Ten things I didn’t know before SABR 39by Chris Jaffe
August 03, 2009
Well, it came once again, that most wonderful time of the year when the nation's biggest baseball nerds and superfans converge on one locale and spend the weekend talking baseball with each for several days non-stop. That's right: the Society for American Baseball Research held its 39th annual convention in Washington, D.C. from July 29 to August 2.
This was my sixth consecutive convention, and I've always had a blast every year. I actually came to Washington in a really bad mood, half expecting (and even partially hoping, for whatever weird reason) to have a less fun time than in the past. Then the show began, the conversations started, and I met up with some friends I've made from around the county due to our membership in this little tribe. My dark cloud evaporated and I had a hell of a time.
All weekend long, I heard people talk about this stuff. Some random tidbits of SABR conversations include: "I'm watching the Yankee-White Sox game on my iPhone. I bet you two beers to one that New York wins this.'" "Bruce Bochy is the most underrated manager of our times." "WHOAH—that's what Aaron Gleeman looks like after losing 30 pounds? There is no God."
Recounting everything that happened would take far longer than anyone wants to read, so I'll focus on 10 things that really struck me this weekend.
1. What kind of blasted fool focuses exclusively on baseball in Washington?
Normally, I do minimal sightseeing when at a SABR convention, preferring to spend time with people I only see for a few days a year. This year was different because it's Washington. I came on an early flight on Wednesday so I could spend the rest of the day making it a sightseeing day.
First I went to the Smithsonian. I only had time for one museum that day, so I went to the Museum of American Old Stuff. (On Saturday I found time to visit the Museum of Even Older Stuff.)
Anyhow, after the Smithsonian closed on Wednesday, I went on a walk through the monuments, taking in the Washington Monument, Reflecting Pool, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Memorial, FDR Memorial, and Jefferson Memorial. (By the way, if you ever get a chance, standing next to the Washington Monument facing Lincoln is just an awesome sight.)
All were good, and some I'd seen before as a kid, but the Lincoln Memorial is really something special. Plus, I should note that the pool was not only beautiful, but it gave me a chance to see much of the local creatures in their natural habitat, namely ducks, geese, squirrels, and joggers. There were so many runners I half expected to find the Tomb of the Unknown Jogger in the area.
The only downside is that as I approached the Reflecting Pool, it began to rain. Only briefly did it pour, but a chronic moderate rain hit me for hours. By the time I got back to the hotel, I was so drenched that my jacket didn't fully dry for two days.
2. Camden Yards is more like U.S. Cellular Field than most people think
All SABR conventions have to include a baseball game, and this year's was in Baltimore, to see the Orioles play a road game before Boston. (Yes, you read that sentence correctly. That's what the game felt like anyway.)
I've always heard a lot of great things about Camden, and it was a nice park. However, I had a very unusual reaction to it. While looking out from my seats in center field behind home plate, I had an unexpected sense of déjà vu.
"My God," I thought, "this place is just like U.S. Cellular!"
HUH? Those stadiums are normally contrasted, not compared. Camden is the first of the retro parks. The Cell is the last pre-Camden. From its opening, Camden has been hailed as a masterpiece, while The Cell has frequently been vilified as bad or shrugged off as forgettable.
Yet their similarities are stronger than one might suppose. Both places were designed to have no obstructed seats. You do that by pushing the upper deck back. I've sat in the upper deck behind home plate on the South Side several times and just like Camden you get a clean view of the field, though at a distance quite larger than at an actual retro park like Wrigley.
One chief complaint about The Cell back in the day was the upper deck's steepness. The backs of the chairs in the rows in front of you only go up to your ankle. The seats are just like that at Camden. The difference? It used to be at The Cell that the seat in front of you was empty, highlighting the empty space in front of you. Camden used to sell out all the time (and sold well for the game I went to, due to the Bostonians).
Also, The Cell has been reformatted along Camden lines. They used to have bleachers in center; now it's pleasant covered greenery in center. Similarly, Camden had ivy growing on one wall in center. Also, Camden isn't as retro as it used to be. The old hand-operated scoreboard has been replaced by modern electronica.
Camden is superior as their differences favor Camden (most notably the view it provides of the city behind it), but the two places are more akin than clashing. I should note that I didn't have much chance to walk about Camden, and that is supposed to be one of its main features. Why no walkabout? That leads to the next point.
