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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins


Friday, March 26, 2004

Time To Make The Stats

You've heard of the Elias Sports Bureau, but it's always just in the background of whatever it is you're really thinking about. Maybe you were reading an article on how some player hits 78 percent of his home runs to left field, or that it's been 50 years to the day since someone hit for the cycle on their birthday, or something along those lines. Whatever it was, chances are good that the Elias Sports Bureau was behind the stat.

Elias is literally the authority on pro sports stats. It's the official statistician for the four major sports leagues, as well as MLS, and they contract their services out to national sports networks such as ESPN, the major broadcast networks, etc. You hear an obscure stat, Elias likely generated it.

Remember a few years ago, when some player got off to a hot start and people started talking about him chasing Hack Wilson's single-season RBI record of 190? Well, someone did some checking up and it turns out Wilson actually had 191 RBI in 1930. That's the kind of thing Elias does. They have boxscores (I'm talking physical, newspaper cutouts) from every MLB game going back at least to 1970. They probably have the boxscores from every game, period, in their computers.

And their computers are sick - top-of-the-line, change them every few years, massive processing power. Because that's how they crank out stats. I could call from ESPN and ask for the youngest players ever to hit a triple in their major league debut, and they'd write a program that searches their database, and 15 minutes later they'll call me with an answer.

There's a room full of computer mainframes that must have at least a million dollars worth of equipment in it. I know, because I got to see where the stats are made, as I put it. I was at the Elias Sports Bureau a couple days ago, and damn, that place is hooked up. And forget the computers - Elias is situated in an office building on Fifth Avenue in NYC, a couple blocks from Grand Central Station. The place must be raking in the cash, considering its clientele and its assets.

The whole show is bankrolled by an 83-year-old named Seymour Siwoff, who must be the most enthusiastic octogenerian on the planet. He was so thrilled about leading us around his office that you'd think he was showing off a new H2 with 25-inch spinning rims. As the president, he's got a lot to be proud of, though. Business is good.

Part of the reason Elias is so successful has to be their low profile. Elias is very protective of its massive store of information, doling it out reluctantly, even to clients like ESPN, it seems.

Short story: Apparently once, Bill James, the famous baseball sabermetrician, came to Elias demanding that the company share its data with him. He claimed it was in the public domain. The good people at Elias told him, "Hell no," and showed him the door. Ever since then, you don't want to say B--- J---- in the presence of the executive vice president of Elias, Steve Hirdt.

I saw one employee mention his name, and Steve (there are at least three other Hirdts working at Elias) told him, tongue-in-cheek, that he would be generous and let him continue his employment there despite his mentioning of B--- J----. Even I accidentally mentioned "range factor," a stat that B--- J---- created, during my visit. That slip of the tongue prompted an elbow from another ESPN researcher, who hissed at me, "That's a B--- J---- stat!"

I can't begrudge them their enormous stockpile of sports information, though, because they've helped me out many a time already since I began working at ESPN, and I'm sure they will be amazingly useful now that baseball season is getting underway.

Besides, Siwoff was kind enough to give my two coworkers and me each a 2003 Super Bowl program and an official Elias book of final 2003 NFL stats. And Elias paid for drinks and dinner after the meeting.

***

Maybe a month ago, Buck O'Neil came to ESPN, and I was tremendously impressed by his presence. Something that I would consider the opposite happened yesterday.

Someone who was obviously an athlete was in the research room today, and I felt like I should know who he was, but I couldn't place it. So I went up to him, introduced myself, and he replied, "I'm Sean." I still didn't know who he was, and he could tell - he looked at me as if to say, "Don't you know who I am?"

Turns out it was Sean Taylor, a safety for the Miami Hurricanes and likely top-five draft pick in this year's NFL draft. Oh well. Guess I'll have to learn his face - I'll be seeing it plenty often soon enough.

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