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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Dinner with Rocky Mountain SABR

Last Saturday night my daughter and I drove into Denver for the annual Rocky Mountain SABR banquet (did I ever mention you should join SABR?). The dinner was held at the Denver Athletic Club and attended by around 25 members and their spouses and a few children. The event is sponsored by the Rockies and included silent and live auctions as well as four speakers with the keynote delivered by Jim Burris, a baseball establishment in the Denver area.

When I was a member of the Monarchs SABR chapter in Kansas City I was impressed with the level of speakers they were able to get including Allard Baird, Brian McRae, and John Wathan at their annual mid-winter meeting but having a dinner with the same quality was even better.

The program was led off by Ed Henderson who is the local baseball guru on ESPN radio 560 out of Denver and who was an area scout for the Marlins in the 90s and now with the Pirates. I believe he signed Roy Halladay, Shawn Chacon, and Brad Lidge among others. Henderson spoke eloquently about our shared passion and reminisced about his first trip to Fenway Park and his chance to see Ted Williams - alas a chance he missed as the game was rained out. He also spoke about his trip to the 1999 All Star game and how great it was to see Williams on the field.

Next up was Rockies radio broadcaster Jack Corrigan. Corrigan spoke on a range of subjects including Irish influence in the game from John McGraw, Connie Mack, and Joe McCarthy to Ed Delahanty and King Kelley. He also reminisced about his chance to see Teddy Ballgame at the end of his career when his dad took him to old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. After a Williams at bat his dad turned to him and said, "now there's a hitter", and nothing else. Corrigan was also pretty optimistic about the Rockies chances in the next few years and drew a parallel with the Indians of the early 1990s. He thinks the Rockies are doing the right thing in focusing on a youth movement and noted that three of the top nine vote getters in the Rookie of the Year award were Rockies (Garrett Atkins, Clint Barmes, and Jeff Francis). Corrigan was most upbeat about the pitching and noted that in the next few years we'll all be much more familiar with the Latin surnames like Carvajal.

He also said, however, that the Rockies chances begin and end with Todd Helton. I disagree. Helton's monster contract at $12.6M in 2005 and rising is an albatross for a team that will likely have a payroll less than $60M in 2006. His translated batting line for 2005 of .303/.431/.518 is very good but not worth more than 20% of the payroll, especially at first base where an adequate replacement in Ryan Shealy awaits. Helton has been a wonderful player but the diminishing returns (he'll turn 32 next season) on the contract that pays him an average of $15.7M per year through 2011 indicate that the Rockies would be better off to try and trade him if any takers could be found. The problem with that strategy of course is that he is their only marketable player at the moment until Matt Holliday, Brad Hawpe or someone else becomes a star (don't count on it being Clint Barmes).

Finally, he mentioned the rumor that the Rockies and Marlins are talking about the possibility of bringing Paul LoDuca to Denver. While at first blush that sounds interesting since the Rockies are in need of catching and the Monforts (the owners) have talked about finding a veteran catcher, there would probably be a tendency to over pay for LoDuca because of his name recognition and it would be foolish to give up some of the young pitching talent for him. In 2006 he'll be five years removed from his outlier year of 2001 where he hit .320/.374/.543. Since then he's been more like .280/.335/.400 which isn't bad for a catcher but nothing to give up the farm for. He'll also be 34. Not a good age for a catcher.

Next at the podium was the national president of SABR John Zajc. He spoke briefly about the accomplishments of SABR over the past year and how the organization now stands at 6,972 members and is poised to top 7,000 for the second time in its history. He also mentioned that in addition to several retired players who are members there is one active pitcher who is a member whose name I didn't catch.

At this point member Paul Parker was given the annual award for his contributions to the chapter. Paul is employed by the Rockies and is the Manager of the Community Fields Program and also the Club Historian. He's been instrumental in getting the Rockies support for the chapter which includes assisting with a project to place plaques at the various sites professional baseball was played in the Denver area. The first plaque will go up at the site of old Mile High Stadium where the Denver Bears played for so many years.

Before Jim Burris took the stage Paul wrapped up the silent and live auctions by auctioning off four signed baseball bats. A signed Cal Ripken bat went for $170, a Mike Schmidt for $160, and a Willie Mays for $700. The final bat was one signed by 30 members of the 1969 Mets which started at $525 but didn't get any takers. All the proceeds from the auction went to The Colorado Rockies Museum and Learning Center. The center will feature exhibits on baseball in the Rockies as well as traveling exhibits from the Baseball Hall of Fame. A learning center is planned as well, so that baseball fans of all ages may learn more about their favorite sport. My daughter bid a few dollars on a set of 2004 Sky Sox cards which she won in the silent auction.

Burris enjoyed a long career in baseball and was GM of both the Denver Bears and Denver Broncos, assistant to Ford Frick, President of the American Association and Texas League, as well as being a journalist. His talk consisted of a series of anecdotes about individuals he's known including Dizzy Dean, Pee Wee Reese (whom he considered his best friend in the game), Paul Richards (knew more about baseball than anyone else), Carl Hubbell (whom he visited in a home in Mesa Arizona in the 1980s and was able to get some help for), Billy Martin (who managed for him Denver), and Rogers Hornsby (a guy that nobody liked but that he got along with).

While some of the anecdotes were well known others were more personal. For example, he told of how Martin called him in 1968 and asked if he could throw a party for his players at the close of the season. Burris said that would be fine and he could spend $500. Martin, however, instead of throwing the party after the final game in Indianapolis threw it the night before. Burris was surprised to get a call from the Indianapolis GM who couldn't believe that even with the party and possibly hungover players, the Bears still beat his ballclub 11-2.

He also told of how he once asked Paul Richards which pitcher he'd like on the mound if he had to win one game. Richards answer was Car Hubbell.

The night ended too soon but it was great to be among other folks who so enjoy and care about the game.

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