June 30, 2008

2008 SABR Convention Recap

An hour-long delay in Minnesota got my trip to the 38th annual Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) convention off to a shaky start last week. After landing in Cleveland at seven o'clock Wednesday night I hopped on the light rail and stared cluelessly at the map on the wall, unsure which stop was my hotel. Luckily a middle-aged woman seated behind me noticed the helplessness and asked, "Are you going to the SABR convention?" before sharing a printout of the proper directions.

Moments later an attractive young woman seated across from me turned her body to us quickly, with her palms making the universal signal for "stop" and her mouth open. Clearly intrigued and with a thick southern accent, she squawked: "Did y'all say summin' 'bout a saber convention? That sounds real interestin'!" Informed that "SABR" is an acronym for a baseball organization, she offered a disappointed "oh" and just as quickly turned back away, visions of giant swords no doubt fleeing from her brain.

(Not what light-rail girl had in mind: Giacalone and Dimino.)

Apparently she wasn't alone in her disappointment. Like me, Columbus Dispatch columnist Rob Oller attended last week's SABR convention in Cleveland. Upon spotting him there with a "media" pass slung around his neck, interviewing a few elderly SABR members outside a room housing poster presentations, it seemed likely to me that the forthcoming article wasn't going to be a pretty one. Sure enough, here's part of what Oller wrote about his SABR experience:

Good thing baseball moves at the speed of a shuffle. Otherwise, the 80-year-olds in shorts and knee-high black socks who follow the game couldn't keep up. ... Is there some kind of law that says baseball stat geeks must have bone-white legs and carry their suitcase-sized spiral-bound notebooks the way a snooty maitre d' carries dinner menus? ... There also is something almost endearing about these people--"whack jobs" as one hotel employee whispered to me.

After mocking SABR members for being old, dressing funny, lacking pigment, carrying big notebooks, and being "whack jobs," Oller described how boring the presentations were and painted SABR38 as elderly people obsessing over minutiae. I'd love to say otherwise, but there's no question that SABR and its annual convention attract that element. If Oller went there looking for a "wow, these guys are losers" angle or focused on those elderly people he was chatting with, then the column wrote itself.

(What the newspaper columnist had in mind: Giacalone and Treder.)

No one is ever going to confuse SABR for a group of male models and the dork factor is certainly off the charts, but that's the nature of conventions. How many "cool" conventions with "exciting" presentations are there? Not many unless there's an actual saber convention somewhere, but for me at least Oller missed the point of this particular convention. My annual trek has little to do with presentations or even baseball. It serves mostly as an excuse to hang out with a bunch of friends who live in different cities.

My little SABR clique is no less dorky than the rest of the convention, although we trade in knee-high black socks for flip-flops and swap suitcase-sized notebooks for bottles of beer. The bone-white legs remain, sadly. SABR may not like to hear this, but for me the annual convention is merely a reason for various bloggers, Baseball Think Factory posters, and The Hardball Times writers to get together in one place for a few days.

(Studeman, Gleeman, Dimino, Keenoy, Webber, McCullough, Kumar, Dial, Jacobs, Rauseo)

We hang out, goof on each other, go to a game, drink a whole bunch of alcohol, play some poker, and basically just act like we would if everyone knew each other from high school instead of from the online baseball world. We may not have the rugged sex appeal of Oller and certainly none of us can claim to have an exciting job like sports columnist for a second-string newspaper in central Ohio, but if you like baseball and enjoy shooting the shit with some great guys (and a couple girls), it's tough to beat.

Among those who put up with me from Wednesday to Sunday: Will Young, Rob Neyer, Chris Dial, Dave Studeman, Matt Rauseo, Craig Calcaterra, Joe Dimino, Vinay Kumar, Jim Furtado, Mike Webber, Anthony Giacalone, Ben Jacobs, Stacy Jacobs, Darren "Repoz" Viola, Kyle Eliason, Steve Treder, Sam Hutcheson, Sean Forman, Chris Jaffe, Mike Emeigh, Jon Daly, Mike McCullough, Greg Spira, Ryan Armbrust, J.D. Schloss, Kelly "Bernal Diaz" Keenoy, F.X. Flinn, Neal Traven.

(Shit shooting, in progress.)

Our group grew so large in the hotel bar Thursday night that the fear was not being able to find a place capable of fitting all of us in for dinner. My suggestion was that we should pick two captains and draft teams for dinner, like we were picking sides for a kickball game in gym class. Amazingly the rest of the group thought that was a marvelous idea, if only for the chance to humiliate whoever was picked last, so I was pegged as a captain along with Webber.

