August 4, 2009

2009 SABR Convention Recap

SABR members have a perhaps unfair reputation of possessing a nerdy quality, and Thursday's largely white, male, and casually dressed crowd did little to dispel that stereotype.

- Tim Lemke, Washington Times

Let's make one thing perfectly clear right away: There's absolutely nothing "perhaps unfair" about SABR members having a reputation for "possessing a nerdy quality" unless you also believe that it would be unfair to suggest that, say, NBA players have a reputation for being really tall. We're definitely "largely white, male, and casually dressed" and you can also throw in nerdy, fat, pale, and four-eyed to describe many of us (or at least me). And once a year we all get together and have one hell of a good time.

Back in 2004, after attending my first Society for American Baseball Research convention in Cincinnati, I described the experience as "like having a high school or college reunion with a bunch of guys you've never actually met." At the time I was actually still in college, but in the five years since then I've traveled to Toronto, Seattle, St. Louis, Cleveland, and last week Washington, D.C. to hang out with some of my favorite people in the world and dispel zero stereotypes.

The basic story never really changes. We convene at a hotel in some MLB city, spend five days drinking and eating and talking baseball and going to a game, retreat to our respective hometowns for the next 360 days, and then do it all over again. SABR as a whole has as many as 1,000 members attend each convention, but my subgroup of degenerates usually numbers around 25 or so, with a lot of the same faces and a handful of new guys joining us each year.

We know each other from Baseball Think Factory, The Hardball Times, fantasy leagues, blogging, and various other nerd-based endeavors, and while the convention's assorted research presentations and panel discussions always prove very interesting the whole idea of the get-together for me at least is to provide an excuse for everyone to assemble in one spot long enough to ruin our livers, goof on each other, and argue about the best left-handed relief pitcher of all time (my vote: Billy Wagner).

This year was no different, as I was drinking beer and making bets about who was fatter with a dozen SABR members at a bar called the Elephant and Castle within 30 minutes of my Wednesday afternoon flight landing in Washington. Our group quickly expanded to a couple dozen people, and once that bar closed we headed to another place called Harry's for further refreshments and the absolute worst chili cheese fries in the history of mankind (we cleaned the plate, of course).

(I'm the good looking one.)

There was a full slate of presentations Thursday, so I woke up at the crack of noon to see Tom Herlich shed light on Tom Cheney's forgotten 21-strikeout game, Anthony Giacalone discuss how the great depression impacted baseball in the 1960s, Vince Gennaro examine the impact of defense on pitcher usage, Mike Emeigh highlight evolution of bullpen roles, Dave Smith debunk the idea that pitchers are worse after running the bases, and Pat Kilgo look into position players fatiguing during games.

(Emeigh's presentation on bullpen roles.)

Kilgo began his presentation by informing the audience that he was in the minority because he actually likes Tim McCarver, whom he quoted regarding catchers fatiguing, and then 20 minutes later finished the presentation with a list of "conclusions" that began: "1) Tim McCarver is mostly wrong." In the world of baseball research, we call that passing the smell test. Incidentally, Herlich's well-done look at the record-setting 21-strikeout game ended up winning presentation of the year.

(In addition to learning about baseball, I caught up on politics via the hotel bar television.)

After remaining in the hotel bar until they literally began locking up Thursday night I headed downstairs to join a 25-cent/50-cent poker game and proceeded to win $60 in about 90 minutes despite basically check-calling the flop and turn before value betting the river on every hand. I'm apparently the only poker player in the world who gets more conservative after a half-dozen beers and could've won $100 or so if my roommate Matt Rauseo didn't keep folding two-pair to me on the river. Also, he snores. A lot.

(My roommate and his lover.)

Friday's presentation slate included a pair of talks from THT staffers, as Steve Treder examined which farm systems have produced the most talent during the past 50 years and Chris Jaffe profiled Charlie Comiskey. Jaffe has written a book about baseball managers that's due out this winter, so his look at Comiskey was sort of a preview, and Treder's research got me thinking about ways to tailor that study specifically to Twins history. Both were very good, and in fact nearly every presentation I saw was solid.

Lunch back at the Elephant and Castle followed, after which I rode to Baltimore for the Orioles-Red Sox game with Giacalone, Mike Webber, and Joe Dimino. They're three of my oldest SABR friends and we had such a good time shooting the shit that three hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic and being yelled at in a McDonald's bathroom by a guy in a wheelchair didn't seem so bad. The group in Larry Mahnken's car only had to stomach a few minutes in traffic, because he crashed and they went back to the hotel.

(Mahnken's car, presumably after the accident.)

I'd never been to Camden Yards before, so that was pretty great. Beautiful weather, decent seats in the right-field bleachers, a whole bunch of Yuengling lager, a great game, and no giant white roof. The only bad part was the fact that Red Sox fans accounted for at least half and probably closer to two-thirds of the sellout crowd, including the obnoxious idiot in a Carlton Fisk throwback jersey sitting directly to my right who gave David Ortiz a standing ovation before every at-bat (also known as my roommate).

(The view from directly behind me at Camden Yards.)

The ride back to the hotel thankfully lasted just 45 minutes and we immediately crammed into the hotel bar for a few drinks before heading out in search of cheaper alcohol. That led us first to a bar that was announcing last call as we arrived and then to a pool hall/strip club hybrid that seemed to be filled with guys waiting for their girlfriends' shifts to end. Three members of the booze search party called it quits at that point, but not Jay Jaffe's lovely wife. She's from Wisconsin and actually likes his mustache.

(Nine drunk dudes and the woman who tolerated them for a while.)

After several pitchers of beer and some awful bar food we decided it would be a good idea to finish the night with shots, but when a couple people changed their mind I ended up downing my Jagermeister and their vodka before beginning the eight-block trek back to the hotel. As you can see by my face in the picture below the decision-making involved in that process was probably lacking. In fact, I'm told that at one point I actually tried to trade Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for Delmon Young.

(Jagermeister + vodka + walking = my face.)

I decided to skip the annual Saturday luncheon for the first time in six conventions and instead went for sushi with a big group. After that a handful of us went to the National Mall where tourists into seeing the Washington Monument and Capitol were also treated to the sight of SABR members playing catch. Dinner at Chef Geoff's followed, where we had a group of over 25 people and got into a discussion about the possibility of a non-geographical SABR chapter based around Baseball Think Factory.

(Dial putting on a show for the tourists.)

Chris Dial and Paul Brewer pitched that idea to the SABR board of directors the next morning, but not before we bought a bunch of alcohol, mixers, and foam cups at a liquor store and set up a bar in the bathroom of my hotel room. At one point I counted 24 people in what couldn't have been more than 200 square feet, yet miraculously security never came as folks cycled through all night. More miraculously, at one point there were two women in the room, which is believed to be a first for any SABR convention.

(Believe it or not, this photo was taken before we started drinking in my hotel room.)

As you can clearly see from the above pictures "possessing a nerdy quality" and "largely white, male, and casually dressed" are putting it kindly and I'm certainly not helping to dispel those stereotypes (or bring down the group's average weight), but in six trips to the SABR convention I've yet to have anything less than a spectacular time and I'm already looking forward to everyone getting together in Atlanta next summer.

(Pimpin' ain't easy.)

Once you're done here, check out my "Circling The Bases" blog over at

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