“Value Strategies for Building a Roster.” “Integration or Preservation? The Great Dilemma for the Black Press Presented by Negro League Baseball in the 1940s and 1950s.” “From the Diamond to the Helix: Major League Baseball and Genetic Testing in Latin America.” These were some of the presentations given to a group of hard core baseball fans in Minneapolis last week. Established in 1971, the Society for American Baseball Research is a non-profit organization that works to generate interest in the history of the game and invent new ways to judge player performance (think “Moneyball.”) As a lifelong baseball fan, I had always been vaguely aware of SABR. When perusing their booth at TwinsFest last year, the SABR representative mentioned that the convention was going to be held in Minneapolis in 2012.
I love baseball and I love history, so it seemed a perfect time to join. Allow me to share my adventures as a new convert to this mystical baseball world! As I stepped up to the registration table, I was handed a bag filled with enough reading material to last me for the rest of the summer: a current issue of Baseball America, a new SABR publication titled “Short but Wondrous Summers: Baseball in the North Star State” (lots of stories about the history of baseball in Minnesota), a copy of “The Minneapolis Review of Baseball” (yet more local baseball stories), a recent Minnesota Twins program and a St. Paul Saints magnet schedule now on my fridge next to the Twins one I received at this year’s home opener (you can never have too many magnet schedules). I passed over the obligatory Minneapolis-St. Paul visitor’s guide, welcome letter from Meet Minneapolis and Mall of America coupon book. Stew Thornley, the convention committee chair and local Halsey Hall chapter newsletter editor, greeted me warmly and mentioned that, although I would be outnumbered by males, “it’s more about quantity than quality.”
By the time I arrived at my first event, the SABR Authors Panel featuring Mark Armour (“Pitching, Defense and Three-Run Homers: The 1970 Baltimore Orioles”), Rob Fitts (“Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage and Assassinations During the 1934 Tour of Japan”), Daniel Levitt (“The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge and Its Legacy”), John Thorn (“Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game”) and Steve Treder (“The Hardball Times”) had packed the entire entrance area to Barnes and Noble. I could tell I was in a knowledgeable crowd when one man mistakenly asked about the four 20-game winners on the 1970 Baltimore Orioles (tsk, tsk, everyone knows
it was the 1971 Orioles…at least everyone in that group it seemed). John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian, talked about how larger-than-life personalities such as Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright have been elevated to mythic levels in the annals of the game, while the real men behind the beginning of the organized game including Daniel Lucius Adams, William Rufus Wheaton and Louis Fenn Wadsworth, are largely ignored. As I would come to find out in many SABR events and presentations, the Q&A period had to be cut off after a certain point or we would all still be standing there asking questions and debating the game. Yes, these people love baseball.
With my status as a new member, I was invited to attend the First-Timers Welcome Reception in the Minnesota Room of the Marriott Hotel. There was also an “Under 30” mixer and reception on Thursday night but I found these titles to be meaningless. These were “receptions” masquerading as excuses to talk baseball to anyone and everyone. (And what’s wrong with that?) The standard ball park fare (burgers and brats) was served and then the trivia questions started. “Who was the first player selected by the Mets in the expansion draft?” (Some guy named Hobie Landrith apparently…) When the speaker admonished everyone to “keep the answers to themselves” I turned to the person sitting next to me and said, “That won’t be a problem, since I don’t know any of these answers.”
It was the beginning of my weekend meeting baseball fans from around the country and discussing the illogical nature of the game. I talked to a Rockies fan that night who reminisced about their great run in 2007 and how, going into the last weekend of the season, no less than five things all had to go right for them to even force
a one game playoff with the Padres. Of course everything fell the Rockies way and they made it to the World Series for the first time…perfectly logical! I could have stayed to discuss the game all night…alas, I had to get up for work the next day. I envied everyone staying at the Marriott- after all, where else can you roll out of bed and instantly start debating the merits of interleague play with complete strangers?
