THE SCIENTISTS OF BASEBALL
Put down those peanuts and Cracker Jacks and pay attention:
And don't you forget it.
Okay, unfair. David Pietrusza cringes every time an outsider sees the Society for American Baseball Research as a collection of mere number-crunchers--as 6,300 squinty baseball nerds tripping over their wing tips en route to the records room at Cooperstown. It's not that Pietrusza doesn't appreciate mathematician/member Gabriel B. Costa's formula for determining a batter's Total Power Quotient (TPQ). Because he does. In fact, he's also studied accountant/fan Anthony Blengino's elaborate series of graphs measuring the effectiveness of relief pitchers, and he's found those edifying. So, too, Joseph Donner's complete list of "Four or More Long Hits in a Game," 1885-1991.
It's just that there's more to SABR. Much more. "As I like to say," Pietrusza says, "there are many rooms in the SABR mansion."
In reality, the "mansion" is a post office box in Cleveland. But since 1971, when the society was founded by sixteen baseball "statistorians," it has been a vortex for the national pastime's arcana and minutiae, an information service for writers and reporters, a clearinghouse for obscure baseball opinion and, quite often, the place where long-established fictions are at last corrected.
Still think Ty Cobb won the American League batting title in 1910? Well, he didn't. Napoleon Lajoie did. But before SABR researchers uncovered the error a couple of years back, neither the AL nor the Baseball Encyclopedia knew that one of Cobb's games got counted twice back in '10.
In fact, Pietrusza says, twentieth-century American League record-keeping leaves a lot to be desired in general. The Senior Circuit has done a better job.
Fine. But now Pietrusza, a former city councilman from Amsterdam, New York, who was elected president of SABR last year, wants to show off those other rooms in the mansion.
Particularly the playroom.
The 44-year-old fan--nineteenth-century baseball and the New York Mets are his personal passions--was in Denver two weekends ago for SABR's quarterly board meetings. Very serious business. But somehow, these professors of the game managed to conclude their business each day in time to see the Rockies' starter throw the first pitch to the Cubs lead-off man out at Mile High Stadium. Funny how things work out.
"At the ballpark, we're just like all the other fans," Pietrusza says. "Sitting in the sunshine enjoying the game."
In fact, the SABR membership is a startlingly diverse lot. The walking computers--personified by statistical wizard Bill James, the originator of "SABR-metrics" and "Total Average" --still pay their $35 annual dues. But so do actor Michael Moriarty (the star of Bang the Drum Slowly), former Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell, Dodgers president Peter O'Malley, Red Sox GM Lou Gorman, former AL president Lee MacPhail and an all-star roster of baseball authors including Roger Angell, Larry Ritter, Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Okrent and Pete Palmer. Conservative columnist, Cubs fan and Men at Work author George Will was a SABR member, but, as Pietrusza dryly points out, "his check got lost in the mail last year." From Tokyo to Tarrytown, SABR also has its share of doctors, lawyers, dockworkers, writers and grocery-baggers.
"We've been pigeonholed as trivia nuts and number-crunchers," the commish--er, president--says. "But what we really are is a fraternity of baseball lovers interested in answering questions, disseminating baseball information and sharing a passion. We deal with the lore and personalities of the game as much as the Social Security numbers. We have our look-it-up guys and our Rain Man guys. I'm a look-it-up guy myself. I don't even know my own license number."
Other SABR-ites know some very strange numbers. At the last national convention, the annual trivia contest--contested as fiercely as the seventh game of the World Series--was finally won by a fellow who knew what player's name was found at the bottom left of page such-and-such of the seventh edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia. No kidding.
Meanwhile, SABR has clearly branched out. Last year the society revived Base-Ball: How to Become a Player, a revealing 1888 treatise on the game written by John Montgomery Ward, who pitched the second perfect game in major-league history before converting into one of the game's greatest shortstops. Next month it will publish an authoritative encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues. A baseball education program for schools and an on-line information service are in the works, and SABR has come out with its own line of jerseys and caps.
"Unfortunately," Ward wrote, "some men are not able to intelligently explain the theory of base-ball, while others are so engrossed with the game that they do not care to be disturbed."
True, but this affliction is still rare among SABR's baseball-mad members. The society's two annual anthologies, the arcane Baseball Research Journal and the more "popular" National Pastime, are treasure houses of history, lore and nit-picking theoretical constructs. In last year's editions, you'll find a profile of NL umpire George Magerkurth, who plied his trade in the Forties, and a remembrance of the Louisville Colonels' season of 1890. R.D. Emslie uncovered a 1908 umpire's account of the infamous Fred "Bonehead" Merkle incident, and Bob Klein held forth for four pages on the criteria for retiring uniform numbers.
In the end, though, what SABR-ites still like best is drifting out to the ballpark. "We can never plan our conventions far enough ahead because we don't know the baseball schedules," Pietrusza laments.
While he waits, he contemplates. Why is Rogers Hornsby's TPQ only 0.8073, while Ted Williams's is 0.9400? How many home runs would Babe Ruth have hit--2,000?--if his lifestyle had been as pristine as Dale Murphy's? Why are today's superstars so busy playing ball that they don't have time to be fans? Why does the inability to bunt date back to 1904?
So many great questions, so few centuries to answer.
Beware the chalk.
The odds-on favorite in this Saturday's Kentucky Derby will be Holy Bull, a big gray three-year-old that exploded from the gate in the Florida Derby and the Bluegrass Stakes, quickly leaving both fields far behind to fight it out for place and show.
If the Bull and rider Mike Smith draw an inside post at Churchill Downs, no three-year-old on the planet may be able to catch them. Not Brocco, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile champion and easy winner of the Santa Anita Derby. Not Wood Memorial winner Irgun, who's been scratched because of injury. Not Blumin Affair, who lost the Arkansas Derby by a neck to 20-1 shot Concern.
But strange things happen in the Run for the Roses. There's usually heavy traffic. Sudden reversals of form. Peculiar behavior amid the bourbon fumes.
It's shocking, but the last favorite to win the Kentucky Derby was Spectacular Bid--way back in 1979.
As Ian Blair, editor of American Turf Monthly, sees it, somebody must challenge Holy Bull's early foot, lest he slip away on the lead again. But if the pace is killing, that will open the door for a late-running type like Strodes Creek, Valiant Nature or Blumin Affair. The only possible upset winner, Blair believes, will be "a good finisher with decent preps and a good post position." That's a sound enough theory.
In the meantime, Holy Bull looms large. "People who've seen him run say he's an enormous, well-muscled, heavy-boned colt," Blair reports. "He's not a spindly little three-year-old, and he will be very tough to beat."
Still, the curse of the chalk remains. Just ask Private Terms (1988), Easy Goer (1989) or Hansel (1991). No favorite in fifteen years has smelled the roses.
Meanwhile, keep your eye on Soul of the Matter, the Richard Mandella-trained colt ridden by Kent Desormeaux.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.