July 12, 2011

2011 SABR Convention Recap

I avoid airplane small talk because an iPod usually beats chatting with strangers and I feel bad for people stuck next to the fat blogger listening to his iPod, but on Wednesday's flight to Los Angeles for some reason I struck up a conversation with a mom and daughter who happened to be from Long Beach, where I was headed for the 41st annual SABR convention. They were baseball fans and seemed genuinely intrigued by the Society for American Baseball Research.

We talked about ballparks in California, they told me Long Beach wasn't a great place to hang out except compared to Oakland, and then the daughter posed a question I've wanted hear my entire life: "Do you want free drinks?" I replied like I would to "do you want to meet Mila Kunis?" and from her purse came a stack of cards good for one drink apiece. They used two on Bloody Marys and, it being a late-morning flight, I used used two on orange juice ... and vodka.

It didn't even dent the stack, so as we exited the plane four hours later they insisted on giving me another handful. And so on the way to an event where I spend five days each year talking baseball and drinking I talked baseball and drank. There are other fantastic things about SABR and the convention, but for me it's mostly an excuse to get together with friends I've made in the online baseball world. My first convention was 2004 and now I can't imagine missing one.

(BTF's power couple, Dial and Giacalone, on a date at Dodger Stadium)

Within seconds of arriving at the hotel I was in the lobby bar catching up with two of my oldest online buddies, Joe Dimino and Chris Dial, whom I originally "met" on the old Baseball Primer site and then actually met at that 2004 convention. Along with Baseball Think Factory regulars Anthony Milazzo and David Peng we drove to The Yardhouse near Staples Center, where The Hardball Times staffer Ben Jacobs and Paramount vice president Bryan Ellenburg joined us.

(From left to right at Dodger Stadium: Gleeman, Dimino, Jacobs)

From there we headed to the Dodgers-Mets game at Dodger Stadium, where the announced attendance was 31,000 and the actual attendance was probably closer to half of that. Dimino, Peng, Jacobs, Milazzo, and I bought $30 tickets for $20 and then almost immediately upgraded to the section where Dial and Ellenburg were sitting, finding five empty seats in their exact row because there were five empty seats in basically every row.

(What "31,000" fans look like in the middle of the first inning)

It was my first game at Dodger Stadium and the experience was underwhelming despite great company and nice seats. Mets fans nearly outnumbered Dodgers fans and the half-empty park had all the excitement of spring training. There was more excitement two nights later when I returned for what was a 1-0 win over the Padres, but the beer was still $11, the seats were still half-empty and not facing home plate, and the parking situation was ridiculous.

(From left to right at Dodger Stadium: Milazzo, McCullough, Daley, Munk, Wyers)

On the way back from Wednesday night's game we stuffed six guys into a car that comfortably sat four, got stuck in that famous Los Angeles traffic I'd heard so much about, and stopped for six-packs because the hotel bar charged $7.50 for beer and closed before midnight. They hate money, apparently, so Dimino, Jacobs, and I took our six-packs upstairs along with BTF regular Mike McCullough, MLB Advanced Media boss Cory Schwartz, and SI.com writer Will Carroll.

(From left to right in the hotel bar: Brewer, McCullough, Jacobs, Jaffe)

By coincidence Carroll's room was right next to my room and had an adjoining door, which we opened in an attempt to create a quasi-suite where a half-dozen guys drinking beer in a hotel room until 3:00 a.m. seemed far more fun than sad. And then because the convention is about beer and baseball, I was up at 8:30 a.m. the next morning to attend SABR's annual business meeting and see keynote speaker Scott Boras.

(From left to right in the hotel bar: Dimino, Young, Kumar)

His speech focused on the transition from minor leaguer to agent and how he built his hugely successful company. I've been critical of Boras, mostly for his hyperbolic hyping of clients and ability to manipulate certain media members, but he showed the type of charm and humor that makes it easy to understand how he's able to talk star players into choosing him and general managers into signing his star players. It also made me want to buy a used car.

(Boras speaking before SABR's annual business meeting)

At one point the lights in the room dimmed and Boras didn't skip a beat, quickly quipping that "SABR is a lot like the Dodgers, they don't pay their bills either." He got big laughs throughout and even discussed the first time he realized how much "managing the media" would help him, which would've gotten the biggest laugh of the entire 45-minute speech had my HardballTalk blogmate Craig Calcaterra been in attendance.