With nearly 40 research presentations running at concurrent times, it’s impossible to hear everything but a couple that I enjoyed were “Trying to Get a Major League Baseball Team in Portland, Oregon, from 2000 to 2005: Political and Economic Realities and the Soft Underbelly of Baseball Exposed” and “The Inauguration of This Noble and Manly Game Among Us- The Spread of Baseball in the South Prior to 1870.” I learned that the lack of a viable ownership group and the political will of the Washington, D.C. area doomed Portland’s chances for an MLB team and how the stories that the northern soldiers brought baseball to the South during the Civil War are not true as baseball was alive and well in the antebellum South.
Time in between research presentations could be spent in the vendor’s room, where I was surrounded by authors and reminded of the extensive baseball library that exists and grows larger every year with a seemingly endless variety of topics just waiting to be discovered. There was also a poster room for people who had created reports on subjects ranging from major leaguers who had hit a home run as a major leaguer and minor leaguer in the same park (not as rare as you might think since many major league teams will play an exhibition game at a minor league stadium toward the end of spring training) to trying to determine how much home field advantage matters (it matters somewhat but not as much as it’s made out to according to that author’s research). I appreciated one of the reports which pointed out that baseball is the only sport where you’re guaranteed to be on offense at the end of the game if the situation warrants. Fun facts like that remind me why I like this game so much and - dare I say - why it’s the greatest game in the world. (And at the SABR convention, who is going to argue with me on that?) Or you’re free to spend your time striking up a conversation in the lobby about anything relating to baseball…are you noticing a theme here?
Some of the most heavily attended events were the speaker panels featuring a debate about official scoring, women in baseball and a Q&A with Terry Ryan (who they announced would be receiving SABR’s prestigious Roland Hemond Award next year). When discussing Target Field, Ryan emphasized that just about the most depressing thing in the world was having to go into the sterile Metrodome on a beautiful Minnesota summer day. (Amen to that!) Also, with many visitors experiencing Target Field for the first time it was a major topic of conversation. As could be expected, everyone I talked with absolutely raved about it. One person that had been to the Metrodome even said they were so happy for Twins fans because now we have a “real” ballpark. Another attendee couldn’t get enough of it- he went to the game on Wednesday afternoon, went on a tour Thursday morning and was planning to attend the game on Friday night…but then, what better place to talk baseball than at a ballpark?
As you can probably tell, I gravitated much more toward the history related events but there was plenty to entertain the sabrmetrics minded as well. I went to the SABR Case Competition, where students from the University of Chicago gave an encore of their first place presentation from the inaugural SABR Analytics Conference in March. As I understood it, students from around the country (seemed to be mostly MBA level or economics majors) were selected to participate and given a case study to analyze data to determine whether the Washington Nationals should have been buyers or sellers at the trade deadline last year. Oh, and they had 72 hours to do it and that included travel time to the conference. The moderator mentioned that team representatives were in attendance at the presentations and several students involved are doing internships for various teams or MLB this summer.
I wish I could have spent a lot more time there but I very much enjoyed my first experience at the SABR convention nonetheless. It reminded me of being in Cooperstown for Hall of Fame induction weekend - a mecca for baseball fans. Simply put, it was a baseball “bucket list” item I didn’t even know I should have on my bucket list! I’ll admit I joined SABR with a bit of trepidation (I remember asking the guy at TwinsFest, “Honestly - is this just a group of old guys sitting around and complaining about how much better the old days were?”) but beyond their image as statistics crazed Moneyball junkies, I found almost everyone to be very friendly and welcoming. (Okay, in truth there were a few grumps…but aren’t there a few of these to be found anywhere?) As a freelance writer, I can certainly appreciate the time spent researching and writing each presentation and can only imagine the organizational skill it takes to pull off a convention like this. My deepest appreciation and thanks to everyone who helped bring this great event to Minneapolis for all baseball fans to enjoy!