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Panels, presentations highlight SABR 42's first day

Twins president St. Peter welcomes 500 attendants to conference in Minneapolis

MINNEAPOLIS -- At a conference like this, obsession freely mixes with academic rigor. Five hundred of the world's most ardent baseball fans met at the Marriott City Center on Thursday for the opening day of SABR 42, the flagship conference of the Society for American Baseball Research.

SABR, formed in 1971, has advocated the advanced study of baseball for four decades, and it's attracted some of the nation's brightest minds to its banner. That scholarship was on display Thursday, when the Marriott played host to a few panel discussions and numerous research presentations.

Dave St. Peter, president of the Minnesota Twins, provided the opening remarks on Thursday, welcoming the audience to Minneapolis and priming them for three days of edification. Minneapolis, he said, has proven to be a great baseball market by supporting the Twins through thick and thin.

St. Peter said that any success the Twins have had -- and he made certain to mention the team's six recent division titles and the two World Series championships in 1987 and 1991 -- has come through stability. Minnesota has had just two managers and two general managers since '96.

"We know who we are and we know who we're not," he said. "We have to develop players."

St. Peter, who spoke for 45 minutes, lauded general manager Terry Ryan for his work, and he took issue with the characterization that the Twins are against advanced analysis. In fact, St. Peter quipped that Michael Lewis, author of "Moneyball," had once considered doing a book on the Twins.

"There was no way," he said, "they were going to have Brad Pitt play Terry Ryan."

From there, the conference dissolved into several lectures conducted simultaneously. One research presentation centered on baseball being played by the local Native American population in the early 20th century, and another focused on how Taiwan became a power in amateur baseball.

That second lecture, delivered by DePaul professor John Harney, took people back to Taiwan before World War II and traced the interesting development of the game on foreign soil. The game was brought to Taiwan by the Japanese, he said, and flourished well after the island had changed hands.

At one point, said Harney, Taiwan was known for producing "sugar and horrible diseases, and not much of anything else." That changed after the Japanese won the first Sino-Chinese War, said Harney, and the initial results of Japanese occupation included a change in attitude toward physical education.

"In Chinese culture up to that point, to be active -- to be out and sweating and growing your muscles -- was really not the done thing at all," he said of China at the turn of the 20th century. "You were much happier telling your friends, 'Well, my son is inside reading, thank you very much.'

"The Japanese have taken on some Western ideas about people becoming healthier and stronger, and this makes our country healthier and stronger. And though they by no means treated the Taiwanese as level partners, they did bring this idea to Taiwan. But they didn't bring baseball as part of it."

Baseball took time to sprout from that concept, he said, and it didn't really appear until a wave of young professionals from Japan emigrated to Taiwan to teach and be part of the sugar industry. From there, baseball began to crop up in schools, but it didn't become a huge trend until around 1920.

The sport was built bigger by barnstorming teams from Japan, and it grew even bigger when the United States had servicemen stationed in Taiwan during the 1950s. Harney spoke for 15 minutes and told of some of the game's early pioneers overseas, setting the stage for the next presenter.

Robert Fitts, the author of "Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, & Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan," told about how Mo Berg, a lightly regarded catcher, became a spy in the run-up to World War II. America and Japan were warily eyeing each other from across the Pacific at that point, said Fitts, and Berg used a barnstorming tour of tightly guarded Japan to send information home.

Fitts, winding his way through history, spoke about how sports and geopolitics intertwined, making a diplomat out of Babe Ruth and giving Berg a cause bigger than himself. Fitts showed pictures and even some of the original film that Berg had shot, giving the audience a look through the player's eyes.

"Wherever he went, he took numerous pictures," said Fitts. "Many believe that this trip to Japan was Berg's first mission as a spy. But in truth, there is no evidence to support this claim other than Berg's bizarre behavior. Personally, I believe the trip was a pivotal point in Berg's espionage career, but not because it was his first mission. It was because it sowed the seeds for his future career as a spy. It was while shooting clandestine films in Japan for the thrill of it that Berg realized his true calling."

The SABR convention provided another highlight in the form of a panel discussion with three big league official scorers, who spoke about their most challenging assignments. It's all in the rulebook, they said, but the game's tight definitions still leave plenty of room for subjective opinion.

The conference continued later with a panel discussion involving Women in Baseball, and Thursday's closing event was a nighttime showing of "Knuckleball," a film by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg that debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival and centers on baseball's most enigmatic pitch.

SABR 42 will continue on Friday, and the main items of interest will be a general managers' panel that features Ryan and the annual SABR Awards Luncheon, which will feature a speech by John Thorn, baseball's official historian. Professor Alan Nathan will present a lecture on what been learned from bat research, and the conference will adjourn in time for the Twins game against the Royals.

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for