Baseball stats geeks relive their boyhood

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:26 AM ET

Inclined toward company and conversation and still on the company clock, I walked toward what used to be the SkyDome for some baseball talk.

SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, is holding its annual convention at the King St., Holiday Inn.

This makes real for the first time the possibility that you could you stumble into the hotel and find yourself dumbly staring at a display entitled: "Is there an 'I' in team, a variance decomposition of individual baseball performance."

There are fetish conventions. There are romance conventions. There are Star Trek conventions. And now, there is the SABR convention, a meeting that borrows a bit from all three.

At first, its hard not be overwhelmed by the geeky obsessiveness of the stats wonk.

"It's an interesting split," said Jane Finnan Doward, the Toronto chapter president and thus the convention's host. "It's not really people who are math geeks (at the convention). I'd say only 20% or 25% are, but there are many people here who are baseball researchers. They write, they come for committee meetings and they discuss their research."

Pete Palmer, a retired engineer from Maine, began writing and breaking down baseball stats in 1969.

"When I was like 10 years old, I started collecting baseball cards and getting interested in the statistics" he said. "When you first start out, you like to compile lists and stuff, but when you get a little older you say: 'Gee, we've got all these numbers, what the heck to they all mean?'"

That's how it starts.

"Something just sort of clicks," he said. "It's like, as you say, Star Trek or needlepoint or The Three Stooges. I don't know why it affects me so much, but it does."

But there is another force at play here.

For all the cheery talk of the game's recovery, baseball's diminished hold on the young North American male is spectacularly evident here.

There are few young guys or women. The average attendee is white, kind of paunchy, and 55.

The sessions are usually about the game's past, not its future. Friday's sessions dealt with the schism between Dick Allen and Ron Santo on the 1974 Chicago White Sox, how the Pacific Coast League thrived during the war years, the evolution of three-man umpiring crews during the 1930s, a study of the Los Angeles Dodgers' 1955 and '65 championships, and a dissertation on Dizzy Dean.

MODERN STUFF

There was some modern stuff: A study on the effects wrought by Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone and a study on pitch location that I could sit through all day and still not be able to explain it to you.

Ralph Christian, a visitor from Iowa attending the sessions with his wife Victoria, said the appeal of SABR and its convention, is nostalgic.

The convention-goers decried the cacophony of distractions of modern stadiums and soaked up accounts of long dead ball players. People spoke of Ebbets Field as if it were Jerusalem.

"I think if you look at the demographics of SABR covers, these are the people who grew up when baseball was the dominant sport in the American landscape." said past president Claudia Perry, a writer from Jersey City.

"That's where the boyhood fascination took hold and as they grew older they clung to it for a variety of reasons -- reassurance that while all about you are losing their heads, baseball was still there and still with you. That's the constant."

Nothing about modern baseball, however is constant. Teams such as the Los Angeles Angels don't play in the cities they claim to represent.

Rafael Palmeiro, he of the indignant finger wag, is under suspension for steroids and every modern record is suspect.

For many of the nice men at the convention, time has taken their youth, the fathers and brothers and friends who accompanied them to the great ball parks and even the giants who played there.

There is safety in numbers, safety in the past. Baseball somehow provides that.

Or maybe, as Perry says: "People just want to get their inner baseball freak out."


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