Geeks rule! The real action in baseball sometimes is far from the field
AP Photos planned
By TIM BOOTH
Associated Press Writer
SEATTLE (AP) Jim Bouton scanned the ballroom filled with vintage and current baseball uniforms and hats, donned by a hodgepodge of mostly middle-aged men.
Contrary to the stigma, there were no pocket protectors or slide rules on display in the audience of those commonly classified as baseball’s “stat geeks.”
Instead, this was a gathering of those with a passion for the idiosyncrasies of the national pastime, a group that Bouton called the geniuses of baseball.
“You are an organization that knows more about baseball than the people who play baseball,” said Bouton, the former big league pitcher infamous for his book “Ball Four.” “I understand how frustrating that must be.”
Only a handful in the room during the keynote address of the Society for American Baseball Research’s 36th annual convention were affiliated with the game. That doesn’t mean the work of these professors, accountants, retirees and even a pastor goes unnoticed by the baseball establishment.
“Looking at players from a statistical point of view, it’s been done forever, but it’s paramount at the major league level,” said Seattle Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi.
The convention attracts an eclectic mix of statisticians, historians and purists unified by a passion for baseball. The 530 or so in attendance this weekend marked the fourth-largest SABR gathering, and the largest for a convention west of the Mississippi.
They shared theories ranging from the statistical unimportance of eighth-inning relievers to the probability and relevance of various baseball streaks.
The SABR members also relived the history of the game, including impressive displays on Pacific Northwest baseball from the original Vancouver Capilanos of the early 1900s to the infamous 1969 Seattle Pilots.
There also were presentations on the importance of groundskeepers in the early days of the game and the history of memorial markings on uniforms, along with committees discussing 19th century baseball and the role of women in the game.
“We’re not just about the numbers, we’re about the stories,” said Anthony Salazar, the convention chair. “Within baseball, there are hundreds and hundreds of opportunities to tell these stories.”
SABR believers often are labeled geeks, yet membership includes guys such as Hall of Famer Stan Musial and political commentator George Will. The average age is 52, and 93 percent are men.
The largest percentage of the membership is involved in academia, but it includes a large number of retirees and professionals, such as accountant John Carter of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Carter has been attending the convention since 1987. He’s considered a bastion of baseball knowledge back in his Canadian province, but feels humbled at every convention he attends.
“When I come here, I know enough to be able to talk to these guys, but I’m no expert,” Carter said. “Where I’m from, people think I know a lot.”
The outside perception is that SABR members simply are number crunchers stat geeks who analyze every numerical nuance, trying to provide a data-based explanation to the game of baseball.
But John Zajc, executive director of the Clevleand-based organization, estimates less than 25 percent of SABR members actively are researching numerical data. Instead, a number of researchers examine overlooked borderline obscure historic figures or moments in the game’s history.
“Seventy-five percent of our members like reading what 25 percent of our members produce,” Zajc said. “And of that 25 percent, it’s probably 30 to 40 percent tops who are the numbers guys. But that’s usually how we get the media attention.”
That focus peaked following the release of Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball” that highlighted the Oakland Athletics’ success with statistical analysis. Some longtime SABR members, doing much of the same research and analysis as portrayed in the book, ended up landing consulting or full-time positions within baseball.
But the focus only served to fuel the “stat geek” stigma. Zajc doesn’t mind the label, although many of his members despise it. Alas, SABR employs only three full-time people, so spin control and media relations get little priority.
“It drives some people crazy, but I accept it,” Zajc said. “I don’t see why there is any reason to fight it. My philosophy is that it’s true of some of our membership, but it’s an incomplete perception of what SABR is.”
One of the conference highlights was a forum on the 1969 Seattle Pilots, featuring former players Bouton, Mike Marshall, Jim Pagliaroni and Steve Hovley. The packed ballroom was riveted by the players reliving the one-year history of the Pilots, but when the floor was opened for questions, some posed obscure statistical queries that left a few eyes in the crowd rolling.
Zajc understands there always will be that mix of stats and history with SABR. His hope is the organization grows by examining the overlooked aspects of baseball and not so much the obscure.
“We’re focusing on helping the people who are interested in doing research and giving them a forum, a stage to share it,” Zajc said. “And the audience, we invite everyone to be the audience.”