The stat junkie's perfect high

While other big sports sites crash and burn, Baseball-
Reference.com has become almost too popular for its own good.


King Kaufman
April 20, 2001 11:30PM (UTC)

Ken Griffey Jr., who has a .296 career average with 438 home runs and 1,270 RBIs, is hobbling with a torn hamstring and barely able to play for the Cincinnati Reds. Mark McGwire (.266, 555 homers, 1,351 RBIs), bothered by a sore knee, was placed on the disabled list Wednesday by the St. Louis Cardinals.

But the star that a certain breed of baseball fan has been missing this first month of the season has been Baseball-Reference.com, on the shelf with server troubles. For the stat-hungry fan -- and baseball breeds stat-hungry fans like wrestling breeds bloodthirsty ones -- Sean Forman's ludicrously informative, lightning-fast site, all of a year old, has already become as much a part of the season as sunshine, natural grass and the infield fly rule.

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"Essentially we had a plain old $30 Web hosting account [with Communitech.net] and I guess I was using too many resources for their taste and they just kinda shut me down without any warning," says Forman, 29, who teaches applied mathematics at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "So since that we've convinced them to at least put a note up on the site, and I can now read my e-mail again."

Baseball-Reference, which has been on the D.L. since April 9, is a complete baseball encyclopedia, with stats through the end of 2000 for every player who's ever appeared in the major leagues, along with league and franchise leaders, standings, attendance figures, player comparisons, postseason results, Hall of Fame evaluations and on and on. And it doesn't just cover the current (National and American) or modern (since 1901) major leagues either. Got a favorite player from the 19th century Detroit Wolverines, Kansas City Cowboys or St. Paul Apostles? Wondering how the Brooklyn Tip-Tops did in the Federal League in 1914? Look it up on Baseball-Reference, which also has features like a travel guide -- plug in your ZIP code and find out what major or minor league teams or other baseball-related sites are nearby.

Forman hopes to have the site back up by the beginning of the week on a dedicated server, which he estimates will cost between $200 and $300 a month.

His note on the site says, "In the first week of April, Baseball-Reference served 1.07 million files (134k per day) and a total of 650k in individual pages (85k of these are scripts that require a trip to the database), while servicing 42,000 distinct hosts. The 11.3 GB of data transferred is also a very high total." It goes on to gently ask for donations, which can be made through PayPal.com or Amazon.com.

"That's gone pretty well, actually," Forman says. "I think I'll be able to cover probably the first five or six months just from that."

And they say people won't pay for content on the Web. Well, maybe they won't for big-name, big-money outfits -- but for a true labor of love they'll be happy to fork over the cash. Forman says he began asking for donations in October or November. "There's a couple people who have sent considerable amounts of money. One guy sent like 500 bucks, so that was pretty neat. I wasn't expecting anything like that."

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On March 26, Baseball-Reference was featured in Sports Illustrated. Forman estimates his hits went up about 50 to 60 percent because of that exposure, and that probably sealed the deal with his Web host, though he says a bump in traffic was coming with the start of the season anyway. "I'm guessing [Sports Illustrated] was the cause," he says. "You don't think of the Sports Illustrated curse in that way, but yeah, I guess you could say that's what happened."

Forman grew up in Iowa, where his father was a high school football coach. Math was always his favorite subject, and he was doing the stats for his dad's teams years before he began playing on them. "Since then I've become more interested in what are good ways to present information and things like that," he says. He's a Ph.D. candidate in applied mathematical and computational sciences, and "knock on wood, I'll be defending this summer."

He got into baseball stats in earnest when he became interested in fantasy baseball as a college student. He created a Web site called the Iowa Farm Report. "I wanted to find minor league players who were going to be cheap, valuable properties in future years for my rotisserie team. So I crunched minor league stats and came up with an algorithm that I thought would kind of predict who some of the best players would be, and it worked to some degree. I had Andruw Jones on my team for a while, and Vlad Guerrero, and some other guys like that."

From there he began to work for the Big Bad Baseball Annual, a book that features advanced mathematical analysis of baseball, called sabermetrics. "I really was fascinated by the Web when I first happened upon it six or seven years ago; I took over the Web design for Big Bad Baseball, and I created a new site called the Hill that actually has every start from every major league game in the last 20 years, so you can see what Dave Stewart did on July 5th, 1986, or something like that. So it's gradually built to this, and when I found out I could get 350 megabytes of Web space, I thought, 'Let's try this and see what I can do.'"