Systematically ranking the most (and least) interesting people in the group was suddenly a far less amusing option when I was in charge of doing the picking, so we decided it was best to draft the teams in private and headed to the other end of the bar. Webber seemingly went for signability with his picks, while my selections focused more on conversational upside and drinking ability. Rauseo was one of my early picks, but held out for a larger signing bonus and eventually defected to Webber's team.

(Judge for yourself: The non-Gleeman dinner team.)

After leading my squad to a sports bar, we doubled up on drink orders with minutes to spare before the end of happy hour and watched the NBA draft while I made snide remarks about Kevin McHale that would've been even worse if I'd known then that he'd be dealing O.J. Mayo for Kevin Love a few hours later. After retiring back to the hotel bar we played poker until the wee hours, doing shots of tequila in glasses "borrowed" from the closed hotel bar while Dimino somehow lost $150 in a $20 buy-in game.

At around four o'clock in the morning--with the hotel bar long since closed and the lobby completely cleared out--Rauseo, Kumar, and I decided that we needed to continue drinking, so we headed up to Dimino's room to wake him and play some Indian poker. When the elevator door opened there was a security guard standing there and he angrily said: "I'm warning you, we've had some noise complaints and we've already booted two people from rooms."

(The view from my seat in the poker game.)

He followed us to Rauseo's room, where we grabbed a bottle of vodka, and followed us to Dimino's room, where we drank said vodka while betting way too much on a stupid game. A half-hour later there was a knock on the door, at which point we scattered like cockroaches expecting the security guard. Instead it was an elderly man wearing a robe--perhaps one of the 80-year-old SABR members Oller was talking about--and he said: "Don't you guys ever go to sleep?" Not really, no.

Friday night was SABR's group outing to the Indians-Reds game, so a group of about 10 or so headed to a sports bar/bowling alley for dinner beforehand. When we left Dimino decided to eat some leftover calamari while walking to the ballpark, but quickly realized that he didn't actually want to eat any more. He tried in vain to pass it off to someone and then spotted an attractive young woman wearing a Reds hat. As she walked past he said, "Hey, you're wearing a 'C' hat, do you want some calamari?"

Without breaking stride she sarcastically replied, "Yeah, you're hilarious." Dimino was clearly hurt by someone taking his generosity as something less than sincere, but as you'll soon read that didn't keep him from saying things to random women on the street for very long. After an hour-long rain delay and a few innings spent in some pretty bad seats, I spent the rest of the game walking around the ballpark (and drinking) with Keenoy, Dimino, and Kumar.

(Dial, McCullough, Gleeman, Rauseo, Disembodied Hand Holding Knife, Dimino.)

In the pro shop we spotted a Luis Rivas game-worn Indians jersey, which while spectacular carried a $75 price tag that was a bit too high for an inside joke. On our way out of the ballpark we passed a cute young woman holding up police tape, which apparently qualifies as crowd control in Cleveland. Dimino asked her why they didn't find a pole to do her job and we then spent the next block talking about her, deciding that her nickname was "the human pole" and dreaming up various scenarios about her life.

Of course, a few minutes later we had to walk past her again once we realized that we were traveling in the wrong direction, and the second time around Dimino told her that he'd come to realize just how vital she was to the entire operation. She appreciated that, it seemed, so I suggested that perhaps she deserved a better life than holding up police tape outside Indians games and noted that "I could take you away from all of this" while wondering if she knew of a magical place called "Minnetonka."

(What The Human Pole smartly passed up.)

She didn't, but flashed the kind of smile that people give to parents whose children make a scene at a restaurant or movie theater. We then spent the next mile or so giggling like schoolgirls while debating how effective "The Human Pole" would be as a superhero. Keep in mind that I'm nearly 26 years old, which made me the youngest person in our little group of idiocy and suggests that perhaps hers isn't the life that needs to be gotten away from. Still, if you're reading this THP, the offer stands.

Another poker game started up back at the hotel lobby and we were joined by a complete stranger and non-SABR member who was hanging around because his girlfriend's sister was getting married there the next day. He repeatedly described how disinterested he was in the wedding, so he joined us in a night of record-setting drinking, blew $40 in the game, and then apparently played Rauseo heads up for relatively big stakes beginning shortly after I went to bed at around five o'clock in the morning.

(Young drunk, me talking, Kumar contemplating.)

My eyes opened after noon Saturday, which gave me enough time to grab some lunch with Dial and his delightful six-year-old daughter "Red" (more on her in a moment) before catching a panel discussion featuring Indians general manager Mark Shapiro and St. Paul Saints owner Mike Veeck. After that I saw presentations by Dave Smith ("How Valuable is Strike One?"), Pete Palmer and Richard Cramer ("Measuring the Effect of 'Fog' on Clutch Hitting"), and Jeff Angus ("Does 'Game Score' Still Work?").

