At SABR, who knows what you'll run into?

Only at a SABR convention can you meet Bill James and get the lowdown on Dontrelle Willis' Little League years.

Updated: July 14, 2003, 11:46 PM ET
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

There's nothing else quite like the annual convention of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).

  • Where else will you run into somebody who played against Dontrelle Willis at both the Little League and Babe Ruth levels?

    At the SABR convention, I met a young man named Gray Claytor, who grew up -- as did Willis -- in Alameda County, Calif. To Gray's credit, he doesn't open with the Willis material; rather, he waits until Willis comes into the conversation, and then he drops the bomb: "I played against Dontrelle Willis."

    My skepticism was quickly overpowered by Gray's detailed memories ...

    "He was great. On the bases, he would get in a rundown, and it was like playing a video game with somebody who knows the controller and you don't. When he wasn't pitching, he played center field and even shortstop, even though he's left-handed."

    And yes, Gray did face 2003's No. 1 pitching sensation a few times.

    "The only at-bat I remember, I walked against him in Little League. I also faced him in Babe Ruth, but I don't remember how I did. I do remember that he was already throwing from all those angles."

  • Where else can you be among the lucky few to learn of the latest and greatest research considering Voros McCracken's now-famous theory about batting average on balls in play?

    At the SABR convention, Tom Tippett -- the genius behind Diamond Mind Baseball and an occasional ESPN.com contributor -- presented the best study yet of the notion that the pitcher has close to zero impact on whether a batted ball in play (i.e. not including home runs) becomes a hit, or an out.

    I'd love to report Tom's findings here, but instead I'm going to leave that to him, and with luck, ESPN.com will be running that piece sometime soon. But trust me when I say that Tippett's conclusions are going to shake up some people.

  • Where else can you meet Bill James and Michael Lewis at a book signing?

    At the SABR convention, it was only a quick jaunt to a wonderful bookstore called The Tattered Cover, where last Wednesday night you could show up and spend some time with both James and Lewis. That's what I did, and I can happily report that it was even more fun that I expected (and I expected a lot). The room was packed, and it looked to me as if everybody went home happy.

  • Where else can you be among the fortunate few to learn that one of baseball's more famous quotes was ... fabricated by a great baseball writer, and somehow would eventually become accepted as the gospel truth?

    At the SABR convention, I attended a research presentation hosted by an incredibly thorough fellow named Richard Smiley.

    The 1917 World Series pitted the New York Giants against the Chicago White Sox. After five games, the White Sox led the Series, three games to two. Game 6 was back at the Polo Grounds in New York, and after three innings, nobody had scored.

    In the top of the fourth, though, White Sox second baseman Eddie Collins reached base thanks to an error by Giants third baseman Heinie Zimmerman. Collins then went to third when right fielder Dave Robertson dropped an easy fly. Batting next, Happy Felsch hit a grounder back to pitcher Rube Benton, and Collins was trapped off third when Benton threw to Zimmerman. Collins lit out for home, Zimmerman threw to catcher Bill Rariden, Collins headed back for third, Rariden threw back to Zimmerman, Collins headed back home ... and Zimmerman chased Collins, who scored the first run of the game. The Sox eventually clinched the Series with a 4-2 victory, and Zimmerman was awarded the goat horns.

    Which doesn't seem fair, considering that Zimmerman presumably would have thrown the ball rather than run with it, if only somebody had been covering home plate (Benton, perhaps, or first baseman Walter Holke).

    And in fact, Zimmerman said after the game: "What the hell was I going to do, throw the ball to Klem?" (Klem being Bill Klem, the plate umpire in Game 6.)

    It's a great quote. The only problem with it -- Zimmerman didn't say it.

    As Richard Smiley has discovered, that "quote" was actually part of an imaginary postgame conversation between Zimmerman, his manager, and his teammates, and invented by Ring Lardner, the greatest baseball writer of his time. Here's the beginnings of what was billed as, "Ring Lardner imagines that something like this conversation between the Giants and their manager took place ..."

    McGraw  Well, Heinie, you gave a great exhibition!

    Kauff  I'll say he gave a great exhibition!

    Zim  You're a fine lot o' yellow quitters!

    McGraw  Who told you that you could outrun Collins?

    Zim  What the hell was I going to do, throw the ball to Klem? Where was Holke? Where was Benton?

    It runs on in this vein for a while longer, but you get the idea. The most famous thing ever uttered about the 1917 World Series wasn't uttered at all. For a long time, nobody knew this, until Richard Smiley came along.

  • Where else can you chat with Charlie Metro?

    At the SABR convention, I chatted with Charlie Metro.

    Many of you are probably asking, "Charlie who?

    Charlie Metro. He spent a great number of years playing, coaching, and managing in both the minor and the major leagues, and he often seems to have something like a photographic memory when it comes to his teammates and opponents of more than a half-century ago.

    In 1944 and '45, Metro played for the Philadelphia Athletics and manager Connie Mack.

    Connie Mack was born during the War Between the States, and played his first National League game in 1886. Think about that for a minute. One can, without a whole lot of trouble, in the 21st century speak to a man who played for a man who played in the 19th century.

    (And I should mention that Metro's autobiography, titled Safe by a Mile and published in 2002 by Bison Press, is one hell of a read.)

    The SABR convention is, for the most part, a wonderful respite from the day-to-day ugliness around Major League Baseball that one can find, if one pays much attention to the newspapers. Which isn't to say there wasn't plenty of ugliness when Heinie Zimmerman and Charlie Metro played; rather, the ugliness is tempered by all those great stories and, in a more meaningful sense, it's tempered by the knowledge that baseball is loved by a great number of wonderful people. If that's not enough to keep you going, I don't know what is.

    That said ... On the subject of Major League Baseball "delaying" its decision on the future of the Montreal Expos until September, I'll simply paraphrase one of the more memorable lines in cinematic history ... "I'm shocked, shocked that MLB is telling us once again that they're going to do something soon, when in fact they have absolutely no intention of doing anything at all."

    Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.

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