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Hot Stove, Cool Speakers: A Recap of SABR Boston’s Winter Meeting

January 19, 2012

As some of you know, this winter I’ve been interning with the Society for American Baseball Research, working with Publications Director Cecilia Tan to launch SABR’s new digital books program. We’re publishing new titles, like Can He Play, a history of scouts and scouting, and re-publishing out-of-print titles like Run, Rabbit, Run, a colorful first-person history of Boston Braves shortstop Walter “Rabbit” Maranville. Upcoming titles will be made available for purchase in the SABR Digital Library, with SABR members getting a discount. Whether you have a Kindle or Nook, or prefer a print-on-demand copy, SABR has you covered.

SABR’s headquarters are in Phoenix but there are local chapters all around the world, including a very active one in Boston. This past Monday I had the opportunity to attend the Boston chapter’s winter meeting, held at The Baseball Tavern, in the shadows of Fenway Park on Boylston Street.

The agenda for Monday’s meeting included a diverse mix of presenters, including several who work in and around baseball, two groups of college students, and a number of SABR members and historians. The subset of presenters who gave historical talks covered an equally broad array of topics, ranging from the Red Sox’s eventful 1912 spring training trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to the way fans “heard” baseball games in the pre-radio days in places like Boston’s newspaper row, to the under-appreciated career of the slugging (and slick-fielding) Red Sox first baseman George “Boomer” Scott.

Ron Anderson led off, sharing highlights from his new book, Long Taters: A Baseball Biography of George “Boomer” Scott. Anderson pointed out that Scott was the Red Sox first star position player of African-American descent, and that he excelled as much with the glove (winning eight Gold Gloves, and ably fielding all four infield positions as a minor leaguer) as he did with the bat. Scott hit 271 career home runs, among the most memorable an epic blast he hit off of Whitey Ford as a rookie in 1966, that traveled an estimated 505 feet.

Next, historian Michael Foster told tales from the 1912 Red Sox spring training trip to Hot Springs, which was in some ways an ideal venue (spring waters were thought to have healing powers, and the surrounding hills were perfect for conditioning) but not others. Hot Springs also presented a lot of off-field distractions for the players as a city where gambling and other vices were easy to find. Another distraction that year was a local murder case in which a black man was accused of killing a white man. With the suspect at large, a man hunt ensued and several Red Sox players actually joined in!

Following an excellent lunch provided by the Tavern, we got to meet Pam Ganley, Director of Media Relations for the Boston Red Sox. Pam shared a bit about her background (she earned a Sports Management degree from The Isenberg School of Management at UMass) and initially joined the Sox as an intern, working under the legendary Dick Bresciani. She spoke about the unique aspects of working with the media in Boston, such as the deluge of requests from the Japanese media when Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima joined the team in 2007. At Dice-K’s first press conference that spring, 250 Japanese media members were in attendance. She also commented on new manager Bobby Valentine’s boundless energy, and said she looks forward to the first time ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball comes to town this year, as Terry Francona will conduct his pre-game interview with Valentine in his old Fenway Park office.

Ganley handed off to a professional colleague whom she works with closely, Red Sox beat writer for The Boston Globe, Peter Abraham. Pete, a New Bedford native and fellow UMass alum, grew up a die-hard Sox fan but broke into the business covering mostly New York teams. He wrote for the Norwich Bulletin from 1986-99, covering UConn Men’s Basketball and later the Yankees’ AA affiliate, the Norwich Navigators. In 2002 he made the move to Westchester County, New York, where he began covering the Mets, later switching to the Yankees’ beat (which he likened to traveling with a rock band) in 2006. At The Journal News he launched a Yankees blog, something few if any newspapers were doing at the time. Initially it was slow to take off, but the blog steadily gathered momentum, to the point where it was receiving 75,000 page views a day by the time Abraham left to join the Globe in 2009. He now maintains the Globe’s Extra Bases Blog and is also quite active on Twitter, a platform he uses to break news, interact with fans, and direct them to new blog posts and columns.

Abraham, who is among the more stat-savvy baseball beat writers, noted that he’s aware that the blog and the newspaper have different audiences, with the blog’s audience skewing younger and more sabermetrically-inclined. Advanced stats that he uses there might not make it into a printed Globe article, which would stick to the traditional stats and more mainstream sabermetric ones like WHIP and OPS. A highlight of Abraham’s talk were the many colorful anecdotes he shared, which I couldn’t do justice to here. But if you ever get to meet him in person, be sure to ask him about convincing Sandy Koufax to get off the back of Fred Wilpon’s golf cart and avoiding green cabs at the Mexico City airport.

Next up we got a look inside the Red Sox Baseball Operations department from the team’s new Director of Player Development, Ben Crockett. After joining the organization as an intern in 2007, Crockett served as Advance Scouting Coordinator from 2008-09. Crockett, a former pitcher, spent five seasons in the Colorado Rockies minor league system (and was first drafted, but not signed, by the Red Sox), so he brings a former player’s perspective to bear on his work in player development. His talking points should be familiar to anyone who knows the Red Sox’s player development philosophy, and he echoed some similar themes as then-farm director Mike Hazen did at last winter’s Hot Stove event at Fenway. Crockett emphasized the importance of continuity throughout the organization as well as the team’s emphasis on developing the whole player, including their confidence and mental make-up. He pointed out that several of the Red Sox’s affiliates were the youngest teams at their level in 2011, mentioning players like 19-year-old Greenville shortstop Xander Bogaerts as an example of the system’s youth and potential. He fielded a number of questions from the crowd, commenting on things like how the team selects which prospects it sends to the Arizona Fall League.

