Ten things I didn’t know before SABR40

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Part of the Gang That Couldn’t Geek Straight. Clockwise beginning with the guy who is standing: Chris Dial (who, true to form, is talking and holding a beer), Aaron Gleeman (that’s what he looks like after losing 60 pounds), Anthony Giacalone, Joe Dimino, Chris Milazzo, Anthony “AJM” Milazzo, Rob McCullough, Vinay Kumar. Can’t tell who the two grayheads are, but I think the one on the left might be Neal Traven. (Photo by F. X. Flinn).

Well, it’s that time of year again. Check that – it was that time of year again.

Yup, this last weekend was the 40th annual SABR gathering, which took place in Atlanta. So to any of you Georgia residents who felt a new and unusual feeling in the air – that wasn’t a change in the barometric pressure; that was merely me and my fellow travelers burying the needle on the Nerdiness Meter.

A slew of us baseball fans spent some time in Atlanta. The pack I ran with including THT-affiliated folks such as Dave “Boss man” Studenman, the eternally upbeat Vinay Kumar, site founder Aaron Gleeman, elder statesman Steve Treder, diminutive idea man Joe Dimino, and a brief one-night only appearance by Alabama resident Brandon Isleib. Plus a whole bunch of other non-THT folk, most notably Baseball-Reference kingpin Sean Forman and BTF regulars Chris Dial and Rob McCullough. (It was obvious that THT-er Ben Jacobs wasn’t there, as no one played poker all weekend long).

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More from the nerd herd, again alphabetical order beginning with the guy standing: Dial (again talking; again drinking), McCullough, Steve Treder, James Leeds, Kumar, Scott Fischtal, and that’s definately Neal Traven in the corner. (Photo: F. X. Flinn).

A nice, full and funny blow-by-blow recap should be provided by Gleeman at his blog either today or tomorrow. Instead, I’ll just focus on 10 main impressions or themes on baseball, Atlanta, and the weekend at large:

1. Getting there better not be half the fun

For me, getting to Atlanta wasn’t that bad. That seemed to put me in the minority this year, though.

The worst experience getting to SABR had to go to the life of the weekend’s party, Chris Dial. His initial flight into Atlanta got canceled, causing him to miss the entire first day. Ouch. He got there though, in his typical high spirits – same old Dial as always, except his ever-present Mets hat had been replaced by one promoting Wooster College.

The most embarrassing problem clearly went to San Diego’s very own Vinay Kumar: He slept through his flight. The actual story is a bit worse than that. He had an early morning flight, and stayed up late making sure all the arrangements were taken care – such as a cab taking him to the airport. Between his lateness and the flight’s earliness, he decided to plow through, and worry about catching some sleep on the flight.

Well, a half-hour before the taxi was set to arrive, Vinay decided – note: this didn’t just happen, but involved a decision – to rest for a few minutes. Since he merely intended to rest briefly, he didn’t set an alarm or anything. You can see how this one ended, right?

A half-hour into his few minutes, the cab shows up, and Vinay’s in sleepyland. The cabbie calls Vinay’s number but, of course, Vinay isn’t in the same room as the phone and sleeps through it. After a few hours Vinay’s few minutes of sleep came to an end, and he made arrangements for a new flight – but he got in a day later than expected.

As bad as those experiences were, I’m not sure either would trade places with Aaron Gleeman. His flight was fine – no problems coming in for home. His problem was in the pocketbook. Despite living near a Delta hub airport (the Twins Cities), and despite traveling to another one (Atlanta), and despite doing it all on a Delta plane – his costs were insanely high. He spent nearly twice as much on airfare as I did. The guys coming in from the West Coast spent well under a hundred less. And it wasn’t a last minute reservation, either – he booked it a month ago. I can only assume Delta is run by Ron Gardenhire fans.

2. Atlanta: Not as unbearably hot and humid as I expected

I dreaded possible hellishly hot conditions, but was pleasantly surprised to see it was only like a sauna, not hell. I’ll take what I can get.