3. The only thing worse than life's annoyances is putting them in their proper perspective.
SABR planned to have buses leave from the hotel at 4 p.m. to get us to the game in plenty of time for the 7:05 first pitch. It didn't work out that way. The buses were late, traffic was an utter nightmare, and when we finally got to the ballpark the people handling the flow of parking kept waving the buses off, forcing them to circle the neighboring football stadium multiple times. I didn't get to my seat until the bottom of the first.
Suffice it to say, I was not the happiest camper. Adding to my anger was knowledge that some friends avoided the bus issue by taking their own cars up.
For example, former THT contributor and Replacement Level Yankee founder Larry Mahnken took a group up in his car. He was going to be sitting next to me and I could only imagine the fun the guys in his car had at the stadium. When I got there, however, Larry wasn't in the upper deck. I asked if anyone knew where Larry and his crew were.
They'd been in a car accident, I was told.
Everyone was OK. That's the most important part. They wouldn't be at the game, though. I was initially told Larry's car was now undrivable, though that turned out to be not true. Suddenly, spending over three hours getting to the stadium wasn't so bad.
It's even more gut-wrenching if you know Larry's position. He works full-time for the state of Pennsylvania. Due to a budget impasse, he's currently not getting paid. He still has to work, but his income amounts to side jobs. He was the last person who needed this.
It's even worse given Manhken's typical luck. Several years ago his apartment burned down when a neighbor went to sleep with a lit cigarette. He became homeless. In winter. In upstate New York. He survived, by living with friends and his car, but this guy's had to persevere through some really horrible things over the years.
Meanwhile, I'm Mr. Poopy Pants because I missed a half-inning of a game between two teams I really didn't care about much. Sometimes you shouldn't mind the little things.
4. Greetings from Chairman Sean
I noted in last year's recap that Sean Forman, the founder of Sports-Reference.com and all its affiliated websites (including the great Baseball-Reference.com) was going to start a similar website for the Olympics.
So I asked him if he had any big news and possible future site advance he'd be willing to share with THT's readers this summer. Yup: B-Ref seeks to incorporate Pitch F/X data.
Me: "What can you do with that data on your site?"
Him: "What can't we do with it?"
So there you go.
5. Another year, another presentation
I've been fortunate to give a presentation at each of the six SABRs I've attended. It's a streak I don't expect to last much longer, but for the time being the only people who can claim to have given presentations at each of the last six SABRs are myself and Retrosheet's David Smith.
This year I gave a talk based on my upcoming book Evaluating Baseball's Managers. The talk, "The Baseball Philosophy of Charles Comiskey" focused on what I learned of one of the 89 managers in the book.
I was happy with how my presentation went, but the first person to come up to me afterward told me "Boy, you sure talk fast!" which isn't quite what I wanted to hear. Then news took a turn for the better.
A representative from a syndicated baseball radio show called "Talking Baseball" came up to me, said he liked the presentation, and asked if I would be willing to be interviewed. Well, this was new. The interview went pretty well, so I can't complain about how it played out.
6. What doth the future hold?
As cool as it was to be interviewed, another, more minor thing happened before I spoke that makes me wonder. Two interesting presentations were scheduled immediately before mine. Initially, I wanted to see Steve Treder's talk: "The Value Production Standings, 1946-2008." Not only is he a friend, but he's also a terrific presenter.
However, opposite him was a presentation on managers. I felt obligated to see what came out of it, having just finished writing what I hope becomes the Big Book on Managers.
It's funny: when I wrote the book, I never thought about what happens when it's done. Now that it's done I feel like I ought to fit into the role of the Managers Guy. I'm not saying the changes are earthshaking or anything, but I did notice some difference. It's weird, but it makes sense I suppose.
7. Another year, another 18 presentations
Normally I attend a dozen presentations, but this year I made it to 18. By and large it was a very strong batch. Normally there are two or three clunkers, but this year only one thudder.
That said, I can't identify a presentation that really broke from the back. They were overwhelmingly quite solid, but none stood out head and shoulders above the pack. This is not meant as an insult. I've learned quite clearly that merely giving a good presentation entails a large degree of work and effort. (And even then, you can still end up with one going horribly wrong, as I've learned the hard way in the past.)
The good news is I got something from almost all of them this year. Some highlights include: Anthony Giacalone (my roommate) noting how the decline in America's birth rate in the Great Depression affected baseball in the 1960s; a team-researched topic presented by Jim Provenzale explaining exactly what went wrong with George Sisler's vision in 1923; Jen McGovern's examination of the role national origin plays in promoting prospects in the minors; and a triumph of source material from Geri Stricker, who uncovered mountains of wonderful photos of the Negro League's old Greenlee Field in Pittsburgh.