From left to right in the hotel bar: Webber, Gleeman, Reisner, Forman)

Boras' speech and a somewhat sobering business meeting were followed by lunch and beer at Rock Bottom, where I met Colin Wyers of Baseball Prospectus and Geoff Young, whose blog Ducksnorts is one of the few that predates this one. We got back to the convention in time for a baseball media panel featuring Sean Forman of Baseball-Reference.com, Dave Cameron of Fan Graphs, Bill Squadron of Bloomberg Sports, and Russ Stanton of the Los Angeles Times.

(From left to right at the media panel: Squadron, Stanton, Forman, Cameron)

It was an interesting discussion, but my favorite part of the panel came afterward when I met one of my favorite writers, Sam Miller of the Orange County Register, and along with Young we had our own lengthy discussion about the state of baseball writing. That evening Miller was among the panelists at a star-studded Fan Graphs event that also included Rob Neyer, Jonah Keri, Jon Weisman, Rich Lederer, Eno Sarris, Eric Stephen, David Appelman, and Cameron.

(From left to right at Fan Graphs event: Miller, Lederer, Stephen, Weisman)

Great weather and proximity to multiple ballparks were good reasons to hold the convention in California, but the best part of SABR returning to the West Coast for the first time since Seattle in 2006 was the number of great writers attending. Not meeting Keri and only having a couple minutes with Weisman were my main regrets of the convention after a decade reading them, but it was great to finally meet Cameron, Lederer, Stephen, Appelman, Sarris, and Sarris' hair.

(From left to right at Fan Graphs event: Lederer, Cameron, Gennaro, Neyer, Cistulli)

Carson Cistulli stole the show, hilariously moderating a panel and proving he's even funnier in person than in writing, which is quite a feat. It was a wonderful three-hour event made even better by a couple hours hanging out with panelists in the hotel bar afterward. And when the hotel bar closed too early again I went with a smaller group to a dueling-piano bar and closed it down too, stumbling back to the hotel to amusingly find Cameron on his laptop in the lobby.

(Treder and Giacalone, mid-presentation)

I woke up bright and early Friday, narrowly missing the start of a 10:30 co-presentation about the 1965 Dodgers by BTF regular Anthony Giacalone and original The Hardball Times member Steve Treder. Giacalone and Treder are two of my favorite online baseball friends and did a great job, even if the presentation was about a team that beat the Twins in the World Series. Plus, as an added bonus the Dodgers' first baseman in 1965, Wes Parker, was in attendance.

After the presentation a group of 15-20 piled into two cars and a van for lunch at In-N-Out, the famous West Coast hamburger chain where the line was literally out the door at 1:00 p.m. on a Friday. It was well worth the wait, as I graded my burger and fries as amazing but just short of life-changing. From there I hopped in a convertible and drove to The Yardhouse, where we did $393 worth of pregame drinking despite everything being half-off during happy hour.

Back at Dodger Stadium for a Dodgers-Padres game I was fortunate enough to sit by Forman, who along with creating and running the world's greatest website is simply a helluva guy. Alex Reisner was also a lot of fun to talk to and the crazy ninth inning made up for an otherwise nondescript game, the highlight of which was watching the man pictured below snatch a beach ball out of the air and stuff it underneath his seat as his whole body shook from anger.

(President of the Society for American Beachball Rejectors)

We retreated back to the hotel following a 1-0 game, opting against the lobby bar and instead creating our own bar in the bathroom of the room Giacalone was sharing with BTF regular, The Hardball Times writer, and occasional AG.com commenter Chris Jaffe. Based on his convention recap apparently Jaffe wasn't thrilled by that, but their room had a walk-out balcony with an amazing 14th-floor view of the city that comfortably fit a dozen guys and tons of booze.

(SABR's foremost Jack Bauer impersonator performing fellatio on a Dodger Dog)

We drank, cracked jokes about each other, and argued about stuff like the Negro Leagues and Major League Equivalencies in what I'd more or less describe as a perfect few hours. It's tough to beat baseball, beer, friends, and 75-degree weather from a 14th-floor balcony overlooking California and the night was such a perfect representation of why I come to SABR conventions that it had me quoting Snoop Dogg on Twitter after finally going to my room at 4:15 a.m.