Aside from that, my main memory of the city itself comes from a visit to the Martin Luther King Historical Center. As a history professor, this is right up my alley. I won’t go on for long about it because this is a baseball site, suffice it to say it’s well worth seeing.

It was nice another SABR-ite (Steve Treder) came along, which allowed me to play professor for a bit, explaining who Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was, and what happened in Cairo, Ill. and so on. (We also talked baseball, of course. Treder is the first person I’ve met who can name the four liveball pitchers who won 200 games before losing 100 in his first four guesses).

3. Turner Field: Great seats in a lousy stadium

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View from SABR’s all-you-can eat section. It looked better in real life. (Photo by Joe Dimino)

SABR bought seats in two sections: a lower deck all you can eat one, and an upper deck one with a partial food voucher. In a break with personal tradition, I got the more expensive all-you-can eat seats, figuring I’d eat enough to make it worth my while.

They were fantastic seats. Though the ticket said Row 13, for some reason in that section Row 13 is actually the first row. I spent all night long with a nice view of the field. That was fun.

While the seats were good, the stadium was underwhelming. I walked around for a bit with a few other guys and one feature distinguished itself: While in the lower deck’s wheel of commerce behind the seats, you could never see the field. There was a concrete wall, with occasional little slits to let people go to their seats. It wasn’t very inviting. In fact, it was downright off-putting. There was concrete to your side, above you, and usually on your other side (sometimes it was opened up so you could see outside the stadium). At times it felt like I was walking down a noisy hallway instead of a ballpark.

The food was also substandard. It wasn’t just the all-you-can-eat section either. JC Bradbury, who lives in the area, said the trick is to eat from the little kiosks. I will say this: though the food was bad, at least there was a lot of it.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from attending SABR games over the years, it’s that the Chicago White Sox have a criminally underrated home field. It’s at least as good as most of the subsequently created retro-parks, and a damn site better than many.

Actually, I’m also a big fan of Toronto’s Skydome, and that and US Cellular are the two last pre-Camden Parks built. Apparently, I think the entirety of Generation Selig stadiums are overrated.

The SABR game was the night Glavine got his number retired, which was cool. It also was delayed for two hours by a rainstorm, which wasn’t cool. It went to extra innings, and by the time it finished there was only one West Coast game going on.

As far as I’m concerned, the star that night for Atlanta was the guy running the lot the car I was in (driven by my roommate Anthony Giacalone and featuring Treder, Kumar, Studes, and myself) parked at. The guy in charge rather emphatically waived us in, and as we strolled away he shouted at us: “Don’t worry. I’ll watch your car. All three wheels will be here when you get back.” Never heard that one before.

4. Seven conventions, seven presentations

While I’d like to claim I only go to these things for camaraderie, and to learn from others about baseball, there is another factor drawing me back time and again: ego. In the seven conventions I’ve attended, I’ve given a research presentation every time. Only one other person has presented in each of the last seven conventions: David Smith of Retrosheet. Yeah, I’m proud of that.

This year my talk was on Sunday pitchers – researching who they were and how common they existed. I’m not going to say too much about that because it’ll likely be an article in next year’s THT Annual.

It was possibly my most gratifying presentation ever. First, it was the hardest one to put together. It took a while to figure out how to make some of its different elements fit in. Second, immediately after I finished, two friends of mine who have each seen virtually all of my presentations told me it was the best one I’d ever done. It’s nice hearing that.

It was also nice that immediately afterward I got to do a book signing for my book, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, for an hour immediately afterwards. There was no line forming for me obviously, but it was nice to sign a few books. It turns out readers really aren’t mythical creatures after all.

As an added bonus, McFarland (my publisher) ran out of copies of my book the next day. That doesn’t happen too often at these things. They came with a good-sized stack, too.

5. Best. Panel. Ever.

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The men who made SABR’s best panel ever: Niekro, Lemke, Van Wieren, Cox, and Gant. (Photo by F. X. Flinn)

On Friday morning, SABR had a panel nominally about the worst-to-first Braves, but really covered Atlanta Brave history up to 1991. It was awesome. First, the panel was absolutely awesome: Phil Niekro, Bobby Cox, Mark Lemke, Ron Gant and former announcer Pete Van Wieren. Second, Van Wieren, who largely MC’d it, did a tremendous job. Most importantly, all the guys came with good material.

