Aaron’s Really Long SABR Convention Recap

For most of my admittedly short life, I have considered myself a major baseball nerd. I am obsessed with the sport — talking about it, thinking about it, writing about it, watching it, reading about it — and I know more little things about meaningless players and teams and stats than anyone I know here in Minnesota.

In fact, in order to have conversations about baseball with people here, I often try to tone down my baseball nerdiness. If someone says, “Cristian Guzman sure is having a good year … a .280 batting average is great for a shortstop,” I don’t go into a 20-minute rant on why batting average is perhaps the most overrated statistic in the entire sport. No, I just say, “Yup” and try to move on to another subject.

If someone states that “Luis Rivas is a great defensive second baseman,” I don’t come back with, “That’s crazy, because Ultimate Zone Rating has him as one of the worst defensive players in baseball and a player’s error total doesn’t determine how good he is defensively.”

And then I found myself in Cincinnati last week, at the 34th annual Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) convention, where the biggest baseball nerd from Minnesota can meet up with the biggest baseball nerds from every other part of the country.

I no longer had to hold anything back. If I wanted to talk about on-base percentages and Win Shares and Linear Weights and UZR and Diamond-Mind leagues and backup infielders from the 1996 Twins, I could just let it all fly. I could be as nerdy about baseball as I could possibly be, and not one person there would look at me as anything other than a baseball fan. And you know what? At my baseball nerdiest, I don’t even compete with about two-thirds of the guys at the convention, and I mean that as a compliment. It is really a beautiful thing.

After staying up through the night on Wednesday and into the wee hours of Thursday morning, I boarded my flight from Minnesota to Cincinnati at 5:30 a.m. After losing an hour in the air thanks to time zones, I got on the shuttle from the airport to the Hilton hotel downtown, checked my bags (because you can’t even check-in that early in the morning), and headed over to the Westin hotel, where the convention was being held.

It was about 9 a.m. on the very first morning of the convention, so I figured I might have to mill around for a while before I came across anyone I knew. I was wrong.

Before I knew it, I was chatting it up with Joe Dimino and Vinay Kumar from The Hardball Times, Sean Forman of Baseball-Reference.com, Dan Szymborski from Baseball Think Factory, and Scott Lange and Dennis Goodman from The Northside Lounge. And those were just the guys I ran into within 10 minutes of getting there. Later I met and hung out with Chris Dial, Chris Jaffe, Jon “GGC” Daly, Sam “Sam M.” Marcosson, Anthony Giacalone, Justin Kubatko, Greg Spira, Mike Webber, Matt Rauseo, Mark Stallard, F.X. Flinn, Dan Levine, Neal Traven, and Rod Nelson.

Now, for a lot of you, many of those names mean nothing. But some of you may recognize several of the names, and if you’re like me and have been a part of the baseball/sabermetric online community for a while, you may recognize most of the names.

I think the best way I can describe the SABR convention experience is to say that it was like having a high school or college reunion with a bunch of guys you’ve never actually met. Which is to say that, while we all shook hands, introduced ourselves and said “nice to meet you,” within five minutes we were telling stories about each other, talking about people who couldn’t make it, and, perhaps most of all, wondering, “Where can we get some drinks?”

At most reunions, a major topic is how different or how similar people look compared to when you last saw them. This was a major topic at the SABR convention, but with the added bonus that most of us had never seen each other before. It was amazing to me just how different most of the guys looked from how I had them pictured in my head, a picture that was formed from absolutely nothing but their name, their online “personality” and whatever physical traits they had let slip while talking with me over the past couple years.

For instance, I would have bet and lost my entire life savings on “Anthony Giacalone will not look exactly the same as Kiefer Sutherland.” Had I made that bet, I’d be out about $53.27 while standing next to Jack Bauer. And I’m sure I didn’t look like what people had me pictured as. Within about five minutes of meeting Chris Dial, he turned to me and said, “You know, you don’t look half as dorky as I thought you’d look.”

