SABR 45: A Partial Review for a Partial Experience

Almost 2 years ago, I was sitting on my computer scrolling through Twitter when this appeared:

Yeah, I got a little bit excited when I saw that.

It was never a question of whether or not I would be attending the SABR Convention this year. Having a convention in your backyard has some benefits, the biggest of which is cost. Aside from the convention registration, I had my choice as far as how to get to and from the Palmer House and whether I wanted to sleep in a hotel bed or my own. With an infant crawling around my house, I chose to not book a hotel room (at approximately $200/night) and took commuter rail in and out of Chicago each day.

The downsides of my lodging and travel decision were twofold: 1) I didn’t partake in nearly as many hallway and bar conversations as I did last year, depriving me of what many consider the most fun part of the convention experience; and 2) it made it easier for other things to pull me away from the convention activities. Having to catch a train at 7 am to just make it to a day of events running from 8 am to 10 pm meant having to reconcile sleep with the train schedule. Then, family events cropped up on the weekend, making it unfeasible for me to go downtown Saturday or Sunday. While missing Sunday only cost me the Historic Ballpark Site tour, not being able to attend Saturday cost me half of the presentations and panels and most of the committee meetings I was interested in.

However, what I did attend and help with as a volunteer and member of the host chapter was quite fantastic. Wednesday is typically a travel and get acquainted with the city day. With minimal travel, I helped as a volunteer with registration and Cubs ticket distribution. As with past conventions, there as a tour of the host city. I skipped this year’s walking tour due to the aforementioned volunteer work, but Jacob Pomrenke put together a fantastic document highlighting the sites with baseball history attached to them as the tour traversed downtown Chicago. (If a KML file gets created for it, I’ll link to it here). After registration closed down for the night, I sacrificed the welcome reception in order to catch the train and be home.

Thursday was what I presume is a rare day in recent SABR Convention history. At no time did any attendees have to pick between different meetings or presentations, as it was a single program of events for the day. Cubs broadcasters Len Kasper, Jim Deshaies, and Ron Coomer graced the broadcasters panel in the morning, chiming in when moderator Curt Smith would let them do so. Many of Smith’s questions centered on the Cubs, and all three provided the level of insight that I’ve become accustomed to when I do tune in for Cubs broadcasts. This was followed by the annual business meeting, which showed the continued positive growth of the society but, unlike last year, revealed no final verdict on next year’s convention. It seems the society learned its lessons the hard way: Houston had a hotel location near a mall instead of the ballpark due to the latter option’s lack of availability after the 2014 MLB schedule was released; Chicago corrected for that by getting the ideal hotel location early, but ending up victimized by selecting the one weekend BOTH Chicago clubs were on the road. There is a tentative plan for SABR 46’s host next year, but it would be unwise to get excited for seeing a bobble head museum and the most colorful home run sculpture in MLB quite yet (never mind my own personal ability to attend next year). Thankfully, despite the lack of weekend games, the Cubs were finishing up a series with the Dodgers, so Thursday afternoon’s getaway day contest ended up being the convention game. It was entertaining simply because of Joe Maddon’s tinkering with the line-up every 2 innings or there about. Thursday night ended up being what I think was the biggest highlight of the convention (and perhaps a way of the national office apologizing for the schedule debacle): a concert in the Palmer House’s Grand Ballroom with the Baseball Project.The Baseball Project Rocks SABR45From left to right, Scott McCaughey, Linda Pitmon, Mike Mills, and Steve Wynn rocked the house with their songs about Harvey Haddix, Ted Williams,  Larry Yount, Big Ed Delahanty, and many others. Wisely, they opened with “Box Scores” of their album 3rd, which to me is the quintessential SABR song. It was pretty awesome. If you like baseball and rock music (especially R.E.M.), you’ll love this band.

After forgetting my phone at home Friday morning, I made it in time for the second group of presentations Friday morning, dropping in on Tara Kreiger’s presentation about Andy Coakley’s labor struggles with organized baseball. It was a fascinating story that I was unfamiliar with, but it exemplified the blackballing many early players went through when they complained about their contract. This was followed by 2 panels: one title Pitching Prodigies that featured Steve Trout and Joe Berton a.k.a. “Sidd Finch”, and an presentation by the 4 Letters on an upcoming project. The former was my favorite panel I attended, as Berton told the story of how he got involved in the Sidd Finch hoax perpetrated by George Plimpton and Sports Illustrated. Trout seem more subdued about his experiences, which I guess is to be expected from an 8th overall pick who did not have the career he expected to have. The latter was a “stealth announcement” about a project entitled “1927: The Diary of Myles Thomas”, which looks to chronicle the 1927 Yankees via “real-time historical fiction” storytelling. I kind of like the concept, but will probably wait and see what ends up being produced by Steve Wulf and Douglas Alden Warshaw. The presentation I saw after the panels was entitled “Aging Fan Base: Using Twitter to Develop a New Geneartion of Baseball Fans” and given by Allison Levin. Unfortunately, she didn’t get to many suggestions in her slides, as most of the time was spent looking at Twitter usage during the 2014 World Series. But she has a few avenues for further exploration that will hopefully yield some results, thought I have a sense that MLB might be ahead of her on doing this.