Cox’s presence was especially impressive. One veteran SABR member noted during the Q&A section, that we’ve never had a sitting manager show up for one of these the day of a game. It was even better than that: It was the morning after a night game, and immediately afterward Cox (and the others) went to a luncheon for Glavine, then Cox went to the park for the number retirement and game. That’s a hell of a full day, and Cox is 69 years old.

6. Presentation highlights

I saw a dozen presentations this year, and none really stood as heads and tails above the rest. Most of them were pretty darn good though.

Alan Nathan had a good one on Mickey Mantle‘s famous Griffith Stadium home run from April 17, 1953. He tried estimating its distance by using an often noted but little utilized fact: it was found behind a two-story building. That was probably my favorite of those I saw.

Steve Steinberg and Lyle Spatz did a good job with a presentation format I normally don’t like. They wanted to promote their book 1921, and just gave a stream of facts they came across in researching their work. Normally, this annoys me because it’s lazy. I know people do tons of work writing books, but I prefer when the book-based presentations press themselves a bit more. These guys, however, had a nice stream of facts. (Example: a pitcher made his only career start that year, and lasted only two innings – but struck out Joe Sewell in that first, last and only game.

Gerald Bernie had an interesting one examining if Tammany Hall and the Giants controlled the Braves in the 1910s and 1920s. Personally, I recently looked at Braves transactions in those years for my own reasons and noticed a ton of transactions in those years between the squad, so it was informative to learn many at the time thought the Braves were in their rival’s pocket.

But the real highlight came from JC Bradbury. During the question-answer section after giving a talk on pitch counts and days of rest, someone in the back of the room said he’d missed the first few minutes but wanted to know if JC considered Issue X (whatever it was). JC didn’t pause – yep, I covered it extensively in the top of the presentation – you missed it. That was funny.

7. We’re part of the establishment now

Seven years ago wasn’t just my first convention, it was the first time the Baseball Think Factory community made its first sizable appearance at one of these shindigs. (For example, of the five members of the BTF crowd who have attended each of the last seven SABR-meetings, three of us – myself, Gleeman, and Giacalone – began that year.) Back then, I had a sense (and I believe others did as well), that we represented some new blood for the organization. Some of the old guard thought so, and hoped we’d help reverse SABR’s aging problem.

This year, I was struck by how we’ve become part of the larger SABR culture. I could walk around and see Giacalone have a fairly lengthy conversation with John Thorn and get his candid thoughts and criticisms of the current state of SABR. Or see Chris Dial engaging with any number of SABR big wigs. Or see Rob Neyer walk up to me and offer some nice feedback on my presentation. Or several other similar incidents.

None of these are unprecedented. Giacalone and Dial are both very outgoing individuals, and Neyer’s introduced himself to me before. But the degree struck me as a bit more than before. This wasn’t about introducing ourselves to the greater SABR world, or even getting ourselves used to it anymore. We’re used to it, and they’re used to it. The difference might be more in my impression than the actual interaction, but hey – this is a column of my impressions.

Just last year, at the end of the convention, BTF-er Paul Brewer came up with the brainstorm of having a BTF Chapter of SABR – the organization’s first cyber-chapter. One of the reasons for this was to give the cyber-crowd a greater sense of belonging. We weren’t just some random appendage stuck to SABR, like Antonio Alfonseca‘s sixth finger.

Based on what I saw, the BTF Chapter notion was a flying success. Rather fittingly, the first official, physical meeting of the chapter took place this weekend. More fittingly, it came at midnight in the hotel bar.

8. Greetings from Chairman Sean

Here’s some news many of you out there will like hearing about the Sports-Reference company (your worldwide leader in stat). According to Sean Forman, the company’s founder, owner, operator and janitor – there will be a nice addition to its lineup of sports stat centers in the next week or so.

In addition to the existing Baseball-Reference.com mothership, and the similar sites for pro basketball, college basketball, hockey, pro football and Olympics, you will soon be able to log onto to a site for college football stats. So you know.

