10 things I didn’t know before SABR 41by Chris Jaffe
July 11, 2011
It happens every summer. A special convention is held, one featuring a disproportionate number of aging white guys who could probably lose a few pounds. Great, so far I just described every convention.
This one is special because the conventioneers are bound together by their mutual love of baseball: The SABR Convention. This year SABR went to the greater Los Angeles area. The whole nerd herd stayed at Long Beach, which has the benefit of being equally close to home stadiums for the Dodgers and Angeles, and last weekend both were in town.
On a personal note, it makes a nice chance to be with a whole slew of people I only see this one time a year.
(Part of the Nerd Herd: Paul Brewer, Mike McCullough, original THT writer Ben Jacobs, and part of myself. Photo by Joe Dimino).
1. Life without a presentation
I’ve been to seven SABR conventions previously and took pride in having given a presentation at each convention I’d attended. This year broke the streak as I went presentation-less. It gave me a chance to just sit back and enjoy everyone else's work without having to worry or prepare for my own.
(This difference was dramatized as my roommate Anthony Giacalone spend 10 hours on Thursday locked in our room to prepare for his Friday joint-presentation with THT warhorse Steve Treder).
I had submitted a proposal, but I knew it was my weakest one. It’s funny, when I started submitting them in 2004 I had no other real outlet for making any of my work public. Now I have this website and its annual book.
It’s a tricky balance. I never want to simply rehash something I’ve done elsewhere. There’s usually overlap between the presentations and my THT work, but the presentation usually focuses on a side issue to something I’ve looked at, or I’ve discussed it prior to publishing it for public consumption, or it’s in much greater depth about something.
As the years have gone on, it’s gotten a little trickier to do that. This year any THT-related ideas seemed like a complete rehash, so I offered a presentation on some old work sitting around. SABR rejected it as a presentation, but offered me to give it as a poster presentation, which I turned down because that doesn’t interest me.
I still intend to submit presentations to future conventions, but I do have the nice advantage over most aspiring SABR-presenters: This weekly column. I already have a nice-sized forum.
2. Where is everyone?
Though lacking a presentation didn’t give SABR41 that different a feeling for me, the first day or so seemed a bit odd as it took a while for me to try to flag down a lot of the people I normally hang out with. I arrived mid-day Thursday, about a day after most had, and hardly saw anyone from our Nerd Herd until that night. In some cases, I didn’t run into people for a few days. For instance, I didn’t meet former THT-er and first-time SABR attendee Geoff Young until Saturday afternoon.
(Former THT-er Geoff Young with one of the original THT writers, Vinay Kumar. Photo by Joe Dimino).
Apparently, on Thursday morning there was a big SABR meeting most of my crowd attended, and it dragged on forever. They left for lunch as I showed up, and we didn’t get on the same schedule for a while. But by Friday, things had settled back into a normal groove. There are always people you end up seeing more than others.
And in a first, a lot of people ended up hanging out at the hotel room I shared with Giacalone. Or, more accurately, they hung out on our balcony. Perhaps I should call it an outdoor room. The thing was huge. It was the size of our room. This wasn’t normal; most rooms had no outdoor area, but for some reason we had an outdoor area complete with multiple tables, several chairs, some suntan chairs—all kinds of stuff.
3. 2011: A different feel
All that said, this particular convention had the most unique overall feel of any of the SABR conventions I’ve been to. That’s not meant as an insult, as it was still fun, but it was just different. Depending on how you look at it, this was either the busiest SABR convention or the least-busy convention. Perhaps it would better to say it was busy in the convention but often there was not much to do at it.
Huh? Well, typically you have Wednesday-night pre-convention festivities, three full days of the convention, and everyone goes home on Sunday. In the three full days there’s normally one ballgame and a packed schedule of events at the convention hotel for all SABR-ites the other two days.
This time there were ballgames on two of the full days. And those ballgames both required bus trips, shutting down the convention at 4:00 PM. In fact, there were no research presentations after noon on either game day.
On the other full day, there was also something special: A Fangraphs event that required a specially-purchased admission separate from the main convention purchase. If you didn’t go to that, you didn’t do anything at the convention area itself after 4:00 PM.
4. Dodger Stadium
On Friday, SABR-ites saw the Padres suffer a heartbreaking 1-0 to the Dodgers—not to be confused with their even more heartbreaking loss the next day by that same score. That second 1-0 loss, by the way, ended exactly as Padre GM Jed Hoyer addressed SABR as part of a general managers panel—giving me my first chance to see Dodger Stadium.
I liked it. It’s a nice place, with a good view of the field. And despite all the changes over the years, that’s still the most important feature. Added bonus: As one of the last of the 50,000-plus-seat stadiums, it’s also distinctive. Any stadium that is good and distinctive has a nice edge.
Parts are a little pathetic. The seats look washed out, bleached by all the California sun. One friend, fellow SABR member Mike McCullough, pointed out that the washed-out, past-it’s-prime look was a nice fit for the franchise’s current image. And in fact, the washed-out seats were so easy to notice because such a huge number were empty.