The morning block was followed by a tribute-filled awards luncheon. I skipped this last year, since my meal times were spent with my wife who graciously traveled to Houston with me. I’m glad I went this year, because I got a better sense of what this organization means to so many people. Tom Hufford couldn’t avoid breaking down as he eulogized two of his fellow Cooperstown 16 that founded SABR, Ray Nemec and Joe Semenick. Phil Rogers had it a bit easier in terms of emotions, but still had to encapsulate what Ernie Banks and Minnie Minoso meant to their adopted hometown. He did so, and did it well. After the banquet I took time to peruse the vendor room, which is a dangerous endeavor given the number of baseball books that are available for sale. My wallet came away only somewhat dented. The only committee meeting I attended was for the Business of Baseball, which gave an update on the Winter Meetings project (all years are being researched by someone!), the Team Ownership bios (4 of 30 done or in progress), and a reminder from chair Michael Haupert about the importance of examining the source of data in research, using examples from the pre-1983 salary database to show how what’s printed isn’t always accurate.

I then attended 5 more presentations between the committee meeting and heading home. In order:

  • David Kaiser questioned “What Makes a Dynasty?” He counted at teams who played postseason baseball in 3 of 6 seasons as a dynasty, splitting the analysis into 3 eras based on the postseason structure in place. He noted which ones were dominated by pitching and which ones weren’t. Most of the expected teams showed up where you would expect. The only bone I pick is that, based on the average winning percentage by era for the dynastic teams in the study, he said mediocrity was more prevalent today then it used to be. I think that’s just a function of his definition of dynasty.
  • David W. Smith, the Retrosheet president, updated his look at run scoring in the 1st inning, asserting that travel doesn’t seem to have an effect but that the number of runs the visiting team scores in the top of the 1st is highly correlated with the number of runs they allow in the bottom of the 1st. You can find his paper on Retrosheet’s site.
  • Zach Moser gave an oral presentation on how Cap Anson’s views on colored players in professional baseball were portrayed over time. While revered in his time, Anson’s racism became a hot topic while he was among the early players considered for induction into Cooperstown’s most noted museum. Anson’s racism was revisited as many of his team records for the Cubs were eclipsed by the aforementioned Ernie Banks, and Moser suggests that most modern apologists for Anson are deficient in their criticism.
  • John Burbridge examined “The Increasing Importance of Quality Starts” by mostly just doing an x-ray on the definition of a quality start. He ultimately came to the conclusion that 6 IP with 3 or fewer runs allowed is reasonable, and claims that is it increasingly relevant as bullpens are utilized more and more.
  • Finally, Bruce Allardice talked about how pro baseball became a big part of Chicago in the mid 1800s. Baseball grew in popularity in Chicago, paralleling the game’s growth in popularity nationwide. By 1870, the city’s elite coveted the status of being the nation’s pork capital, vying against a river town called Cincinnati. Because of this rivalry with the 2015 All Star Game host city, Chicago’s wealthy pooled funds to found the first professional club in the City. The White Stockings did manage to beat Cincinnati twice late in that season, and would go to claim the championship based on a disputed victory over the New York Mutuals, who also claimed the title. Unfortunately, baseball took a 2 year hiatus after a cow tipped a lantern and ignited a magnificent blaze that required years of rebuilding.

I’d love to say more about SABR 45, but (1) I’m already at 1,750 words if you’ve read to this point and (2) the downside of a local convention is that you can be pulled to do other things since you aren’t travelling. That’s what happened to me on the weekend, as family event popped up and hindered by ability to get in and out of the city. I don’t know if I’ll get to go to another convention for a while at this point, and next year looks doubtful regardless of location. When I do go again, I’m going to make sure of 2 things: I’m staying at the hotel so I can go hang at the bars and talk baseball over beers. That’s the convention experience that I missed, and why those who go to one convention try to make it an annual trip.


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