Over the weekend, I attended my first Society for American Baseball Research convention. It was the 32nd get-together for the organization, of which I've been a member for about three hours. Prodded by BP's Jeff Bower, I joined and made the trek to Boston for this year's gathering, which kicked off this summer's "Sheehan Across America" tour. (And to clear up the rumor, no, Papa Roach isn't opening for me.)
SABR has been defined to outsiders largely as the home of statistical research, because the term "sabermetrics" (choose your spelling) was applied to the early work by Bill James, Pete Palmer, et al. This type of work, what I prefer to call performance analysis, is really only a small fraction of the research done by SABR members. At the convention, there was some history, some sociology, some statistical work, and some fun stuff. What was common to all of it was a deep and abiding love for the game, and being around that for four days was what made the trip so very worth it.
For me, there was the added benefit of meeting people whose work I've read and admired for years. Rob Neyer, Tom Ruane, Tom Tippett and David Smith (support Retrosheet!) spring to mind immediately. Friday night, some of the staff of ESPN.com came up for the Red Sox game, allowing me to finally meet David Schoenfield, as well as the ex-Sports Jones tandem of Royce Webb and Eric Neel. I also narrowed my list of "BP staff I've never met" to two, finally breaking bread with Jeff Bower and Doug Pappas, as well as the gone-in-flesh-if-not-in-spirit Keith Law.
Oh, yes, the Red Sox game. Thanks to Rob Neyer, I was able to get tickets for Friday's game, and finally saw baseball played in Fenway Park. Nothing will ever be Yankee Stadium for me, but Fenway joins Wrigley in the category just behind the cathedral in the Bronx. It didn't hurt that the Sox lost (and the Yankees won), making it a near-perfect night at the ballpark.
Other highlights from the weekend:
At the media panel on Friday, Braves' announcer Pete Van Wieren, in response to a question about the state of the game, said, "It wouldn't hurt if the commissioner would say something positive about the game once in a while."
There weren't a lot of moments of raucous applause over the weekend, but that generated one of them. Van Wieren would later argue that baseball was fine except in Montreal, a problem that could be solved by moving the Expos to Washington D.C. I, and many of the people at that panel, came away with a brand-new respect for Van Wieren.
- Tom Tippett's presentation on contextual evaluation of one-run strategies, which I believe won an award, was probably my favorite. Concise, entertaining and detailed, Tippett laid out a thoughtful argument for the use of context-sensitive run-expectation charts in determining the proper use of sacrifice bunts.
- The first presentation I attended was on the last ten days of the 1987 season, when the Detroit Tigers came from behind to catch the Toronto Blue Jays. 1987 might have been the height of my baseball fandom, but I didn't remember just how great the games between those two teams had been, other than just the season-ending 1-0 win that sent the Tigers into the playoffs.
Apart from the panels, the presentations, and the official events, there were a number of extended bull sessions in the hotel lobby and hotel bar. What I'll probably remember most from the weekend is sitting around and talking baseball with knowledgeable people who love the game. SABR's name may include the word "research," but it's a lot more than that. It's an organization of people who love baseball, who want to see the game thrive and who have put years of their life into their passion. I encourage everyone to find out more about the organization, and to consider joining. I'm glad I did.
Postscript: one of the people I met over the weekend was Pete Fornatale, who lives in Brooklyn and has been a BP reader for years. Pete was kind enough to invite me to the Brooklyn Cyclones' game against Mahoning Valley last night. It was my first trip to the new park at Coney Island, and I was highly impressed.
I hadn't seen a short-season game in a while. It's easy to forget just how great the gap is between the major leagues and the low minors. While there are the occasional impressive plays, the games are just filled with sloppy defense–not errors–but bad breaks, poor throws, and questionable decision-making. The New York-Penn League is a long way from the National League, and it shows.
It whet my appetite for the main course, which is Wednesday's Yankees/Indians tilt at the Stadium. I haven't seen a game there in four years, so I'm really looking forward to it.