8. Mark Armour: "A Tale of Two Umpires"
Though no presentation really jumped from the pack, I did leave with a personal favorite: Mark Armour's look at two umps fired by AL president Joe Cronin after 1968. Arbiters Al Salerno and Bill Valentine were respected figures who made the mistake of trying to organize a union.
After being fired, Valentine's life worked out well, even better than if he'd stayed an umpire, while Salerno entered into a downward spiral of anger and bitterness before dying a broken man in 2007.
Armour's talk came from research he did for an upcoming biography on Joe Cronin he's working on. When asked on his thoughts of Cronin, he said like most men Cronin was neither all good or bad, but a mixture. This story was not him at his finest. Based on the strong work featured this presentation as well as the high quality of a book he co-wrote with Dan Leavitt, Paths to Glory, this Cronin bio should be one to keep an eye out for.
9. Historical versus statistical presentations
In last year's recap, I noted that I was soooooo very tired of clutch hitting studies. This year, I realized that I had trouble paying attention to most statistical analysis presentations. This is not a knock on this presenters or their works. Generally they were quite good. My mind just kept wandering.
My baseball interest has always had a sabermetric focus, but it seems the older I get the less interest I have in the numeric stuff—unless I'm the one crunching the numbers. When I was a kid and my parents first got me the Historical Baseball Abstract all I first looked at were the numbers in the back. Now that's the part I in which I am least interested.
My hunch is that this might actually have been a year stat presentations were the best, but my own inclinations and interests cut against that grain.
10. People: the real highlight of the weekend
In the early days of THT, Aaron Gleeman used to write recaps of every SABR convention for this site (something he still does on his own site) that focused on the socializing that takes place at these conferences. That isn't my style, but in many ways Gleeman's approach is more appropriate.
I love going to the games and seeing new parks, hearing research presentations, diving into the book vending room, and all the other features that come with SABR conventions. Still, none of that is why I keep coming back year after year. They can be a hassle to get to and they're never free, but it's the people that keep me coming back year after year.
Not only is everyone at least as interested in baseball (and often more so) as I am, but it allows me to interact with people I'd previously only known as electrons on the internet. There is a whole gang of us affiliated with Baseball Think Factory who hang out and commiserate every year. As Gleeman astutely noted in the recap of his first SABR weekend (which was also my rookie convention), it's like going to a high school reunion with a bunch of people you never met. By nature I'm very introverted and prefer keeping to myself, but even hermits like me have a blast.
Over the years, these friendships have grown. Also, each year some new faces emerge from online's electric pages and become flesh and blood people. This year it was Larry Mahnken, Jeremy Heit, Clay Davenport, and others. In a sense it's surreal. We live across the country (and in some cases other countries) and only see each other for half a week, but a definite sense of community exists when we all sit around talking baseball and whatever else.
The above makes us sound kind of clique-ish, which I don't think captures the mood at all. One story really sticks with me symbolizing the sociability of SABR. On Saturday night, a group of us went out for dinner together. By "a group" I mean over 20 at once. We filled an entire room of a restaurant.
I'm sitting there talking general Irish baseball players with the man seated on my left, Jon Daly, an old SABR/BTF-friend with whom I regularly exchange e-mails. Sometimes I'd turn to my right and talk to Clay Davenport about the primordial days of Baseball Prospectus. Sometimes I speak to a guy across the table from me named Richard Ray about the Cubs and other matters. Now, I have no idea who this Richard Ray person is, so I asked if he posted at BTF.
Nah. He was just walking through the hotel lobby about to go to dinner, when he stumbled into part of our gaggle, started talking to them, and before anyone knew it he was invited to join the brigade on a dinner run. I never saw that guy before or since, but he fit right in. (Whether that's a good thing for him is another matter.)
That's the real appeal of SABR conventions. The baseball is the sizzle but the people are the steak. The game provides a central focus and area of common interest, but the weekend is much more than that.
11. Random post-convention note
One think I should mention: on his way home, Joe Dimino, THT founding writer and SABR regular, came across an older gentleman having a heart attack. Thinking fast, Joe gave him some aspirin, helping to stabilize him. When Joe left, the paramedics had him doing well. So he apparently helped save some guy's life. I have nothing brilliant to say about it, but good job, Joe.
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.
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