9. My timing sucked this year

On a personal note, this was one of those weekends where I seemed to be a bit out of sync a lot of times. Things ranged from me going to a restaurant two minutes after it closed down to one horrible night of insomnia I didn’t need (and a few other smaller bouts that weekend as well).

Despite seeing almost a third of this year’s presentations, I missed four of the five best-rated ones by the convention judges, including the winner for best presentation, “Chinese-U.S. Baseball Diplomacy Before the Great War” by Ross Davies. It was opposite a presentation by THT’s very own Steve Treder, so no one I knew saw this year’s award winner.

Actually, I intended to see one of the honorable mentions, “Babe Ruth, Eiji Sawamura and War” by Robert Fitts. I saw another Fitts presentation two years ago and thought it was the best of the convention. Alas, his came right when I had a really nasty headache and needed a break.

Speaking of poorly timed breaks, I was really looking forward to seeing J. C. Bradbury’s talk on pitch counts, but missed a good chunk of it for a run to the bathroom. (Normally I would’ve held it, but my presentation was right after Bradbury’s talk, and I didn’t want to be distracted while up there.) Heck, my only washroom break in six hours at Turner Field came when a Brave hit a homer. All weekend long, I was a step out of rhythm.

Actually, there was one occasion my timing was perfect. On my way out of town on Sunday, I made it to the nearby platform for Atlanta’s MARTA transportation system at the exact moment a subway pulled up headed for the airport. So whatever problems I had in Atlanta, at least I got out of town properly.

10. Neal Traven: An appreciation

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Neal Traven on left, not Neal Traven on right. (Photo by F. X. Flinn)

SABR weekend is a lot of fun every year, in which you get to talk baseball as long as you want into the night hours and show up for whatever presentations and panel you feel like, making up your schedule as you go along. It’s a bit like being an overgrown teen surrounded by likeminded individuals at a weekend academy for the baseball-ically gifted (if occasionally socially impaired).

One person who doesn’t get to goof off to his heart’s content all weekend long, the one person stuck with numerous responsibilities each day of every SABR convention, is Neal Traven. Officially, he’s just the guy who runs the Stats Committee, but for this weekend he’s always a bunch more.

He’s the guy who makes sure the PowerPoint presentations are set up on all computers in advance, which can be fun because many presenters don’t give him their slides until shortly before they speak. If there’s a problem pulling up the PowerPoint or getting things working smoothly, Neal’s the guy who gets called. If the room monitors blow off their responsibilities and let presentations run long, Neal’s often the one who picks up the slack and gets things back on track. He’s the ace troubleshooter for all presentation problems.

Plus he’s also in charge of presentation judging. So when he’s called to help solve another minor emergency, he’s usually in the back of the room compiling judges’ scores. Ultimately, he’s got to be on hand any time a presentation is going on, even those early ones the rest of us all sleep through. Yet he rarely gets to sit down and watch any of them. He gets the headaches so everyone gets to enjoy the results.

Yet looking at Neal, you’d never get a sense that it’s a big chore. Not only are problems swiftly and smoothly handled, but he never seems frazzled and instead seems pretty happy and positive. (Man, what a weirdo.) I get the feeling he does get a bit frazzled by things, but I’ve never seen him get upset. Again, weird. He is to SABR weekend what Dave Studenman and the editors are to THT: They get stuck in the back doing a lot of the work that the casual observer doesn’t see or even notice.

He was also probably the first of the SABR leaders to really embrace the BTF crowd. Despite his responsibilities, Neal spends time in the hotel bar and does his share of socializing. He’s earned it. More than anyone else, he deserves serious appreciation for what he does each and every SABR convention.

References & Resources
Thanks to Joe Dimino & F. X. Flinn for their photos.

That’s actually Bill Nowlin to the right of Neal Traven in the photo.

In the part about Treder where I say he is “the first person I’ve met who can name the four liveball pitchers who won 200 games before losing 100 in his first four guesses)” – the links are the order he guessed them in. It came in handy for him since he’s a lifelong Giants fan.