Once Angus' presentation finished up I stumbled into the hallway, where I got a chance to talk about clutch hitting and the presentation process with Cramer (one of the legends of sabermetrics) and Dial (one of my all-time favorite people). Longtime readers of this blog (or THT) may remember Dial starring in my SABR convention recaps for 2004 and 2005. In fact, back in 2004 my take on him was that "there is no one I've met in 21 years on this earth who I would rather go drinking with."

(Dial holding court while McCullough eyes approximately 58 beers.)

I've gone drinking with lots of people since then, but that remains every bit as true. After an unfortunate two-year absence from the SABR convention Dial picked up right where he left off as the life of the party, going through Mets t-shirts like Cher making costume changes at a concert and doing everything he possibly could to keep the drinks flowing. As an added bonus he brought along his wife and daughter, who were equally as charming and fun. I'll let Jaffe explain via his numbered convention recap at THT:

10. Even little children find Aaron Gleeman irredeemably stupid

Now for the cutest and most enjoyable moment of the entire weekend. Chris Dial brought his six-year-old daughter up to Cleveland for the fun. On Friday, Gleeman asked Dial if he was going to the library (for the author's forum at which Neyer spoke). "The library--what's that?" Dial asked in his trademark North Carolina accent.

With that opening, Gleeman did his "Airplane" on Dial, explaining the basic functions of a library, before joking to the urchin, "Wow, can you believe your dad doesn't know what a library is?" Dial's daughter--a very intelligent, well-behaved, and quiet girl--did not give Gleeman the answer he expected.

As her eyes rolled back, her facial expression clearly indicated that the stupidest person in this or any other lifetime had just uttered the single most asinine thing he had or would ever say. The little angel cried out, "No--he KNOWS what a library is, he just wants to know what's going on there!" She was so assertive, you wanted to turn to Aaron and say: "Yea, Gleeman--ya mope--didn't you know that?"

As they say on the series of tubes, she pwned me. Saturday night I joined a big group for a Forman-led sushi dinner and then giddily participated in what will hopefully become a SABR convention tradition when we played wiffle ball in a public square across from the hotel. With a fairly big audience heckling us from a nearby bus stop and innocent bystanders unknowingly halting the game every few minutes by walking through the makeshift concrete ballpark, we played deep into the night.

(Eliason pitching while the youth of Cleveland looks on.)

There were a half-dozen kids playing with us as their parents looked on, no doubt wondering about the weird "adults" running around at 10:00 p.m. One particularly attractive mom ordered her boys to leave several times before relenting, letting them play for a while and then getting everyone together for a group picture. She asked for someone's business card, so she could send us all the photo, but before I could bust out my peacock-led attempt at wooing her someone else wrote down an e-mail address.

After the local kids (and hot mom) left we picked teams and played an actual game, with the Minnesota contingent (plus Dimino and Treder) winning easily behind Eliason, who pitched four solid innings and smacked a homer while wearing a seersucker suit. Seriously. I collected a pair of "well-placed hits" ala Delmon Young--thankfully Kumar and Webber were around to make my swing look good--and scored four of the team's seven runs despite running like Matthew LeCroy carrying a piano on his back.

(That blur you see? Me legging out an infield single.)

My favorite moment from the game came when Dimino tweaked his ankle running out an infield single. As he crouched down holding his ankle, I lumbered out to replace him on the bases and said: "Joe, this is now the worst moment of your life, because you're getting pinch-run for by me." Dimino shook off the embarrassment and re-entered the game once Eliason and his suit ran out of gas, picking up an Eddie Guardado-like save that included an outstanding defensive play. He's a real gamer.

After the sweat-soaked wiffle ball combatants hobbled back to the hotel, we tried to round up someone capable of playing the expensive lobby piano, only to find that not one of the many dorks in attendance was forced to take piano lessons as a kid. Not having a chance to sing was probably for the best and we put the piano to good use anyway, leaning against it and stacking drinks atop it while huddling together to watch the end of the Angels' no-hit loss to the Dodgers on Armbrust's laptop.

(The hotel bar waiter waiving goodbye to his greatest clients ever.)

And just like that, my favorite four days of the year were over. My fifth consecutive SABR convention was every bit as fun as the first four and I'm already looking forward to SABR39 in Washington, D.C. next summer. I may even buy some knee-high black socks for the occasion.

(Me waiving goodbye to my dignity. I think she dug the beard.)

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

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