Say this for Dodger fans: While notorious for coming to the games late and leaving early, late in this game with the score 0-0, the crowd really came to life and made a lot of noise a few times without prior prompting by the Jumbotron.
(Announced attendance: 38,529. Photo by Paul Brewer).
We also saw what threatened to be one of the worst relief performances of all-time. After LA scored the game’s only run in the top of the eighth, Javy Guerra came on to save it for them in the ninth. First pitch: Ball. Second pitch: Double to right-center. Third pitch: Hit batsman. Fourth pitch: Hit batsman.
So the bases are loaded with none out on four pitches—none of them good pitches. So what happens next? Strikeout, strikeout, lineout. It’s like Guerra was two different people out there.
5. Angels Stadium, or whatever it’s called these days
I went to this place once in the late 1990s, but it was undergoing renovations then, and half the seats were closed off. Thus, Saturday’s victory for the Angels over the Mariners was my first real time in the stadium.
The first thing that really got my attention: While walking in with Steve Treder and Paul Brewer, the place just smelled incredible. We must have been downwind of wherever they cooked all the ballpark food, because there was this overwhelming smell of freshly baked goods. It was like walking into the world’s largest bakery.
Again, the seats were good with a nice view of the field. It was a little loud, but then again, Steve, Paul, and I sat right underneath the speakers. The outfield look was a bit much. In centerfield, they had this somewhat garish, movie set-looking rocky waterfall. Even though it was a little over the top, and even though it looked like it was the long lost 19th hole from an indoor miniature golf arena (perhaps the Bedrock hole at a Hanna-Barbara themed place), I still liked it.
The problem was immediately to one side of it was the sheet of green, and on the other side was a bunch of flagpoles. Any single element may have worked on its own, but combined it looked like a mish-mash of separate elements that didn’t come together at all. More importantly, though, it was a good stadium.
It also provided an amazing pitching performance, however briefly. Through two innings, Mariners starting pitcher Michael Pineda engaged in as dominating a performance as you’ll ever see. He fanned the first five batters on 19 pitches. OK, that’s nice. Then batter No. 6 popped up to the catcher on a bunt attempt. They couldn’t touch this guy.
And then they did. Single, walk, single, fly ball, homer to begin the third. Pineda gave up seven runs in five innings pitched and got the loss.
(Where the Angels play. Photo by Joe Dimino).
6. Long Beach and the area
Each year, whenever possible, I try to spend some time outside the convention and in the area itself. This year, there was less of that. Not only where we staying well outside of LA or Anaheim proper, but even Long Beach was tricky as I arrived a day late (work stuff).
Still, on my first day, I walked around the area with Paul Brewer, the Canadian with an English accent who founded SABR’s first online chapter, the Baseball Think Factory Chapter. We tried to walk down to the ocean and ended up in a marina. Well, it’s attached to the ocean. We saw the Queen Mary ship in the distance.
On the way back, we stumbled into my favorite sight in Long Beach: A bookstore that sold all its books for a dollar each. Essentially, it was a giant flea market with a huge assortment of books. Most of the inventory was garbage, but you could find the occasional needle in the haystack. I got the 1990 Bill James Baseball Book, and Paul bought Dick Williams’ autobiography.
7. That’s award-winning nerd to you, pal
The personal highlight of the convention? Easy one: Receiving The Sporting News-SABR Baseball Research Award for my book, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers. That was kind of cool. I don’t mean to be too vain, but that book was a lot of work, and it’s nice to see it appreciated by receiving a plaque and a check for $200.
OK, it would be better if the check hadn’t been made out to “Chris Jafee,” but that’s details. It was more than made up for by my being called to the front of the room during the big awards luncheon and getting a nice round of applause. Partially as a result, this marked the second straight year the McFarland table at the vendor’s room sold out of copies of my book during the convention.
(Yeah, that's kinda cool. Photo by mom).
8. 2011: A very good year for presentations
The overall quality of the presentations really was very good. It might be the best group I’ve seen at a SABR convention so far. With one exception that shall remain nameless, I really liked them.
Treder and Giacalone gave a great tag-team presentation on the 1965 NL pennant race, Mark Pankin (one of the men behind Retrosheet) gave a nice talk about whether the lack of lights hurt the Cubs for decades, Phil Birnbaum gave a great talk on home field advantage, and Adrian Burgos, Jr. gave an illuminating talk on Hall of Famer Alex Pompez.
I also heard very good things about some I missed. For example, the first presentation of the convention by Herm Krabbenhoft was supposed to be a triumph of research. He’d found out that some official scorers in the 1930s did absolutely atrocious jobs and made numerous errors each season, arbitrarily and inaccurately assigning RBIs to the wrong players on a regular basis.
Krabbenhoft went to numerous libraries looking for play-by-play accounts of the games to recreate entire seasons from scratch and found out that the real AL record for RBIs in a season is 184, jointly held by Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg.
Why were the presentations so good this year? My theory: Because there were fewer of them. The two ballgames, two bus trips, and the FanGraphs night left less time for presentations. A lot of the ones rejected were probably not quite as good.
