July 30, 2007

2007 SABR Convention Recap

As I boarded a Wednesday morning flight to St. Louis for the 37th annual Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) convention last week, the man seated next to me asked, "Are you going to SABR?" I later learned that he was traveling to his first convention (it was my fourth straight), but he was right to assume that a gray polo shirt, khaki cargo shorts, and a Twins hat might as well be the uniform for SABR convention goers.

In fact, after arriving at the St. Louis airport I waited around for Vinay Kumar's flight from San Diego to land and soon learned that he was sporting the exact same look, right down to the color of his shirt, except his was a Padres hat. As a wise man once said, we looked like brothers from a different mother. Within seconds of arriving at the Adam's Mark hotel, we spotted Joe Dimino, who along with Kumar is one of my oldest "online friends."

(Where's Waldo?)

We'd all been friends for several years already when I finally met them in person back in 2004 while attending my first SABR convention in Cincinnati. For many people the annual SABR convention is about stuff like research presentations and committee meetings, but for me it's always been about simply hanging out with the many friends I've made over the years through this blog, The Hardball Times, Baseball Think Factory, and various Diamond-Mind leagues.

For instance, Kumar lives in California and Dimino lives in Illinois, so the annual SABR convention is our only chance to see each other in person. However, between near-daily conversations online and spending 96 straight hours together in a random city every 12 months, I'd probably consider them two of my closest friends. Hell, I ran The Hardball Times together with Dave Studenmund for several years, yet didn't meet my business partner until last Thursday in St. Louis.

(The Hardball Times crew: Kumar, Dimino, Jaffe, Jacobs, Gleeman, Studenmund)

Of course, the SABR convention isn't solely about hanging out with friends. Sitting through interesting, well-done research presentations in between all the hanging out can be fun too. Despite being a White Sox fan who has the same name as a famous mobster, Jack Bauer look-a-like Anthony Giacalone is one of my favorite people and always does a fantastic job presenting. He did double duty this year by turning in a pair of outstanding, energetic presentations about Cardinals history.

Frequent AG.com commenter Chris Jaffe shared enlightening research on the now-extinct practice of leveraging starting pitchers, keeping the Saturday afternoon audience on their toes by shouting out "aha!" whenever he got to an especially interesting point. Perhaps my favorite two presentations of the weekend came back-to-back later that afternoon, when Mark Armour and Adrian Burgos took two different yet equally intriguing looks at integration and diversity in baseball.

(Giacalone's second presentation of the weekend)

BTF regular Jon Daly (who also shares a name with someone famous), opened my eyes to the great career of former Cardinals manager Billy Southworth and broke from his mild-mannered persona to have the best mid-presentation line of the convention. About halfway through a scheduled 30-minute talk, Daly looked toward the person timing him and asked, "Am I running out of time?" The clock wasn't even close to running out, but that didn't stop Daly from saying:

I gave this presentation at our local chapter meeting last month and had a bandage on my chin. I told them that while I was shaving, I had been thinking about my presentation and cut my face. Some guy in the back stood up and said, "Why don't you think about your face and cut your presentation."

I suppose that's probably one of those "you had to be there" moments, but you'll just have to trust me that coming from Daly in the middle of a presentation at a SABR convention, it was damn funny. Keynote speaker Joe Garagiola provided a lot more than one joke during Saturday's awards luncheon, regaling the audience with funny anecdotes from his playing days (which I later learned were almost all pulled directly from his new book, Just Play Ball).

(Garagiola, mid-speech)

I was lucky enough to sit at a star-studded table for the luncheon, with Baseball-Reference.com creator Sean Forman, ESPN.com's Gary Gillette, Baseball Info Solutions president Steve Moyer, Maple Street Press president Jim Walsh, and Basketball-Reference.com's Justin Kubatko joining me. While the average baseball fan may not know him by name, Forman at a SABR convention is not totally unlike William Shatner at a Star Trek convention.

Forman and Kubatko had a booth in the vendor's room, where they spent the weekend showing off B-R.com to what was a shocking number of people who had never used the indispensable site before. It was amusing to see people gawk at the screen when they saw the ridiculous amount of information that's available there. I've used B-R.com on a near-daily basis for about five years, so watching people see it for the first time was like watching someone's reaction to their first drink of water.