(Giacalone's balcony, sans sabermetricians and beer)

I woke up just in time to have lunch Saturday and then went to a Neyer-moderated panel with Padres general manager Jed Hoyer and former Dodgers GMs Fred Claire and Dan Evans. The fun panel was made even better by the Padres no-hitting the Dodgers for 8.2 innings before losing on a walk-off as a blissfully unaware Hoyer kept his phone off. At one point he asked for an update, was told 0-0 in the sixth, and said: "Great, another pillow fight." Little did he know.

(From left to right at the GM panel: Hoyer, Claire, Evans)

From there I went to Angels Stadium for the Angels-Mariners game with my roommate, Jacobs, and Dimino and Vinay Kumar, who convinced me to attend my first SABR convention in 2004 by telling me how much fun they had in 2003. Not only did we see Mike Trout's first career hit and Torii Hunter's two-homer game, I got to hear Wyers utter the phrase "your Rally Monkey is getting in my beer" after his spilled drink started flowing into the row in front of us.

(From left to right at Angels Stadium: Dial, Wyers' dad, Wyers, Jacobs, Gleeman)

We didn't stay for Dierks Bentley's postgame concert, partly because his cowboy hat-wearing fans kind of freaked me out and I'd never heard of him, but mostly because we needed to get back to the hotel for the annual SABR convention poker tournament. Ellenburg brought the chips from his high-stakes home game, Dial talked the hotel manager into opening a ballroom for us at midnight, and we spent the next few hours playing a 15-person tournament.

(SABR convention poker tournament final table)

Actually, to be more accurate we spent the next three hours drinking while occasionally playing poker, although there was a solid group of spectators that grew to include Neyer and, ever so briefly, Mark Armour. I finished out of the money in fifth. Giacalone won the whole tournament after complaining beforehand that he hadn't played since the convention in Toronto five years earlier and the Scotty Nguyen of the SABR convention, Dial, was runner-up.

(Just like the World Series of Poker, we put the money on the table for heads-up play)

As players were knocked out and onlookers smartly concluded that sleeping sounded better than watching us the group gradually got smaller, but when the tournament was over about 10 of us carried what was left of the booze to a third-floor balcony and held an official chapter meeting. Or tried to, at least. I don't remember much aside from refilling my glass of Jameson, but my headache riding a shuttle to the airport in the morning suggested I had a great time.

(My dance partner Saturday night)

Sitting on the flight back to Minnesota, sipping some more orange juice and vodka courtesy of those nice women and their drink tickets, I was already thinking ahead to the 2012 convention and how much fun it was going to be. SABR42 is in Minneapolis, which initially didn't sound all that great to me because part of the reason I love going to conventions so much is traveling to another city and seeing games in other ballparks.

(Left to right: Kumar, Gleeman, McCullough, Brewer, Dial, Jacobs, Dimino, Ellenburg, Milazzo)

However, more than any of that the SABR convention is about hanging out with like-minded friends who love baseball and poker or drinking or just shooting the shit, and my hope is that the event coming to Minnesota means the excellent and ever-growing Twins blogosphere will be well-represented. I'll be there, because I'll never miss another convention, but I'm hoping to see tons of AG.com readers and my fellow Twins bloggers too. You won't regret it, promise.

You have 12 months to clear your calendar and prep your liver. Women of Minnesota, look out.

This week's content is sponsored by the St. Paul band Shoveldance, so please help support AG.com by checking out their new album.

August 10, 2010

2010 SABR Convention Recap

I got an aisle seat for my Wednesday afternoon flight to Atlanta for the 40th annual Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) convention and sat down to the right of an orthodox rabbi. Moments later the seat across the aisle was filled by a priest. Seriously. I waited patiently for the world's most obvious joke to come to life and deliver a punchline for "a rabbi, a priest, and a blogger/fat guy/SABR member get on an airplane," but sadly they never actually interacted.

Delta decided to play a joke of their own on all of us by leaving the plane on the sun-scorched Atlanta runway for 45 minutes, leading a flight attendant to announce: "We're gonna be here a while, so y'all might wanna slide the window shades down to stay cool." That worked about as well as my current weight-loss effort, but Baseball Think Factory regular Mike Emeigh was kind enough to wait for me and drove me to the hotel along with Joe Dimino and Greg Spira.