That was the first of no less than 10,000 great lines Chris Dial had during the convention. My other favorite Dialisms (at least the ones that are printable here), in no particular order:

– “Glub glub.”
– “Squat like a catcher.”
– “Why? Because he’s not supposed to be there!”
– “Is it drinkin’ time?”
– “Where we drinkin’?”
– “No, but I’m breathing hard.”
– “It’s not a ride!”
– “When the pictures come back …”
– “… plastic bag and a rubber band …”

The SABR convention had a lot of big names from the baseball community, from Rob Neyer and Alan Schwarz to Tom Tippett, John Thorn and Pete Palmer, but the star of the show, in my opinion, was definitely Chris Dial. There is no one I’ve met in 21 years on this earth who I would rather go drinking with than Chris Dial. And he’s not only insane, hilarious, loud, and a hell of a drinker, he’s also incredibly obsessed with and knowledgeable about baseball.

As I was sitting next to Chris at the Saturday luncheon preceding Marvin Miller’s keynote speech, he said he’d rather be at the Reds game, which was going on simultaneously. Someone (maybe me, I don’t remember) asked, “You want to go to the game?!” Chris paused, looked at whoever asked that with his “boy, this guy’s an idiot” look that I saw for four days, and then said, “I always want to go to the game.” I can’t think of a better, more succinct way of describing most of the people in the SABR crowd than that statement from Chris Dial.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Along with going drinking and watching The Chris Dial Show, I also saw some very interesting research presentations during the convention. Scott Lange has a bunch of good recaps of them over at The Northside Lounge, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here.

Sean Forman’s presentation on “Monte Carlo” simulations was interesting, as you might expect from the man behind the single best website ever invented. Chris Jaffe’s presentation on his “Run Support Index” stat was outstanding, and included a ton of great lists with the offensive support starting pitchers got throughout baseball history.

Tom Tippett’s presentation on how Coors Field impacts different types of hitters was fantastic and, more than any other presentation during the first two days, got me thinking about all kinds of different stuff (mostly related to building my Diamond-Mind teams). Peter Morris’ presentation on the “emery ball,” an illegal pitch from the early 20th Century that turned around the careers of several pitchers, was fascinating. I learned a ton about something I had never heard about before, which happened a lot during the convention.

Mark Pankin’s presentation on the “Relative Value of On-Base Percentage and Slugging Average” was fairly interesting, but it covered a topic I have actually learned a lot about in the last year. As Chris Dial said to me immediately after the presentation, “Didn’t he just talk about GPA?” David Smith of Retrosheet.org did a great presentation on the scoring patterns of teams, and Kenneth Heard and David Faust’s “Beyond Moneyball” presentation was both incredibly good and totally unlike what I expected.

Some other random notes on the convention …

The group of guys I hung around with the whole time (a couple dozen of the 600+ total convention attendees) took over the tables outside of the Fifth and Vine bar on several occasions, including one night in which about 25 guys were out there, drinking and just basically shooting the breeze.

Kiefer Giacalone brought out his laptop and people started playing Diamond-Mind games against each other. I remember thinking “this is about as dorky as dorky gets,” and then Giacalone said, “Hey Gleeman, you wanna play?” My all-time Minnesota Twins team demolished Mark Stallard’s all-time Kansas City Royals squad, with Bert Blyleven getting the win. After the victory, I stood up from my chair, picked up my vodka and Sprite, and informed everyone that, “I just got Blyleven another win closer to 300.” The SABR convention is, of course, the only place at which you can say that with complete sincerity and be laughed with, as opposed to laughed at.

Fifth and Vine closed at midnight, so we then went, en masse, to find another bar. We stumbled across “O’Malley’s” which was, in fact, in an alley. We drank there until about 2:30 a.m. I chatted about the future of SABR with F.X. Flinn, SABR’s treasurer and the Internet Committee chairman, and Neal Traven, SABR’s secretary and the man behind the Internet Hall of Fame.

All while Chris Dial tried to out-loud the extraordinarily loud sound system at the bar. He was successful. I also witnessed Dial and Matt Rauseo wrestling outside of the men’s room, and I heard Dial utter the phrase “What kind of s*** are you shoveling?!” to each person at my table.

