Larry Dierker, former Houston player, manager and broadcaster, served as the keynote speaker at the luncheon, and he regaled the audience with a few of his most famous stories. Dierker, who has called Houston his home for nearly five decades, said the city has a perfect setting for baseball.
"What a wonderful place to have a baseball career," Dierker said of his life in and around the game. "We got rained in once, but we've never been rained out. We've never played when it's really cold. We've never played a steamy double-header in July. We've never had a rain delay where you had to sit around for an hour and play cards and then you couldn't play. We just go to the ballpark, then we change clothes, take batting practice, play the game and go home. Day after day."
That consistency and predictability, spurred by roofed stadiums in the Astrodome and Minute Maid Park, is part of what makes Houston so appealing to free agents and baseball fans, Dierker said.
Dierker, an experienced public speaker, said that he used a different strategy to speak to the SABR audience. Usually, he said, he just writes down his thoughts on a few index cards and speaks from the heart. This time, he said that he prepared a 10-page speech to maximize his efficiency.
"This is the first audience I've ever spoken to that knows more about baseball than I do," Dierker said.
Dierker, 67 years old, spoke at length about his playing career and his perspective on the game. He noted that his big league debut came on his 18th birthday and that he struck out Hall of Famer Willie Mays in his first inning, an achievement that he termed "the definitive event" of his career.
The Houston chapter of SABR is named for Dierker, and he's long been a dues-paying member of the society. And on this day, it was as if he was speaking to an old group of friends. Dierker even told one of his famous stories, a tale of a drawn-out game that caused him to start musing about Hawaiian shirts.
Dierker, a two-time All-Star and later Manager of the Year, has had his No. 49 retired by the Astros, and he shared a few of his thoughts about today's game. Dierker doesn't like instant replay, and he said his first step to change the game would be to elevate the home-plate umpire "to the position of God."
He said that he used to rail about fans reading a book during games, but now that he's retired, he said he "can read a lot and not miss anything." The pace of the game is one of Dierker's pet peeves, but he said that one thing is clear: The players are performing impressive feats on a nightly basis.
"I'd like to tell you something that you probably already know. But I'd like to emphasize it," he said as part of his prepared remarks. "Baseball is a really, really hard sport to play. A lot harder than it looks. I always say that the difficulty of the game of baseball increases directly with your proximity to the ball. If you watch it on TV, there's nothing to it. If you're in the upper deck, it doesn't look that hard."
When Dierker was finished, the awards portion of the luncheon began. SABR, a group of researchers dedicated to uncovering objective truth about the game, were thrilled to celebrate their own.
Leslie Heaphy, a professor at Kent State University and a member of SABR's Board of Directors, was chosen as the winner of the Bob Davids Award. That trophy, named for the founder of SABR, is annually distributed to the member who best embodies the spirit and self-sacrifice of the group's first president.
"I'm truly humbled by this honor," Heaphy said. "I hope I'm worthy of being part of this wonderful group."
Roland Hemond, three-time winner of The Sporting News MLB Executive of the Year Award, named former Houston general manager Tal Smith the winner of an award named in his honor. Smith, who has known Hemond for more than 40 years, said it was a great honor to win his friend's award.
John Zinn and Paul Zinn, authors of Ebbets Field, were the joint winners of the Ron Gabriel Award, which is annually distributed to the best research project centered on the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Another prestigious award, the Henry Chadwick Award, was given to five deserving scholars on Friday. Two of them -- Mark Armour and MLB.com's Cory Schwartz -- were on hand to accept the distinction. Schwartz, vice president of statistics for MLB.com, was honored for his tireless work in integrating the newfound date of the game's new age and making it easy for everyday fans to digest it.
The luncheon, a two-hour block of the conference schedule, was just part of the whole picture Friday at the Royal Sonesta. The morning featured a panel discussion featuring members of the NL West champion 1980 Astros, and the afternoon had a media panel and another focused on women in baseball.
Armour, one of the winners of the Chadwick Award, hosted a morning presentation on The Case For Al Campanis, the famed ex-Dodgers executive whose career ended after an infamous television appearance. Armour spoke at length about all of the executive's achievements within the game.
One other interesting discussion was hosted by panelist Peter C. Bjarkman, whose expertise is in pre-revolution and post-revolution Cuban baseball history. Bjarkman discussed the many latter-day Cuban stars in the game and the difficult and circuitous route they have to take to the Majors.
Bjarkman took questions at the end of his presentation, and one audience member wanted to know if he could ever see an MLB franchise in Havana. Yes, Bjarkman said, but it may take until 2095, a gap in time that would allow the city to prepare itself economically and logistically.
"This is a third-world country where people pay 75 cents to go to a ballgame," said Bjarkman of today's Cuban society. "If things change tomorrow, you'd be rebuilding Havana for 25 years."
SABR 44 will conclude on Saturday, and it will have an interesting panel discussion featuring men who have played and later moved into the front office. That panel will include Bob Watson, former Houston general manager, and Dr. Bobby Brown, former president of the American League.