We headed directly to the hotel bar and met up with Steve Treder, Chris Jaffe, Mike Webber, Mike McCullough, Anthony Giacalone, Josh Heit, and Neal Traven, which was our party of 11 for dinner at Top Chef runner-up Kevin Gillespie's restaurant Woodfire Grill. It was too classy for me even without factoring in my cargo shorts, but the wine flowed, the $16 risotto and $28 pork loin were great, and we closed the place down. And then we closed down the hotel bar.

The actual convention began the next morning, and I saw presentations about Ted Lyons and the "Sunday Starter" from Jaffe and about the effect workloads and days between starts have on pitchers from J.C. Bradbury. Back in the hotel bar I found Chris Dial, who's starred in many of my past SABR recaps, and also met Cory Schwartz of MLB Advanced Media, who admitted to being a longtime reader and held no grudge over my reports about MLB.com's Twitter policy.

In fact, Schwartz invited me to that evening's Braves-Giants game along with Dial and Dimino, and then showed us how MLBAM and MLB.com roll by getting us into the swanky "755 Club" at Turner Field. We watched Jair Jurrjens out-duel Tim Lincecum while sitting outside at a table filled with pizza and buckets of beer, which has more or less ruined me forever. Everything we talked about was, as Schwartz and Dial repeatedly ribbed me about, "off the record."

(From left to right: Gleeman, Dial, Schwartz, Dimino)

However, definitely not off the record was Schwartz's reaction when a June bug landed on my shoulder. Sensing his unease, Dial plucked it off my shirt and held it near Schwartz, who more or less freaked out. The pictures below don't even do it full justice, because they show him still seated. He later got out of his chair, stood behind Dial, and threatened bodily harm if the bug stayed near him, which is a 10 on the absurdity scale. Dial eventually ended his reign of terror.

Schwartz said his friend Eddie Spaghetti of the Supersuckers was playing at a nearby bar, so after the game we took a cab to The Gravity Pub and saw him perform in front of around 50 people and 50,000 tattoos. I was once again way out of my element, but the music was very good, Mr. Spaghetti and his fans were as nice as they were ink covered, and another car full of SABR guys joined us there until the place closed after 3:00 a.m.

On the way back to the hotel we drunkenly decided it would be wise to instead get dropped off at a 24-hour diner where we combined beer and breakfast food in what's technically known as a "bad decision." Heit ordered rye toast, which admittedly seems somewhat less hilarious to me now than it did at the time, and an unnamed member of our party never made it to the breakfast food because he booted in the bathroom and stumbled back to the hotel in shame.

Our blond, 19-year-old waitress was shockingly amused by the whole thing and actually sat at the table for most of the hour-long meal, not totally unlike how Jane Goodall immersed herself in the chimpanzee world. Also, on the walk back to the hotel I'm told I recreated the scenes from "The Matrix" where Neo dodges bullets in slow motion, which I can assure you must have been funnier to watch than even Keanu Reeves' acting.

On a completely unrelated note, I woke up the next "morning" at 1:00 p.m. with a sore back and syrup on my pillow. I wobbled downstairs to the presentation room and sat a couple rows behind Red Sox assistant general manager Ben Cherington for Vince Gennaro's talk about measuring the asset value of players for midseason trades, followed by a presentation on the 1962 expansion draft during which the elderly man next to me literally fell asleep.

Sleeping beauty thankfully woke up for Treder's presentation on baseball (and America) in the 1960s, after which the several hundred-person SABR group went to the Braves-Giants game. I finagled a ride to the ballpark with Dimino, Baseball-Reference.com creator Sean Forman, and Neil Paine, who does great work blogging on Basketball-Reference.com. We got there just in time for a two-hour rain delay, after which the Braves hastily retired Tom Glavine's number.

We had tickets in Turner Field's all-you-can-eat section and my stated plan was to do enough damage that the Braves would have to trade Brian McCann just to cut payroll, but believe it or not my tremendous appetite was no match for the horrendous food set up like farm animals feeding, so instead I reluctantly downed some junior high cafeteria-quality offerings in the rain while chatting and complaining with Dimino, Webber, Paine, and Anthony and Chris Milazzo.