The Westin set up a special room for the SABR attendees to hang out and drink in at night. Our gang of guys decided we wanted to have a poker tournament there Saturday night, so we set up a bunch of tables and started playing. It was just like a real tournament, because we had an audience throughout, and they even had to stand behind a “rail.”

I, of course, stunk, but luckily not as badly as the Chrises — Jaffe and Dial — and Dan Szymborski. I spent the first few rotations losing my blinds while not getting anything playable and then Joe Dimino knocked me out of the tourney after I went all-in with a short stack and pocket eights. Joe had ace-six offsuit and ended up hitting not only another ace, but another six.

The very next hand, Jon Daly had those same eights in the hole that I had and was knocked out by Dimino. Daly, who actually hit a third eight which didn’t end up helping him, stole and modified a Billy Beane line and said, “I guess my s*** doesn’t work at the final table.” I don’t know of another place on earth where that line would have been truly appreciated.

Later on, Matt Rauseo had pocket kings and when three 10s came up, he made a great play to trap Dimino, who had ace-high in the hole. Joe bet out, Rauseo slammed down his raise, and when he turned over the kings, I thought Joe was going to throw up. Then Joe hit an ace on the river and I was sure Rauseo was going to throw up. Either that or he was going to kill Joe.

We all hypothetically paid $20 to enter the tournament (which Joe Dimino won), but neither the SABR organizers or the people running the Westin hotel need to know that. Although, later on that night, a couple of the SABR organizers hypothetically also coughed up $20 to play with us.

Joe, Vinay, Scott, Dennis and I took a tour of the Great American Ballpark together on Thursday. It was good, but the funniest part was watching as the tour guide told a group of the biggest baseball fans in the world these random anecdotes about Reds history. He’d start a sentence with, “I’m not sure if any of you have heard of a pitcher named Johnny Vander Meer before …” Meanwhile, everyone had heard of Vander Meer before.

I went to two Reds/Cardinals games. One on Friday night with the entire SABR crowd and one on Sunday afternoon, with Joe Dimino, Vinay Kumar, Greg Spira, Dennis Goodman, Scott Lange and Trent McBride.

The Reds were winning Friday’s game and I turned to Vinay, who was sitting next to me, and said, “I’d love to see Danny Graves blow a save tonight.” And whaddya know, he did blow the save, his eighth of the year. I was shocked when the Cincinnati fans booed Graves after he finally managed to get out of the eighth inning. I mean, I know Danny Graves isn’t that great and I know saves are overrated, but I figured the crowd would give the NL saves leader a break. I was glad they didn’t.

All of my asides to Vinay during the game weren’t good ones, however. For instance, when Marlon Anderson pinch hit for Yadier Molina in the 8th inning, I said, “This is who they bring off their bench here? Marlon Anderson?!” Anderson promptly launched a game-winning, three-run home run.

At some point during the late innings on Friday, this young guy from one section over came into the SABR section and tried to start the wave. “Okay everyone … on the count of three! One … two …” At that point, everyone started chanting, “No wave! No wave! No wave!” Poor guy must have been wondering what the heck was going on, but he definitely picked the wrong section to start a wave in.

Overall, I was impressed with the ballpark, especially since I hadn’t really heard any nice things about it. The biggest thing in its favor, of course, is that it’s outside. I thought it had good sight lines and was nice looking both inside and out. It had some neat features, although nothing particularly special. I’d probably give it an eight out of 10.

The whole group went to “Champs” in the Hilton for dinner on Saturday, just before the poker tournament, and had the worst service I’ve ever had at a restaurant. The place was packed because the Reds/Cardinals game had just let out, and Edgar Renteria and another player (Roger Cedeno?) were actually sitting in the bar when we got there.

We all kept taking turns walking over there to get a good look at Renteria. When I went over with Kiefer Giacalone and Dimino (who looks not totally unlike the guy who played Vinny on Doogie Howser and Benny on the Sopranos), the bartender said, “What are you guys, stalking?” To which I replied, “Yes … we have to do something while we wait for our food.”

Now, this place was a sports bar. I ordered pizza, some guys ordered hamburgers or pasta, and Giacalone (not to be confused with the “real” Anthony Giacalone) ordered a turkey sandwich. Nothing too tough to make. We also all ordered drinks.

