Former minor league umpire and Branch B. Rickey featured at 2012 winter meeting

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(Pictured above: upper left, Branch B. Rickey; upper right, Norman Macht, John Moore and Jim Kreuz; bottom right, Frank Coffland; bottom left, Monte Cely, Jan Larson and Cy Morong)

Tales from a retired Triple-A umpire, glimpses of early 20th century baseball when Babe Ruth was known as a good pitcher, and personal stories of Branch Rickey’s impact on baseball from his grandson were just some of the topics tossed around during the Sixth Annual Winter Meeting of SABR’s Roger Hornsby Chapter on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012.

Nearly 30 members and guests were treated to a photo montage of Rogers Hornsby images available online through the Library of Congress and photos from recent chapter activities.  Chapter commissioner Gilbert Martinez served as the master of ceremonies.

Frank Coffland, 34, spent eight years umpiring in the minor leagues. A product of the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring, Coffland has umpired in the Pacific Coast League, the Texas League, the Southern League and the Venezuelan Winter League. He retired before the 2005 season to spend time with a growing family, but continues to umpire in college baseball and aspires to umpire in the College World Series some day.

Coffland said he knew he wanted to be an umpire when he was in high school. He said he loved watching the umpires on the field with their strike and out calls. He also fielded questions from the group, including how he maintains his cool when coaches, players and fans yell at him.  “It’s tough,” he said. “It’s part of the game. At umpire school, we learned that we have to remain under control and professional.”

At umpire school where he was one of the youngest students, he said umpires are taught to be authoritative and firm so that they don’t get run over by managers and players. He relayed a role-playing exercise in which he was the home plate umpire and his instructors played managers. After a strike call resulted in razzing from one instructor, Coffland – wanting to show how aggressive he was – made a stop gesture with his hand at the instructor. After the instructor continued to argue as a manager would, Coffland threw him out of the game with great flourish. At this point, Coffland said, the instructor called a time out and admonished him about his quick trigger. He learned how to dial it back some, he said.

Coffland said he supports instant replay because he believes that’s the direction of all the major sports and because the umpire’s primary responsibility is to get the call right. But he also acknowledged that mistakes will happen.  “Every umpire makes a mistake,” he said. “It’s part of the game, but we’re expected to be right 99 percent of the time.”

Coffland teaches at the South Texas Umpire Clinic and is fitness manager at Spectrum Athletic Club, both in San Antonio.

Another featured speaker at the meeting was Branch B. Rickey, president of the Pacific Coast League, which is headquartered in Round Rock. He is also the grandson of legendary Branch Rickey, who signed Jackie Robinson, resulting in a challenge to the organized baseball’s prohibition of black players.

Rickey told stories he heard from his grandfather about baseball in the early 20th century, such as when he was the baseball coach at Ohio Wesleyan. A hotel refused to admit a black player, but Rickey convinced them to allow the player to sleep on a cot in his room so the hotel wouldn’t have to list the player’s name on the register. Upon entering the room, Rickey said the player, rubbing his arm, told his grandfather, “Mr. Rickey, if I could just get this color off, I’d be as good as anybody.”

Rickey told how his grandfather and Jackie Robinson made a partnership that allowed them to successfully eliminate the color barrier in baseball.

Rickey said his grandfather used to have a framed quotation, which now hangs behind Rickey’s desk, from Sir William Drummond: “He who will not reason is a bigot; he that cannot reason is a fool; and he that dares not reason is a slave.”

Scott Barzilla, author of “The Hall of Fame Index” and member of SABR’s Larry Dierker Chapter, gave a presentation about evaluating players and managers based on the average total number of runs player contributes to his team. His “Total Run Index,” identified Jose Bautista as the most valuable player in 2011 with a rating of 217.3. Matt Kemp was second with 187.6 and National League MVP Ryan Braun trailed with 170.9.  According to the index, the top pitcher was Justin Verlander (163.8), followed by four pitchers with a few points of each other: CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee.

Barzilla also found a way to evaluate managers based on the team’s run differential. Managers who scored high were Freddie Gonzalez and Charlie Manual; those who didn’t were Ozzie Guillen, Clint Hurdle and Terry Francona, among others. Barzilla is a founder and contributor to and Hard Ball Chat radio podcast on iTunes.

Longtime SABR member and former SABR board member Norman Macht read an excerpt from the second volume of his Connie Mack biography series, “Connie Mack: The Turbulent and Triumphant Years 1915-1932.” Macht observed how the Babe Ruth era began and changed baseball. He said that other players would watch Ruth take batting practice and adopted his longer and heavier bats, ushering in the tape-measure era. The new volume is expected to be published later this year.

Director of Broadcasting for the Round Rock Express, Mike Capps, shared his observations about the Triple-A club, including players to watch and highlights from the past season. He praised Estéban Germán, who swiped 44 bases for the Express, and Matt Kata, who had a career high in home runs. He told the group to watch for Mark Hamburger, whom he believes will make the Rangers rotation as a starter. “He’s a lefty in a righty body,” he said, adding that Hamburger brings a 97 miles-per-hour fastball along with a 93-mph slider.  Capps also lamented the loss of catcher Kevin Cash, who retired from baseball and joined the Toronto Blue Jays as an advance scout.

Capps said that former Mets and Dodgers catcher Jerry Grote, who spoke at the 2011 winter meeting, will be rejoining him in the broadcast booth for the 2012 season. “He’s already wearing me out on the cell phone,” Capps quipped.

Some members brought – and wore – baseball memorabilia to the meeting. Jan Larson appeared in a Mariano Rivera, #42 Yankee jersey with matching gray baseball pants and and a Yankees cap.  There is no truth to the rumor that he was throwing cut fastballs in the hallway.  He also brought a small Yankees clock that had a container of dirt from the old Yankee Stadium and a Brooks Robinson signed baseball. Scott Barzilla wore a game-worn #56 Astros jersey worn by his cousin, Phillip Barzilla, who made his debut with the Astros in 2006. Jim Kreuz brought yearbooks with Stan Musial, and Norman Macht brought profit and loss statement that included the salaries of the players from the Philadelphia Athletics in 1913.

The new dean of Texas State’s College of Fine Arts and Communication, Dr. Timothy Mottet, welcomed the group to historic Old Main and the university. Dr. Mottet, an expert in communication studies, praised the group for their passionate interest in baseball. He said that people are more interesting when they explore and enjoy interests outside of their work and personal lives. He also quoted Robert S. Weider, author of “In Praise of the Second Season,” who wrote, “Baseball fans are junkies, and their heroin is the statistic.”

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