Once the rain stopped the weather was perfect and I sat with Forman, Dimino, Webber, Paine, Jaffe, and my former The Hardball Times partner Dave Studenmund. We had a great time, but naturally after the two-hour rain delay and Glavine ceremony the game went into extra innings when the Braves' defense imploded behind Billy Wagner. Forman also let me use his iPhone to watch the Twins-Indians game, which was great right until Matt LaPorta's walk-off homer.

We closed the hotel bar again Friday, but I woke up Saturday just in time to catch the "New Technologies in Baseball" panel at 3:00 p.m. Physics of baseball guru Alan Nathan was joined by Fan Graphs and Baseball Analysts writer Dave Allen, former THT staffer and current Tampa Bay Rays baseball operations analyst Josh Kalk, Trackman business development director Rob Ristagno, and Sportvision video development director Rand Pendleton.

In terms of the actual convention it was the highlight for me on several different levels. Allen took the stage sporting epic mutton-chops that, as Rob Neyer pointed out, made him look like Hyde from "That 70s Show." Beyond that Kalk used props, including a baseball attached to a power drill that predictably malfunctioned and almost crippled Nathan. And last but not least, the technology shown, discussed, and hinted at was mind-boggling.

(Allen and his tremendous mutton-chops)

Over the past couple years Pitch-f/x has changed the way many people analyze the game by providing previously unavailable details about pitching that turn "velocity" and "location" into a science. Field-f/x is now in the works, with the stated goal being to "create a digital record of all events" happening on each major-league field at all times. In other words, track everything. In truth a lot of the details went way over my head, but my mind was sufficiently blown.

Right now for each pitch thrown Pitch-f/x shows speed, location, release point, and movement. Field-f/x would take that and apply it to everything else, from batters and fielders to umpires and runners. What was the speed and trajectory of a fly ball? How was an outfielder's jump on the fly ball? How precise was his route? How fast did he get there? What type of jump did the runner get? How quick he did move? Was an umpire in proper position to make a tough call?

(Kalk and his baseball power drill, before the malfunction)

And that vastly understates the potential impact because I don't know or understand enough about the technology involved to do it justice and visual aids really made everything come to life, but I really think we're on the verge of a huge shift in baseball analysis and the discussion panel has me very excited to see what's next. If you think the depth of data available on sites like MLB.com and Fan Graphs right now are amazing, just wait until next season.

After having my mind blown by upcoming technology I rehydrated in the hotel bar and Hooters, and then went with a group of 15 to a Brazilian steakhouse called Fire of Brazil. As you can imagine we did some serious damage, and at the end the waiter took it upon himself to snatch away my plate despite my stop/go card being flipped to green. I consider it a victory over the restaurant, running my career record against buffet-style eateries to 154-0 with 97 knockouts.

After that we retreated back to the hotel bar and around midnight Dial noted the collection of Baseball Think Factory regulars, semi-regulars, and (back when it was called Baseball Primer) former regulars huddled together in a beer-littered corner and decided it would be the perfect opportunity to hold our first official chapter meeting. And those who remember my recap of last year's SABR convention in Washington, D.C. know just how fitting that was.

(From left to right: Traven, Spira, Dial, Webber, Gleeman)

Paul Brewer first mentioned the idea of a BTF and/or internet-based SABR chapter over dinner and a bottle of wine, and that notion was further hashed out by a couple dozen degenerates jammed into my hotel room and drinking from a makeshift bar built around the bathroom sink. We stayed true to those roots a year later and as we brainstormed ways to expand the group even further for future years Dial mentioned the role my annual convention recap could play.

That made me nervous because while SABR and the SABR convention are many things to many people--history and research, presentations and discussions, passion for baseball--to me it's always been about getting together with my friends each year to shoot the shit, go to a game, and break bread in a new city. My recaps of beer drinking and shit shooting are a glimpse into just one of the many great aspects of SABR, but I do hope it somehow helps spread the word.

(From left to right: Dial, Gleeman, Giacalone, Dimino, Milazzo, Milazzo, McCullough)

I had no idea what to expect when I went to Cincinnati for my first SABR convention in 2004, but I haven't missed a convention since and can't imagine ever not going. I'll be in Los Angeles next year and the SABR convention is coming to Minnesota in 2012, so I'm counting on a whole bunch of AG.com readers and Twins bloggers joining the fun by then. If you like baseball you'll enjoy it and if you like hanging out with other people who like baseball you'll love it. I do.