(Dimino, Kubatko, Jacobs, Gleeman)

Walsh has employed me several times in the past, so it was great to speak to him at length and in person. His company, Maple Street Press, puts out well-done, upscale publications and has recently begun to expand their offerings far beyond the Red Sox and Notre Dame football annuals that I once worked on. The chicken wasn't great, but between Garagiola's speech, the company, and THT's Jeff Sackmann winning an award, it was a great way to spend an afternoon.

Another highlight was Friday's panel featuring ex-Cardinals Al Hrabosky, Ricky Horton, Ted Savage, and George Altman. One of the Cardinals' television announcers, Hrabosky is a known personality, but Horton, Savage, and Altman were also very entertaining. They told stories from their playing days, some of which sounded suspiciously apocryphal. Normally that type of thing just comes with the territory when former players get together, but the audience at a SABR convention is a little different.

For instance, both Altman and Savage claimed to have had tons of success against Sandy Koufax, and the words were barely out of their mouths when cell phones all around me began to punch up B-R.com in search of evidence. In reality, they hit .190/.190/.357 and .240/.240/.400 against Koufax, which probably isn't what they meant. Similarly, I won't blame Savage for using poetic license in saying that he "killed lefties" during a career that saw him hit .244/.340/.401 against them.

(Emeigh, Traven, McCullough, Giacalone, Kumar)

Of course, as always most of the real highlights came away from the convention. One of my favorite moments came at Mike Shannon's restaurant at around 10:30 Wednesday night, when I bet Dimino that he couldn't consume a 24-ounce steak after eating and drinking all day. If he ate the whole thing, we'd pay for it. If he didn't, he'd be on the hook for $45. Dimino weighs about 150 pounds soaking wet, but got through the steak with little problem and even had some calamari off Kumar's plate.

Unfortunately for him, the night didn't end there. After eating, Dimino joined me, Kumar, Giacalone, Mike McCullough, and Ben Jacobs for a mile-long walk to a hole-in-the-wall bar where an unusually large number of tattooed people danced to loud hip-hop music and drank one-dollar cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Despite the odd scene, once there Dimino proceeded to slump up against the wall for a nap while continuously rubbing his distended belly.

(Dimino won the battle, but lost the war)

Perhaps most amazingly, the fact that one member of his party was in a food coma a few feet away didn't stop McCullough (better known as "DeJesus Freak") from spending about an hour chatting up one of the cutest women in the bar while wearing a vintage Chicago Federals hat. If you really think about that sentence, it's pretty spectacular. At some point we woke Dimino up and walked back to the hotel, but not before Jacobs used the power of PBR to climb a traffic light.

(My roommate, climbing stuff)

The next night, while about 15 of us ate a restaurant called Caleco's that was across the street from the hotel, a different woman sent over a drink for McCullough. Not known as a ladies man coming into the convention, McCullough had the entire group buzzing until he ruined things by informing us that the drink-buying woman was someone he already knew. Of course, approximately 18 percent of SABR convention goers don't actually know a woman, so it remained somewhat impressive.

(Rauseo ruining what would have been a perfectly good date)

We returned to Caleco's enough that the female bartenders came to know us, saying things like "wow, you guys are really on a mission tonight" as we rushed to consume eight drinks in the hour before the bar closed. Bradley, the bartender at a hotel bar called A.J.'s, was significantly less impressed by our drinking skills, kicking one of us (who shall remain nameless, I suppose) out of the bar for falling asleep mid-drink, but came around once we included him in our round of Jagermeister shots.

(SABR's new power couple)

The hotel also had Players Sports Bar, where a group of about 10 were gathered on Friday afternoon when Rob Neyer walked by and poked his head in. Neyer seems like a quiet guy and I admire him a great deal, so I've tried my best to leave him alone at past SABR conventions (although anyone who read my convention recap last year knows that hasn't always worked so well). This time, however, the handful of drinks I had already consumed motivated me to yell out, "Hey Rob!"

He heard me, looked right at the group, gave one of those half-hearted waves you give when someone you have no interest in talking to makes eye contact from across the street, and immediately began walking in the other direction. As much as I'd love to hang out with Neyer and as much fun as I find our little group of degenerates, my guess is that his fleeing upon seeing us was probably for the best. After unsuccessfully trying to convince Neyer to join us in the bar, we headed to Shannon's restaurant again.

