July 4, 2006
2006 SABR Convention Recap
Even before stepping off the plane, I had a feeling that my trip to Seattle for the 36th annual Society for American Baseball Research convention would be a good one. As two female flight attendants made the usual "thank you for flying Northwest Airlines" speech to bid farewell to exiting passengers after the flight from Minneapolis, the man directly in front of me looked one of them right in the eye and replied: "I have to urinate."
This didn't immediately strike me as crazy, perhaps because I had spent the last three hours reading Chuck Klosterman. However, as he calmly continued toward the exit after his pronouncement and then wordlessly made his way through the concourse to wherever it is people who have to urinate after plane rides go, it occurred to me that this man was insane. Four days later, as I boarded the plane back to Minnesota, I was shocked that I never ran into him at the SABR convention.
The first person I did run into upon arriving at the convention hotel was former Hardball Times staff member Maury Brown, who currently writes for Baseball Prospectus. After chatting with Maury for a few minutes—we had never actually met in person—I saw two familiar faces from past conventions in Mike "DeJesus Freak" McCullough and Anthony "Kiefer" Giacalone from Baseball Think Factory. SABR's only Jack Bauer look-a-like quickly headed to his room to put the finishing touches on his upcoming presentation, which was scheduled for the next afternoon.
After mocking Giacalone for that, McCullough and I met up with Joe "The Minnow" Dimino and Matt "Mr. High Standards" Rauseo, and the four of us headed out for some mid-afternoon drinking (and lunch, I suppose). We then registered for the convention, which inevitably led to jokes about how exactly the fat guys in attendance were supposed to make use of the youth-sized Eddie Guardado t-shirts and Mariners hats in each goody bag. It was decided that we should give them to Dimino, who at 130 pounds soaking wet could then have an Inspector Gadget-like closet full of the same exact outfit.
Shortly after that Giacalone rejoined the group, and we headed to dinner along with Chris Jaffe and the Stallard Clan (Mark Stallard, plus his lovely wife and baseball-clad infant son). The post-dinner plans involved christening the hotel bar, at which point Mike Emeigh and my roommate, THT's Ben Jacobs, arrived. When the hotel cut us off around one in the morning, I went looking for another bar with Jacobs, Emeigh, Rauseo, and Dimino. We ended up somewhere that had a DJ playing techno music as thin, well-dressed people danced, so naturally we fit right in and closed the place.
I saw my first presentation of the convention Thursday afternoon, as THT's own Steve Treder discussed "The Wizard of Waxahachie," Paul Richards. As is the case with so many people I "know" online, Steve and I had never met before. Yet as I milled around in the moments before his presentation began, finding a seat and kibitzing with the group of degenerates around me, Steve took the mic and said, "Sit down, Gleeman." He then delivered an outstanding presentation, which was immediately followed by Jaffe's similarly compelling presentation on "Evaluating Managers."
Once Jaffe's presentation was over I introduced myself to Jay Jaffe (no relation), and he joined several of us in the hotel bar for some between-presentation drinks. Jay is one of the only baseball bloggers who was around before I started back in August of 2002, and it was great to finally meet him. Jim Bouton strolled into the bar with his wife and looked around for a few seconds while standing a couple feet from our table, and since he's a hero of mine and was clearly looking for something I said, "Hey Jim."
Bouton quickly realized he didn't know me (and didn't want to) and we were no help for what he was looking for, but it's one of those meaningless moments that I'll remember. Unfortunately the slow service in the bar meant that we had to take our drinks to go in order to make Giacalone's presentation on "The Battle to Bring MLB Back to Seattle," which I'm certain would have been excellent even without the booze. That was followed by Vince Gennaro's thought-provoking look at "The Dollar Value of the Last Piece of the Puzzle," which is a topic Gennaro previously covered in a series of articles for THT.
The streak of outstanding first-day presentations continued with Mike Carminati's "Historical Review of Relief Pitching," Phil Birnbaum's answer to "Do Players Outperform in Their Free-Agent Year?" and Maury Brown's look at "The 2006 CBA and the Battles Within It." Examining how players perform in their "walk year" is actually something I covered in an article earlier this year for Fantasy Sports Monthly, and it was good to see someone who is far smarter than me come to a similar conclusion using far more exhaustive measures than I did.
With a day of research presentations under our belts, Dimino, McCullough, Jacobs, Giacalone, and I made our way to a sports bar for dinner and then headed back to the hotel for some late-night poker. Jacobs' friend Steve Marx, who won $275,000 while finishing 35th at last year's World Series of Poker Main Event, brought the chips. I'm not sure what it says about me, but at a convention full of household baseball names the guy I was most interested in bombarding with a neverending stream of questions was someone who got knocked out of a poker tournament by Phil Ivey.
