My first SABR convention: What took so long?

SABR logoI joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2010, and for the next few years, I faced the same annual disappointment.

Each year, I’d hear of the national SABR convention months in advance, with the understanding I probably wouldn’t be able to afford the trip or justify going if I somehow came up with the money.

A SABR convention costs about $1,000 to attend between registration, airfare and lodging, and as a freelance writer who gets rent paid as a delivery driver, it’s rare I have an extra grand. When I do, other matters often need my attention. Don’t get me wrong, I love SABR and baseball history and getting together with others to obsess over it. Attending a SABR convention has just heretofore been a luxury beyond my reach.

This year was different, though. I’ve had better luck than expected selling freelance pieces, and after checks started arriving, I decided to finally splurge on a SABR convention. While the expense seemed risky, I didn’t want to pass another year at home reading about the convention on Twitter and wondering why I couldn’t have just, I don’t know, panhandled for the necessary funds or sold a kidney. So I bit the bullet and bought a plane ticket to Houston this past week. I’m so glad I did.

As I write this, I’m two days removed from returning from one of the best baseball experiences of my life. Among the highlights for me:

  • Grabbing dinner the first night of the convention with veteran author and official Major League Baseball historian John Thorn. I’ve corresponded with John a few years because of my writing and have interviewed him several times. I count John as one of my heroes, among the handful of people I know of able to make a living writing about baseball history. He knows it well. I could write a post in itself about what it was like to sit in the hotel restaurant a few hours with John, his son, and another person who works in baseball, slowly making our way through dinner and talking baseball history. The best part? John picked up the check. Welcome to SABR, kid.
  • Meeting many interesting people I’ve known through writing and who, like John, were accessible and welcoming at the convention. These people include: Sean Forman, founder of Baseball-Reference.com; Rob Neyer, who’s written online about baseball more than probably anyone; Mark Simon, researcher and writer for ESPN.com (and a repository of trivia– on the last night of the convention, Mark recited the last out of every World Series since 1950); Joe Dimino, who oversees the Hall of Merit; Sean Lahman, a baseball database pioneer; Matt Mitchell, who I enjoy talking stats with on Twitter; Cecilia Tan, a SABR editor; and Jacob Pomrenke who runs SABR’s website.
  • Meeting new friends such as Anthony Rescan, a college student who attended the conference on a scholarship from SABR. Making quick friends with people like Anthony wasn’t particularly difficult, even if unlike Anthony, the average attendee at a SABR convention is a 60-year-old dude. Everyone ultimately comes to a convention for more or less the same reason, blessed with the same encyclopedic wealth of baseball knowledge that generally otherwise places one far beyond societal norms. For a few glorious days each year, we find each other.
  • Taking in some interesting panels and research presentations on everything from Houston-area baseball history to a college panel that Roger Clemens spoke on after receiving assurances he would be asked no questions related to steroids. I got to interview panelists Bob Watson, Larry Dierker, Jimmy Wynn, and Jose Cruz. Even getting turned down by Clemens offered some entertainment. Clemens brushed me off after his panel saying he needed to get going; a few minutes later, Jacob and I spotted him demonstrating his pitching motion to other convention attendees, doing something that looked like leg kicks.
  • Live tweeting the finals of the SABR trivia contest, a formidable challenge to even the most seasoned of baseball history enthusiasts. Sample question: Name the seven players to win four National League batting titles. For some reason, people beyond the convention were fascinated as I and a few others tweeted out the trivia questions. I may even start doing this on my own regularly.
  • Connecting with multiple book publishers. I’m getting the itch to write a book, and attending the convention may help make this dream a reality.

Like a European vacation, I didn’t do my trip perfectly and I came back with ideas for what I want to do differently next time. Chief among my missteps, I didn’t stay in the convention hotel, opting for cheaper digs two miles away that I returned to late each night via taxi. I also didn’t get to any baseball games while I was in town, and I left the convention a day before it ended to work Sunday, missing a private pregame session for convention attendees at Minute Maid Park on Saturday afternoon.

That said, I have no regrets for how everything played out and am probably sold on attending SABR conventions for the foreseeable future. It was a great investment, probably worth more than what I paid. I’m bummed I have to wait a year to go again.

4 thoughts on “My first SABR convention: What took so long?

  1. First, hope the success continues so that you can come to Chicago next year!

    Second, I feel honored, and a bit unworthy, to see my name next to baseball research luminaries like Rob Neyer, Sean Forman, and Mark Simon.

  2. Great insight, thanks for sharing. Sounds like John Thorn has been quite a mentor to you. First saw him on the Ken Burns documentary 20 yrs ago.
    Yes you should write that book!

  3. Hi Graham.
    I’m sorry we didn’t get to meet each other, especially since I’ve emailed you several times when you talked about anything related to the Hall of Fame. As you might remember I’m the author of “Induction Day at Cooperstown A History of the Baseball Hall of Fame Ceremony” (McFarland-2011.) This was my tenth convention so I’m hoping you go to Chicago and we get a chance to meet each other.

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