(Would you want to hang out with this group? And yes, I'm holding a bottle and a cup. So what?)

Somewhere along the way we learned that it was the last place Josh Hancock drank before his fatal car crash, but that didn't stop us from preparing for that night's Cardinals-Brewers game by downing a few more rounds. The actual game was horrible, in part because of the 12-2 score and in part because of a 40-minute rain delay. Beyond that, our seats in the left-field corner were partially obstructed and the combination of rain and humidity made it feel like approximately 500 degrees where we sat.

(The view from the SABR section)

The overhang above shielded us for the most part, but apparently funneled all of the water into one spot, which happened to be where Jaffe was sitting. After several gallons of water were dumped on him, Studenmund heroically attempted to shield Jaffe with the help of an empty beer cup, but sacrificed himself in the process. As I reminded everyone at the time, none of this ever would have happened at the Metrodome.

(Save yourself, Studes!)

You haven't lived until you've taken in a blowout, rain-delayed game in the corner of a ballpark with dozens of drunk, sweaty SABR members. As one of the drunkest and sweatiest SABR members I didn't feel particularly bad for myself, but Paul Brewer's nine-year-old daughter got a pretty raw deal. Most likely thinking that the group she'd be sitting with would be as nice and mild-mannered as her father, she instead got seated directly behind me and right next to Matt Rauseo.

(Me pointing at something; Brewer's daughter seemingly having a good time)

Rauseo, a stereotypical East Coaster whose "Mister High Standards" nickname I coined at the 2005 SABR convention in Toronto, unleashed a high-volume swear word about as often as the Brewers crossed the plate. Each time he did so, the group would let out a collective "woah!" and Jacobs almost had him convinced that he should pay the little girl $50 for her misery. While I have no memory of it, I'm told that several hours later I nearly agreed to an MMA-style fight against Rauseo for $1,000.

(Rauseo in all his sweaty, drunken glory)

While at the game we gambled on where the ball would be placed between innings, with McCullough eventually winning over $100 when it was finally rolled up on the mound about halfway through the game. We also took over the hotel's "media room" one night, playing cash-game poker that began with no-limit hold 'em, shifted to H.O.R.S.E., and finally became drunken, high-stakes, four-handed Indian poker in someone's hotel room. Oh, and at some point I coin-flipped Dimino for $20. And lost.

(The SABR Indian Poker Championship final table)

With the convention more or less over, Saturday night reminded me of the final night of summer camp. Because they had early-morning flights, Kumar and Jacobs did the responsible thing by leaving Caleco's at a relatively reasonable hour and headed back to their respective hotel rooms for some much-needed sleep. After the rest of us closed the bar, we made our way back to the hotel with enough alcohol to kill an elephant.

(Down to one beer, at least)

The plan was to bust into Kumar's hotel room and wake him up, because that's the sort of thing that a bunch of drunken idiots do to a friend who has decided that he should get some sleep before a pre-dawn cross-country flight. Much to our disappointment, when we got to the room we found Kumar, wide awake, drinking beer with McCullough. Naturally, we joined them and woke Jacobs up, so he could too. Kumar left for the airport at around 4:30 and things broke up for good soon after that.

(I'm sensing some sort of pattern here)

Drunken hugs and talk of seeing people again at next year's convention in Cleveland eventually gave way to everyone stumbling back to their rooms. My flight back to Minnesota was originally set for 10:30 Sunday morning, but was one of several hundred flights canceled by Northwest Airlines. I spent the next nine hours at the St. Louis airport, unsuccessfully trying to stand-by my way onto three flights before finally boarding one that took off at 8:15.

(SABR convention or the set of a really bad gay porn movie? You decide)

Despite nine excruciating hours of airport food eating, iPod listening, gate changing, people watching, small-talk making, and "sorry sir, the flight is totally full" hearing, attending my fourth straight SABR convention was another amazingly good time and continues to be something that I plan to do every single year. In fact, while my liver might feel differently, I'm already counting down the days to SABR38 in Cleveland.

(Good night, sweet prince)

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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