and Bob Gibson couldn’t stand. Armour did a very nice job re-examining what we know of Hemus and comparing it to the memories of his ballplayers.
Retrosheet grand pooh-bah David Smith didn’t give a presentation (a first since I’ve been going to these things), but his wife Amy Tetlow Smith did. It was a very different sort of presentation from what Dave would do, looking at advertisements in scorecards to engage in some social history. Like her husband, Mrs. Smith is also a terrific public speaker.
Oh, there was a clear low moment. In one of the last spots on Saturday afternoon, a presenter was a no-show. Usually there are one or two presenters a year who can’t make it to the convention, but they always inform SABR about it. This guy? Nope. Just didn’t show up. I asked Neal Traven, the longtime chief in charge of getting the presentations set up, if this had ever happened before. Nope. Well, then, hopefully everything is okay with the guy and he’s not in the hospital or cemetery. But then again, if that’s not the case … he’s kind of a dick.
8. Vince Gennaro: Analyzing Batter Performance Against Pitcher Clusters
Though I typically see as many presentations as I can, I rarely see the award winner for best presentation. This year, in a change of pace, I did, and it was the best presentation I personally saw, Vince Gennaro’s “Analyzing Batter Performance Against Pitcher Clusters.” It was about how to get a better sense of how a batter will do against a particular pitcher. Right now, you’ll often hear pitcher-versus-batter matchups, and as Gennaro notes, those are not that useful.
His approach was to find situations in which a batter faced not just that one pitcher, but similar pitchers in similar environments. Gennaro looked at five factors—pitcher quality, pitcher style, batter quality, batter style, and ballpark—to set up clusters of similar pitchers. He had a nice visual of pitcher clusters that looked like constellations of stars, each one of pitchers who were similar in ability and approach to each other.
Gennaro gave an example of a game during which Ichiro Suzuki faced a pitcher for the first time, so going by the typical batter-vs-pitcher approach, you’d be in the dark on what would happen. But the pitcher was part of a cluster Ichiro was 12-for-60 against.
It wasn’t perfect, and I heard some people raise questions about points in the methodology. Even listening to Gennero talk, his project was a work in process that was only mostly complete, but it sure sounded to me like he was onto something.
9. BTF chapter meeting
A few years ago, two members of our crowd—Paul Brewer and the one and only Chris Dial—had an idea: let’s create a new kind of chapter. All SABR chapters were geographically based: a Chicago chapter, a Minnesota chapter, etc. Well, in the modern age of internet communication, they proposed we have an online chapter. And, thus, SABR changed its rules to create online chapters, and the Baseball Think Factory chapter was born.
The meeting. From left to right: Mr. High Standards, Anthony Giacalone, Aaron Gleeman, Joe Dimino’s friend Clayton, Colin Wyers (standing), Joe Dimino, F. X. Flinn (standing), Mike McCullough, myself (obscured), Chris Dial (standing), Scott Fischtal. Photo by Larry Mahnken.
The hope was to help revolutionize SABR and our involvement within it. Three years since that first brainstorm, not much had been done. We met and socialized and talked baseball with each other online just like always and did it in person at the convention like always, but that was it. Nothing had changed, and just calling ourselves a new chapter didn’t seem to make any difference. It was just an empty prize.
So at midnight Saturday (well, technically Sunday) when the chapter held its annual official in-person meeting, it was at a crossroads. Some members openly said, essentially, “Look, nothing has come of having our own chapter, and is there really a point? Maybe we should disband.” Others, led by Chris Dial, argued the other side. “Okay, not much has been done, but let’s see where we can go. Let’s start taking steps.”
And in an hour-long hash-out, a general consensus was reached. We’ll explore the possibility of seeing if the BTF chapter can involve itself in helping to host a convention. Some members of the chapter have been involved in this sort of work before, and others are game. Who knows where things will go from here, but some guys clearly were interested. Neal Traven, a BTF chapter member and former SABR board member who has helped put on conventions before, noted that you don’t need a million people, just a solid core. We’ll see what happens from here.
Front table: Clockwise starting with the guy with the ponytail: Neal Traven in the ponytail, Mr. High Standards, Anthony Giacalone, Aaron Gleeman, Clayton, Joe Dimino, me, and I’m not sure, maybe Mike Webber. The table behind us: Chris Dial, Colin Wyers, Phil Birnbaum, Larry Manhken, and I don’t know who that is in black. At the table just behind me, Carson Cistulli is in the blue shirt. Photo by Mike McCullough
10. Two days is too short
As always is the case, the convention came to an end. The last night, my roommate, Anthony Giacalone, said to me the convention is the perfect length. You show up for three-and-a-half days, and if it was much longer, it might wear on you a bit. But if it were shorter, you’d feel like it wasn’t enough.
He had a point, but in my case it was almost exactly 48 hours from when I first saw anyone to when I said my goodbyes. I enjoyed it; I just wish I could have been there for all of it.
It’s funny. Before the weekend began, I was thinking maybe I’ll miss the next one. I’ve been to 10 in a row, and I’m due to miss one, right? By the time I said my goodbyes, I realized why I keep coming back. Yeah, it is enjoyable. Hopefully, I’ll make the one next year. That’ll be in Houston.
And 2015 will be in Chicago, around my way. That definitely should be fun.
References & Resources
Photos by Larry Mahnken and Mike McCullough