(The Treder-Giacalone presentation. Steve listens during Anthony's portion of the presentation. Photo by Paul Brewer).
9. Best presentation
But as much as I liked those presentations, it’s an easy call as to my personal favorite presentation of the 11 I viewed: “Toolson’s Secret’s A Close Call of Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption” by Ross Davies. What looked to be a boring thudder of a topic came to life by Davies, who combined handouts, visual aides and his own passion and dynamic presentation abilities to show how the Supreme Court very nearly ended baseball’s anti-trust exemptions in the 1950s.
They would have, if all the judges voted based on their hearts rather than a desire not to rock the boat (and Davies went through diaries, private statements, and internal Supreme Court records to show that was the case). That was definitely the best presentation.
As it happens, SABR as a whole concurs, and Davies deservedly won the award for best presentation.
10. Dr. Strangetravel: Or how I learned to stop worrying about and love the airline
While it was a great time, the wheels almost completely came off at the very end for me. I was supposed to take a shuttle at 6:45 AM to make a 9:15 AM flight back home to O’Hare Airport on Sunday. Around midnight on Saturday, I went to do an advance check in, and print my boarding pass. That’s when I got a nasty shock: Somehow, someway, the airline had bumped me off the flight. Overbooking? Error? Who knows, but I was screwed.
This led to an hour-long, seemingly slow-motion train wreck for myself. Either I needed an earlier flight or a later flight. The next earliest flight was at 7:42 AM, but in order to get to the airport I’d have to either take a $70 cab ride, or a much cheaper shuttle ride, but the latest the shuttle would pick me up was around 4:45 AM. Mind you, I’m sorting this out as I approach 1:00 AM, and I still haven’t gone to bed yet.
Take a later flight? The next one wasn’t for several hours after the 9:15 AM flight, and I didn’t want to waste an entire day in travel. With my choices of lack of sleep one night or a lost day, as a lifelong insomniac with experience with lack of sleep, I went with door No. 1 and reserved the early shuttle and made the earlier plane reservations. Not a happy choice (oh man, was I ever not a happy camper), but both options sucked.
Those options quickly looked a whole lot worse when I finalized trying to get on the 7:42 AM flight. It listed me as being on standby only. Wait, what? I swear the previous screens didn’t indicate that. Now I could easily get the worst of both worlds: Sleep deprivation, and if I’m unable to get on the flight I’ll have a long day at the airport. The hell?
Meanwhile, there’s a bunch of minor nitpicks in the background increasing the overall sense of frustration (poor cell phone reception when trying to get customer service, the hotel business center felt like it lacked air conditioning).
My personal favorite: Once inside the hotel business center, the door wouldn’t open to let you out unless you put your hand over this metal plate. Damn shame there was nothing inside the center telling you this. You either had to figure it our (or in my case have Paul Brewer walk by on Good Samaritan duty and explain how to get out).
I’d already reserved the early-morning shuttle, so, cursing the airlines, I crossed my fingers and went to bed less than three hours before I was scheduled to wake up.
(A little side note here: This also interfered with the plans of my friends. They initially intended to hang out on my room’s balcony again. Then they decided to start in another room and come up later. They’d initially offered me someone else’s room so I could make my shuttle—this is back when it was supposed to be a 6:45 AM shuttle. But with the new situation, I didn’t want to waste already very limited sleep time moving my stuff, and I didn’t want to have people wake me up after going to bed, so that ended all those plans.)
(The gang making do without the supersized balcony on Saturday night. On the left side, it's Anthony Milzano in the foreground, Anthony Giacalone in the back, and probably Vinay Kumar in the middle. On right, Chris Dial is in the front, Mike McCullough in the middle, and THT founder Aaron Gleeman in back. That's Joe Domino with his back to the camera. Photo by Paul Brewer).
Mercifully, the next morning my luck turned.
The shuttle arrived, and it was the best kind of shuttle: One driven by a man who didn’t give a damn about anything. He didn’t give a damn about the laws of God or man, not about potholes, and certainly not about any puny speed limits. He blew past all kinds of cars on the road, including other shuttles from the same company. A journey Mapquest pegs at a half-hour took barely 20 minutes.
The airport experience was the exact opposite of what I’d dreaded. A long day of boredom in the LAX terminal awaited me if I didn’t get that 7:42 flight, but the opposite happened. Once going through security, I noticed another flight to O’Hare was loading at that very minute. What the heck, let’s give it a shot. Sure enough, they let me on. Instead of a never-ending wait, I spent so little time at Los Angeles Airport I literally never even had a chance to sit down.
In all, it was a good time. I’ve been to eight SABR conventions in a row, and they’ve all been good. Next year it’s in the Twin Cities, and I hope to be there. Hopefully next time I’ll remember to pack my toothbrush, but that’s a whole other story.
References and Resources
I don't own a camera—just not a camera guy—so I rely on what others take photos of for this. Thanks to Joe Dimino, and Paul Brewer most of all, but others took photos, too.
And thanks to everyone who came. Sorry I didn't have more time/space to discuss everyone.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.