Monday, November 21, 2005

They Appraise Finer Points of the Diamond

By David Scharfenberg - New York Times
November 20, 2005

Courtesy of the New York Times

IT was in Kansas more than 30 years ago that Bill James, a boiler-room attendant at a Stokely-Van Camp canning plant, took up the cause of debunking some of baseball's conventional wisdom. Taking documents and books to work every day - as a profile in The New Yorker recalled a couple of years ago - Mr. James pored over arcane statistics, eventually proving that starting pitching has no impact on attendance, among other things.

By the fall of 2002, when he accepted a job as senior baseball operations adviser for the Boston Red Sox, he had long since left Van Camp behind and written many books on the sport. Some of his most important ideas - that walks merit high praise - had even begun to penetrate the citadels of professional baseball.

But in a culture that still revered the hunches of tobacco-chewing managers and the whispers of veteran scouts, Mr. James's number-crunching approach to the game, known as sabermetrics, retained a certain outlaw quality. So when he finally strolled into the inner sanctum of the Red Sox, baseball nerds around the world rejoiced.

Some of the loudest cheers came from the ranks of the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR (pronounced saber), founded in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1971 and now based in Cleveland. In fact, it was in homage to the society that Mr. James, a member, coined the term sabermetrics.

SABR, which says it has 7,000 members in the United States, Canada, Japan and England, provides a home for the sort of person who could spend hours discussing the finer points of the Yankees' finances or reminiscing about the contributions of the center fielder Richie Ashburn to the Philadelphia Phillies' Whiz Kids team of 1950.

This month, 16 members of the Westchester Baseball Discussion Group, an unofficial SABR chapter, gathered around an oval conference table at Greenburgh Town Hall to discuss those very topics.

The attendees, many of them silver-haired retirees, make no claim to the kind of influence wielded by Mr. James and the other founding fathers of sabermetrics. Indeed, several even eschew talk of "win shares," "value over replacement player" and other obscure statistical measures, preferring old yarns about players with nicknames like Pee Wee and Dizzy.

"The image of SABR is a bunch of geeky numbers crunchers," said Clifford Blau, 46, a retired accountant who serves as the group's coordinator. "Most people in SABR are not like that."
Yet whatever the topic, the group's conversation always rises above the idle chatter of the casual fan.

The group formed in 1999, after a meeting in Brooklyn of SABR's New York City Casey Stengel Chapter brought together a handful of Westchester fanatics.

This core group, deciding that it had plenty more to talk about, arranged meetings that, these days, take place the first Thursday of the month. They tend to focus on matters of regional interest: the dearth of doubles on Mickey Mantle's résumé; the baseball legends buried in Westchester (Babe Ruth among them); and, of course, the wound that will not heal - the Brooklyn Dodgers' move to Los Angeles in 1958.

No arcana are too arcane for the group: In the opening moments of the meeting this month, Bob Mayer, 60, a retired J.P. Morgan Chase executive from Putnam Valley, opened a small red suitcase to reveal a series of photographs of the Wallkills, a semipro team that played in Middletown, N.Y., as early as the 1860's.

But the discussion group ventures beyond New York baseball from time to time, inviting authors and former ballplayers to lecture on hardball happenings the world over. On this particular evening, members heard from Fran Zimniuch, a Philadelphia sports author whose most recent book, published this year, is "Richie Ashburn Remembered" (Sports Publishing LLC).

Ashburn, a Hall of Fame member, played 12 seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies before finishing his playing career with the Chicago Cubs and the notoriously awful New York Mets team of 1962. After retirement, he worked as a Phillies radio and television broadcaster for decades; he died in 1997 after a heart attack.

Mr. Zimniuch spoke fluidly of Richie Ashburn's playing days: his .308 career batting average and his famous throw to home plate, on Oct. 1, 1950, that cut down Cal Abrams of the Brooklyn Dodgers and helped the Phillies clinch their first pennant in 35 years.

But the raconteur's favorite tales seemed to revolve around Ashburn's storied, occasionally off-color announcing career. Once during an on-air discussion of his playing days, the author said, Mr. Ashburn noted that he used to take his bat home during a hitting streak and sleep with it. "In fact," Mr. Zimniuch recalled his saying, "I've slept with quite a few old bats in my day."

The author's story drew a few chuckles from the all-male crowd. But the evening's true star was Vince Gennaro, 54, a retired PepsiCo executive from Purchase who joined the discussion group about two years ago. Mr. Gennaro often takes Danielle, his 18-year-old daughter, to the meetings. But as a Fordham University freshman, she was home writing a paper on Major League Baseball's steroid policy that night.

Raised in Wayne, N.J., Mr. Gennaro grew up rooting for the Yankees teams that cut a mighty swath through the baseball universe in the 1950's and early 60's. By the time he reached business school, he had combined his love for the game with a passion for economics, devising a formula to calculate the precise financial value of professional ballplayers. In 1979 that effort won him a short burst of fame in the pages of The Sporting News.

After a brief stint as an owner of the St. Louis Streak, a women's professional basketball team, Mr. Gennaro focused on his corporate career and set his baseball tinkerings aside.

Now, five years into retirement, he has taken up his hobby again, with a vengeance. In fact his work may well turn into a second career. He says he has had preliminary discussions with a handful of major league teams about consulting on potential trades and free-agent acquisitions.
But with a post like the one Mr. James has with the Red Sox still beyond reach, Mr. Gennaro turned his attention to the discussion group this month, offering a lecture with the provocative title "Is Steinbrenner Cheap?"

His lecture, a heady swirl of complex statistical modeling and ambitious revenue projections, made a strong case that the Yankees' principal owner, renowned (and reviled) for his prodigious payroll, could afford to pony up even more for player salaries.

There were questions, of course, about Mr. Gennaro's calculations. Some wanted to know if he had factored in the team's share of revenues from Internet broadcasting. Others wondered if Mr. Gennaro had accounted for the depreciation value of the team's players.

But David Binhak, a more traditional fan who had arrived wearing a hat that read "Edgemont Geezer Game 2004," was in no mood to parse the numbers. He shook his head and flashed a smile at a visitor.

Courtesy of the New York Times

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