Seattle resident and NBA.com writer Kevin Pelton also stopped by to join us for the eight-man tournament. As you might expect from a field that featured such widely divergent levels of poker ability, the best player emerged as the winner. That's right, I won. Marx finished third, finding McCullough as difficult to beat as Ivey was, and then I carved up McCullough like a Thanksgiving turkey heads up to win the tournament.
It was one of the finest moments of my life, if only because winning the (purely hypothetical) first-place prize paid for my drinks later that night while I watched, among other things, Rauseo argue about nearly anything he could possibly think of with SABR higher-ups Neal Traven, F.X. Flynn, Claudia Perry, and Dick Beverage. The beauty of the whole thing is that after listening to Mr. High Standards complain about how his incredibly high standards weren't being met, it was decided by otherwise highly intelligent people that he would be a perfect addition to SABR's leadership.
I woke up bright and early Friday morning in order to see Bouton, Mike Marshall, Jim Pagliaroni, and Steve Hovley on the Jim Caple-moderated Seattle Pilots panel. I went mostly to see Bouton, but Marshall and Pagliaroni stole the show in what was an incredibly entertaining 90 minutes that included Bouton singing and tons of Ball Four-esque stories. Bouton was also keynote speaker at the SABR Awards Luncheon (where John Thorn was given the prestigious Bob Davids Award) that began a couple hours later, and gave a strange but hilarious speech.
With about four hours to kill before SABR's group outing to Safeco Field for the Mariners-Rockies game, I headed to a nearby bar for drinks with Rauseo, Jacobs, Dimino, McCullough, Jaffe, and Giacalone. The female bartender did a shot with us (although the laws in Seattle made her do so away from the bar), at which point we spent the next hour arguing over exactly how good looking she was and which baseball player she compared to.
It was decided that she's a "one" on our newly-created "binary scale of hotness"—it was also decided that we should always "round up"—and she'd surely be equally thrilled to know that we deemed her the female bartending equivalent of Jamie Moyer. We then headed to the game (along with several gallons of imbibed booze), where we were joined by a disappointingly sober Treder and collectively proceeded to anger just about everyone in our section during the brisk 112-minute game.
Retrosheet's Tom Ruane sat a few rows in front of us and later told people that we were incredibly annoying, and we literally spent an entire half-inning (and an entire bag of peanuts) unsuccessfully attempting to hit Maury Brown in the head with food from 10 rows away. Mike Webber and his extraordinarily tolerant wife Ellen sat directly in front of our mob and shockingly seemed to enjoy the experience, although Ellen revealed afterward that she thought the group "could use some sensitivity training."
The walk home from the ballpark included one grown man leap-frogging over fire hydrants and climbing a parking meter lumberjack-style, two other gainfully employed college graduates attempting to climb a tree for no apparent reason, and three over-30 doofuses "racing" the final few blocks before one of them spent the next 30 minutes on the floor of the hotel bathroom. There are pictures of these incidents, but they likely won't be released to the public until after we're done blackmailing the parties involved.
After some re-hydrating at the hotel bar, a five-man team went out in search of dinner, which was surprisingly difficult to find at midnight. We came up empty after an hour of walking up and down Seattle's San Francisco-like hills, and nearly lost a man when he "yakked" in a parking garage. There are also pictures of that—plus a nice "thumbs up" after shot—and in fact they were later shown to a completely disinterested (or worse) Rob Neyer in the hotel lobby.
Having almost given up, we came across a guy in his early twenties who was wearing all black and claimed to "know a place to eat that's still open." Hungry and completely unable to discern wrong from right at that point, he became a cross between Moses and the Pied Piper, leading us down some stairs and into a dark alley. One of my brave compatriots informed me that "this is the part where we get mugged," but instead we were taken into a dimly-lit bar and the man in black proceeded to set up a table for us, complete with napkins, silverware, and menus.
It was as if God himself was smiling upon us, right up until a waitress came over to inform us that "the kitchen closed like two hours ago." Never discouraged, we continued our seemingly endless journey to reach our singular goal, as cries of "I would literally eat anything that can reasonably be classified as food right now" kept our faith alive. We finally came upon an actual restaurant, with lights on and numerous tables full of noshing patrons, and rewarded ourselves with the best food anyone has ever had at three in the morning after walking for two hours in Seattle.
For some reason I was up before noon Saturday, and had brunch with Webber and Bill Carle before the murderer's row of presentations began. Baseball-Reference.com's Sean Forman led off with a unique look at "Assessing a Catcher's Ability to Save Runs with Bruises," followed by Retrosheet's David Smith on the "Effect of Batting Order on Scoring," and Jeff Angus on "Punctuated Equilibrium in the Bullpen." Angus' presentation was excellent despite focusing on the White Sox, and it came as no surprise when Forman and Smith finished first and second for the coveted best-presentation award.
