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SABR Rattled: Unexpected Gut-Punch at local SABR Meeting, Little Nerdery

I had the good fortune of attending my very first Society of American Baseball Research KC Chapter (SABR) meeting on Saturday. Despite what you might think, there were no discussions of whether Ultimate Zone Rating was accurate enough over short enough spans to be considered reliable, no mentions of Wins Above Replacement, no debates about any of the F/X systems or linear weights ... or anything remotely like that.

In fact, I'm beginning to think this had nothing to do with sabermetrics at all! What the hell happened?

I was here to listen to presentations of their books by Todd Peterson and Phil Dixon, as well as a Royals discussion panel led by Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports. Anything sabermetrically related would somehow come up in between.

The first thing I noticed is that the room was filled with what can only be described as baseball fans. Specifically Royals fans, considering the venue, but not too different than what one might see at a day game in June. Mostly older, score-keeping types, all of them had one thing in common: an intense love of baseball.

That intensity was apparent from the beginning, as the audience's attention was held by Todd Peterson's sometimes meandering but nevertheless interesting description of his new book, Early Black Baseball in Minnesota.

Where Peterson was what most would expect when imagining a dusty baseball researcher (and all the excitement that comes with that!), Phil Dixon was a force. A presence. Hearing him speak of the Negro Leagues, I felt as if I was there, participating, rooting them on. Dixon spoke with both passion and conviction, knowledge, and a historical breadth that shamed me both as a baseball fan and a man.

Dixon spoke on and around his new book, Andrew ‘‘Rube’’ Foster, A Harvest on Freedom’s Fields. Two parts of the presentation remain with me, many hours later. The first was this absolutely wonderful poem that he recited, describing how the great Negro League players that became famous like Satchel Paige carried all the un-famous and nameless many that came before them.

"They carried us on their backs."

Safe in the comfort of my basement while writing this, I can reveal that I got a little choked up as he almost sang that wonderful poem. I didn't let any tears slip out, so I maintained what little dignity I could muster, but still: gut-punch. I teared up in front of at least 40 old dudes that love baseball, and I'm not really ashamed. Too much. If I can manage to get a copy of that poem for you to consume, perhaps you might share the feeling.

The second part that haunts me is the sub-title of his book, "Harvest on Freedom's Fields." I can't possibly do his words justice, but Dixon described how exactly he came up with the title. I'm forced to paraphrase, but here's the gist:

Black men at that time could do things on the field that they couldn't do anywhere else. They could yell at a white man. Curse at 'em. Punch 'em! Spit. Fight with them, or each other. It was a chance for them to be completely free, to do things they couldn't normally do, and for many it was intense. Some of them were just ... nasty.

Rattled by both the poem and the nuance of his book's title, I could think of little else throughout the rest of the meeting. I was still able to enjoy Jeff Passan's Royals panel with Craig Brown and Nick Scott of Royals Authority, and Aaron Stilley of I-70 Baseball. Passan lives up to the hype, at least up to my own little hype machine that builds people up to impossible expectations. Still, he carried the day, both as knowledgeable expert and as discussion moderator (I'm sure many are glad he didn't call on me as many times as I raised my hand during the back-and-forth).

I can't say anything especially enlightening was gleaned about the Royals that we didn't already know, except perhaps that Greinke would have gone to the Yankees "in a heartbeat," though I think most of us knew that. The rest of the Royals discussion felt more like therapy; there's the big guy over there that's just certain we're going to fail no matter what, there's the old man who's skeptical but who remains faithful, there's that idiot in the mirror (that's me!) that thinks the Royals can get 3M fans in the building if they start winning. At some point we came to the conclusion that Royals Fan is already worried about all these great prospects coming up and then eventually losing them. To paraphrase Passan:

"You know you're an abused fan base when you're worried about losing a batch of great players ... before they ever get promoted."

What a great time, filled with great baseball fans. The big secret about SABR is that there's really nothing at all about sabermetrics within. There was one brief mention of on-base percentage, but I don't think that even counts as sabermetric anything at this point.

Still, I had fun. And I intend on going back next year, this time with a tissue.