Donna Halper, a Professor of Communications at Lesley University and social historian, followed with an engaging presentation on following baseball in the pre-radio days. Through her lecture and props she did a fantastic job of painting the scene of a bustling newspaper row on Boston’s lower Washington Street, which became the gathering spot for Red Sox fans young and old, male and female. There, in the years after the telegraph’s invention but before the radio’s, fans would gather with anticipation to see and hear the game updates come in, batter by batter, as they were posted on large bulletin boards and announced over megaphone to the surrounding crowd. Her talk was interspersed with some of the colorful language of the time, when fans were “cranks” and your favorite ballclub were your “pets” or “beauties.” She also taught us about the Phillips Code, a system for telegraphers that was quicker than the Morse Code, and which gave us several abbreviations that exist to this day, such as K and BB in baseball, and POTUS in news and politics.

From 1912 we jumped ahead to the cutting-edge of baseball research, with a presentation from three Tufts University undergraduates, Kimberly Minor, Lisa Lebovici, and Matt McGrath, who are past students in professor Andy Andres‘ popular course, Sabermetrics 101. Their research, “Pitching Up a Storm: The Impact of Temperature and Humidity on Pitch Effectiveness” used the statistical program STATA to examine PITCHf/x data for 14 starting pitchers over a three-year span (2008-2010). They found that 70-80 degrees is the optimal temperature range for fastball velocity but that the effect of humidity on a ball’s horizontal break is even more pronounced (higher humidity = more break). The students all seemed energized by the class and they have many ideas for further research they’d like to pursue. Matt will be interning with Baseball Info Solutions this summer, while Kim is a Fenway Park Ambassador and Red Sox Ball Girl.

Mark Kanter stepped to the plate next with a presentation on all the instances when games were canceled for reasons other than weather. These included wars, such as the invasion of Normandy during World War II, deaths of presidents or important baseball figures (like Brooklyn Dodgers owner Charles Ebbets), and disasters such as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the terror attacks of 9/11/01. The salient point from Mark’s presentation was that the decision to cancel games did not always come from the commissioner’s office as it does today, putting owners in the difficult position of deciding between what might be best for the nation versus what was best for their bottom line.

Another group of enthusiastic college students, this time from Emerson College, came on next to describe their film project, a fan’s history of Fenway Park. Their team, Red Seat Productions, consists of Executive Producers Luke Frasier and Jacob Ouellette, Director of Marketing Kelsey Doherty, and Director of Baseball Research Kyle Brasseur. The documentary, slated for a September 2012 release, will consist of interviews with dozens of fans, employees, and reporters to “depict the unique, strong emotional attachment” to the 100-year-old ballpark. They are looking for interview subjects and seeking funding, so if you’d like to support the project please contact them via email (redseatnation@gmail.com), Facebook, Twitter, or Kickstarter.

The timing for the next presentation was superb, coming as it did just a week after this year’s Hall of Fame voting took place. Patrick Languzzi made a very compelling case for Dwight Evans‘ inclusion in the Hall of Fame, citing his impressive overall accomplishments as a hitter and right fielder, while also addressing the arguments some have made against Dewey’s place in Cooperstown. For example, Evans is the only player in Major League history to have won eight Gold Gloves while also leading all of MLB for a decade (the 1980s) in extra-base hits and runs created, while leading the American League in home runs over that span as well. Since 1900, Evans is in elite company among the hitters who led their decade in XBH, and all the others have been enshrined in Cooperstown. The group includes Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial (twice! 1940s and ’50s), Hank Aaron, and Reggie Jackson. Languzzi feels that Evans’ omission from Cooperstown owes to the fact that he fell just short of the 400  HR benchmark (finishing his career with 385), and that he played in a time when defensive contributions were not sufficiently appreciated. Evans is not one to promote himself and that may have worked against him, too. Players who have a more public persona in retirement, like Barry Larkin or  Curt Schilling, may get a boost in HOF voting thanks to their media exposure and the frequent reminders of their career achievements that platforms like an ESPN analyst gig afford them.

As afternoon turned to evening, the SABR Boston crowd wrapped up the day with some trivia from Bill Nowlin‘s new book, Fenway Park Trivia: Fact and Fancy From the First 100 Years. I won’t spoil any of the answers here, but go pick up a copy of the book; it’s filled with fun anecdotes to regale your friends with during the next pitching change or rain delay.

Looking ahead, SABR Day is Saturday, January 28, and the Boston chapter is planning a fun walking tour (or Pub & Fried Chicken Crawl) to sites of Red Sox infamy. On the docket are the Boston Hotel Buckminster where the fix was put in for the 1919 Series, the adjoining Popeye’s restaurant (where you can just say “John” and they know which clubhouse to deliver to), and The Dugout Bar where Sox manager Pinky Higgins was known to have a few too many during those lean years in the 1950s. Let’s hope for nice weather for what should be a really fun outing!

Mike Cook © 2012

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