The drinks were all late (and never replenished) and everything but the hamburgers came out late. The waiter apologized a minimum of 50 times, which is even more annoying than if he’d just shut up and get us the food we ordered. I think it was decided that the waiter simply forget to put in the orders for everything else, because by the time the food for the majority of the people at the table arrived, Dan, Dennis, Scott and Chris Jaffe had already been done eating for 20 minutes.

So we complained to the manager, but not before Chris Dial canceled his quesadillas and just left. We then got a “free round of drinks” which would have been fine if the waiter would have a) managed to get the drinks there within 20 minutes and b) managed to get us the correct drinks.

I ordered a vodka and Sprite, the exact same drink I ordered the first time, and was given a double shot of vodka, with no ice and no Sprite. Matt Rauseo ordered a jack and ginger (I think) and was given something that looked like a drink for 6-year-olds. Rauseo, showing a flexibility to drink anything in a glass that he showed throughout the convention, said, “That’s not what I ordered, but I’ll drink it.” I, of course, did the same.

Giacalone orderered a vodka and sour the first time, right when we got there, and was given a vodka and seven. Giacalone explained the error to the waiter but said it was no big deal, and just took the drink. Then, for the second drink, he again ordered a vodka and sour. The waiter said, “Gotcha, a vodka and seven.” I thought at first the waiter was just joking around, but he wasn’t. Giacalone said, “No, vodka and sour. SOUR!”

Joe Dimino wore flip-flop sandals for the entire convention and ripped half his toe nail off when hopped up onto a stool at Fifth and Vine on Thursday afternoon and the nail caught on something. As Joe later said, it was definitely a “stathead injury.”

The first night featured the preliminaries of the SABR trivia contest. My four-man team, consisting of me, Vinay Kumar, Jon Daly and Matt Rauseo did horribly, finishing in what I think was second-to-last place. The good news? We beat the Chris Dial/Anthony Giacalone/Dan Szymborski led team by exactly one point.

The event was being video-taped and the camera was about three feet from where I was sitting, which I didn’t realize until after I yelled “Eat it Dial!” at the top of my lungs, several times, after the final scores were announced.

My personal best and worst moment of the convention came at the same time. I was standing up following David Smith’s presentation and Rob Neyer came over, introduced himself, and shook my hand. I said, “Hey Rob, nice to meet you.”

And that was it. That was all I could come up with. Now, it wasn’t one of those things where Rob and I just stood there while I totally blanked out, because he basically just shook my hand and then started talking to someone else, but I still would have liked to have said more than just “Uh … hey” to a guy I’ve wanted to meet for years. As I’ve said before, I think Neyer did more to get me into sabermetrics than any other writer, and that includes Bill James.

I saw Rob walking around the convention about a dozen times and even saw him in my hotel, but I didn’t want to stalk him (whereas I am perfectly fine with stalking Edgar Renteria). Thankfully for me, Vinay Kumar similarly choked when faced with actually conversing with Neyer.

Tom Tippett, whose Diamond-Mind game has taken up about 20% of my life since I discovered it a few years ago, also came up to me and introduced himself, which was great. Tom was a great guy. Joe Dimino had an issue with an aspect of the game that he told Tom about and Tippett said he’d look into it when he got home. At one point, Tippett was pretty much surrounded by our little gang on the second floor of the Westin, as we all started talking about all the different Diamond-Mind leagues we were in. He laughed and smiled as he slowly backpedalled away from us.

Next year’s convention is in Toronto, and I am already looking forward to it. After the experience of my first SABR convention, I can’t imagine ever not going.

Where else can you rub elbows with Rob Neyer, Alan Schwarz, Pete Palmer, Tom Tippett and John Thorn, go to research presentations done by Sean Forman and David Smith, go out drinking every night (and every afternoon) with all the guys you’ve been talking baseball with online, and catch a couple ballgames too.

I’ve never felt as though I belonged somewhere as much as I belonged at the SABR convention. Just a bunch of great guys who love baseball. If you aren’t already, I can’t recommend becoming a SABR member enough. Join now and I’ll buy you a drink in Toronto next year.

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