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Comments

  1. Randall H Chandler said...

    Good convention, the Braves Player Panel was
    great.  I especially like the panels that
    discussed the ball parks of the Southern
    Association, six of the eight ball parks were
    discussed.

  2. Neal Traven said...

    *blush*  … I mean that sincerely, Chris.  I’m just doing service for SABR, and I hope the outcome of that service makes the convention more enjoyable and (even better) more thought-provoking for attendees.

    There was one year (St. Louis?) that I would have been up in my room entering judges’ scores at the time of the BTF Chapter’s annual meeting, whereas this year we already knew who’d won the Doug Pappas and USAToday Sportsweekly Awards by then.  I’m sure the recent smoothness has nothing to do with Dial’s absence from the roster of presentations.  Whatever the reason, presentation-wrangling has been much less arduous the last couple of years.  Maybe we’ve finally worked out the kinks in the process.

    The semi-identifiable grayheads at the edges of the two chapter meeting photos are indeed Scott Fischthal and me.  Clearly, F.X. chose his camera angles wisely, though someone’s cropping skills need work … the shots could have been easily improved by clipping us away completely.

    Finally, let me note that Scott’s name will be above mine as a Presentation Co-chair next year.  I’m stepping back, though certainly not out.

  3. Neal Traven said...

    P.S.  Three of the four 200W-before-100L pitchers are obvious.  Treder’s real accomplishment is getting the last one, and he does have a built-in advantage for knowing it.

  4. Chris J. said...

    Neal,

    Glad you liked it.  I thought you were stepping back, but wasn’t sure – which is why I wanted to make sure I got this item in this year’s recap.

  5. Steve Treder said...

    Chris,

    The difference between you and me is that you, as a hardy Midwesterner, found Atlanta in August to be not as unbearably hot and humid as you expected, and me, as a wimpy Californian, found it to be every goddam last bit as unbearably hot and humid as I expected.  The blast of cool wind in my face upon exiting S.F. airport yesterday afternoon has rarely been more welcomed.

    But like you, I found the visit to the King Center to be among the highlights of the trip.  Fascinating and well worthwhile, and your professorial explanations were much appreciated.

  6. lisa gray said...

    steve,

    what’s with the “atlanta is hot” stuff?

    BAH

    youse guys don’t know from hot, trust me on this.

    sincerely,
    your FAVORITE houstonian

  7. Neal Traven said...

    lisa gray:

    youse guys don’t know from hot, trust me on this.

    sincerely,
    your FAVORITE houstonian

    So much for placing Houston on the short list of future SABR convention sites…

  8. Steve Treder said...

    “youse guys don’t know from hot, trust me on this.”

    Oh, Lisa, I trust you profoundly on this.

  9. Ed Feng said...

    It’s nice to know that the quants are getting attention from the people who actually run baseball.  I definitely don’t think Bobby Cox would have showed up to this in 2001.

    I thought you might be interested in a little quantitative analysis of my own: Power Rankings via an algorithm.

    http://www.thepowerrank.com/

    Says the White Sox are going to lose the Central.

  10. John Stryker said...

    Chris,
    Thanks again for the recap, as always. I’m really sorry I missed this one, being a Braves fan. Also, thanks for giving Neal his props. His efforts behind-the-scenes have been what makes the presentation lineup so enjoyable for all of us. Here’s hoping that I can make it next year.

  11. John MacDonald said...

    I attended one time – Chicago in 1985 or 86? Had a great time but that thing called “life” has gotten in the way since. I got to see a Cubs-Giants game and a tour of Commiskey Park. For a young man in his early 20’s who never previously seen a game outside of his hometown of Philly. this was quite a treat for me.

  12. Cecilia Tan said...

    You and I were in opposite synchronous orbits, Chris! Looks like I saw the things you missed, and you saw the things I missed, most of the time. Which is why it was great to read your recap.

    See you next year in SoCal!

  13. Chris J. said...

    Matt,

    Thanks.  I actually note that in the references & resources section at the end, but it’s a bit out of the way and easy to miss.

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