Then came two more presentations—one by Maxwell Kates and the other by Baseball Prospectus' Jonah Keri—followed by the Neyer-moderated CBA panel that included Marshall, economist Andrew Zimbalist, and former MLBPA lawyer Dick Moss. I enjoyed it quite a bit, not only because the discussion was interesting, but also because I find Marshall to be a fascinating mix of intelligence and curmudgeonry (which was sort of clear during the Pilots panel, but blatantly obvious when talking about the players' relationship with owners).
I then walked several miles in search of sushi with Jacobs, Dimino, the Webbers, the Formans (Sean, plus his wife Sylvia and infant son Carl), and Greg Spira. Actually, they were in search of sushi and I was just hoping the restaurant had something that was actually cooked. It did, and so while everyone enjoyed all sorts of cultured delicacies, I scarfed down chicken and rice.
We made it back to the hotel in time to see Treder take second place in the SABR trivia contest, which is infinitely more impressive than it sounds given that one of the easier questions was, "Who finished second among NL hitters in hit by pitches in 1956?" Seriously. The highlight of the contest was without question the moderator, who while funny, immediately unleashed nervous laughter that was like Fran Drescher on steroids each time he cracked a joke. He had the back of the room thoroughly entertained as we sipped drinks, cheered for Steve, and tried to pretend we knew a few answers.
Following the trivia contest we retreated to the hotel bar to celebrate Treder's insane baseball knowledge and another great convention by basically drinking non-stop for three hours. The tab for my table was well over $200, although to be fair there were at least a dozen people crammed into the circle at all times. At one point a completely smashed middle-aged woman with bright red hair drifted over to our group and slurred, "Are you the baseball group?" When told we were, she said, "I'm a grandma" and then proceeded to make absolutely no sense while talking for three consecutive minutes.
When most of the table began to ignore her, she put her hands on my shoulders and said, "You're a spoiled bastard!" before sitting down in a chair next to me. Seeing that she was about 30 years to old for me (and, as someone else opined, "not nearly drunk enough"), I turned my back to her and left some poor guy whose name I can't remember to have his ear chatted off by her for the next 15 minutes. She finally left, telling everyone that her "old man is at the bar and is probably gonna be pissed."
Our next guest of honor was Neyer, who strolled over and said he wanted to "sit with the cool kids." I told Rob that he picked a great time to hang with us, because we were collectively about as drunk as physically possible. Perhaps the least-insulting thing he heard over the next 20 minutes was me telling him, "Don't take this as an insult, but your new book is in my bathroom." He shot back that "a lot of people tell me it's good to read in chunks," which I assure you is about the funniest thing an ESPN.com writer has ever said to a group of drunk SABR attendees at two in the morning.
Shortly before closing time Seattle native Ben "Runningbyrd" Byrd showed up looking to meet some of the guys he knows from Baseball Think Factory (and shockingly he was able to determine which table we were at). He also brought his lovely girlfriend Ainsley—immediately nicknamed "Runningbabe"—who surely had no clue what she was in for. Not only did they stick with us until the hotel bar kicked us out, the Byrds then led us to a still-open bar that was a few blocks away. You know, because it was crucial that we kept getting drunker.
My last memory from Saturday night was stumbling back to the hotel and having a heated, too-loud "discussion" with Rod Nelson about the state of online minor-league stat databases on the street right outside the hotel, which in many ways is sort of the epitome of the SABR convention. I know a group picture was taken at some point, which is surely hilarious for any number of reasons, and I was snoring within 10 seconds of getting back to my room.
Somewhere along the line an alarm must have been set, because I was up at 7:30 Sunday morning in order to catch my mid-morning flight back to Minnesota. As I boarded the plane and prepared to get some much-needed sleep, an elderly man in the seat directly behind me began singing what sounded like old country songs. Not humming or mumbling a few words, but literally singing. He continued as the plane finished boarding, eventually adding an annoying foot-tapping element to his routine.
As the plane began to take off and the evil eyes being exchanged continued to mount, the overly-tan, middle-aged woman in the seat next to mine rolled up her People magazine, leaned over to me—her jewelry clinking and obnoxiously strong perfume rushing through my nostrils—and said (in an incredibly thick New York accent): "This motherf***er is going to put me over the edge." She then summoned a flight attendant, saying matter-of-factly, "You better do something about this guy right now before I do."
Told he needed to quiet down—and technically shouldn't even have had his CD player on while we took off—the man apologized as if he had no idea he had been loudly forcing his horrendous singing voice on a plane full of strangers for the past half hour. I fully expect to see both of them—the singing doofus and the pushy New Yorker—in St. Louis next summer for SABR37. They'll fit right in.