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(I couldn't figure out how to make the Hill tell me what, if anything, Stewart did on July 5, 1986, but I did learn that he went 4-0 that month, suddenly becoming one of the American League's top pitchers.)

Through Big Bad Baseball, he met Jim Furtado, a Massachusetts fireman and fellow baseball stat fanatic. "The Big Bad Baseball Annual has a very laser-focused audience. Probably not more than 10,000 people in the country are going to be interested in what it has to say, and we felt a little hemmed in by that," Forman says. "For us, baseball was not just statistical analysis, and we wanted to offer something a little bit beyond that, and make something with a little wider appeal."

The pair established the Baseball Think Factory, sort of an umbrella organization for Baseball-Reference, the Hill, Forman's Baseball Primer, Furtado's Baseball Newsstand and related sites. He says they're contemplating a book project later in the year.

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Forman's inspiration for Baseball-Reference was simple. "I guess I wanted to make a site that I would enjoy using myself," he says. "Even if you were looking for a player like Joe DiMaggio, there was no place to find his stats anywhere on the Internet, in any complete way. And I knew that if you had a site like that, and you made it fast, easy to navigate, people would find it enjoyable to use."

He was right. The site is faster than a Randy Johnson heater and as easy to navigate as home to first. The actual statistics come from another site called the Baseball Archive, but Forman has "done a lot to massage things into a form I can use." And others use them for as many reasons as there are baseball fans with Web access. "A lot of people come here saying, you know, they've had a contest with their friends: Who can name the most 1962 Milwaukee Braves. So they come to the site to see who got closest," he says.

"It's been fun. I've really enjoyed it. I've been able to create this persona of, I guess, professionalism. I've probably had a half-dozen people write me and ask if I was accepting any applications for jobs."

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On Wednesday, Quokka.com, which through its Total Sports had a deal with Major League Baseball to run TotalBaseball.com, the ponderous, difficult-to-navigate official stats site, suspended operations and prepared to file for bankruptcy. "Hey, anybody want to bankroll me," Forman wrote on his Web log. "If I were Jakob Nielsen, I would pontificate about how slow-loading, difficult sites do not stand a chance, but I'll leave that to the pros."

But seriously: With his biggest competitor going under and a track record of being able to attract at least a little bit of money, why not go into business?

"It's something that I've considered," he says. "I mean, right now I'm a faculty member here at St. Joe's, and I enjoy doing that, so I'm not in any hurry to stop doing that. I really enjoy being a professor, and I've just finished graduate school, so I'd like to see some of that pay off, I guess. But if the opportunity presented itself, I'd certainly consider it." The Baseball Think Factory was set up with one eye toward the possibility. "I think our hope -- jokingly, we say we want to keep our wives happy -- but I think at some point it's possible that that could turn into something a little bigger."

Wife?

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Hard to believe a guy with a full-time teaching job, a Ph.D. pending and a bunch of baseball Web sites would have time for such a thing, and wouldn't you know it: "She actually is not a huge fan" of our national game. But Baseball-Reference is not the all-consuming beast it might appear to be.

"The nice thing about Baseball-Reference is that technically you don't have to do a lot to it, since it's an encyclopedia and I don't try to keep up with the current year's stats, because it costs too much. Generally there's a rush at the end of the year. Well, I've only done it one year, so ... And then usually I get some crazy idea that I want to add to the site, so I work like a dog for a week, and stay up till 2, 3 in the morning, and finish that new addition to the site and load it up, and don't do anything for another month or two. But I work around on the evenings or on the weekends when I can find some time."

In a typical week, Forman says, he'll spend 15 or 20 hours on the site. And he doesn't spend the rest of his free time watching baseball. "I actually don't watch as much baseball as probably a lot of people do. I much more enjoy reading about things on the Internet. I would probably give up my cable before I gave up my DSL line."

Forman's site, inspired by his interest in fantasy baseball, is a required destination for other fantasy baseball players. But he's left the pastime behind. "I have mixed feelings about it," he says. "I knew I had a problem about three or four summers ago. I went to a Rangers game [in Texas], and Jeff Fassero was pitching for the Expos against the Rockies, and I remember not enjoying the game at all and just focusing on the out-of-town scoreboard -- the Rockies ran up, like, a 12-0 lead in the fourth inning -- and just getting this sinking feeling in my stomach, you know, and thinking, 'This just isn't fun anymore.'"

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Even though he grew up in Iowa, Forman's a Boston Red Sox fan, though he can't really say why. The Sox are famously cursed and haven't won a World Series since 1918. They're off to a good start this year, though, despite the fact that star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra (.333 lifetime average, 117 homers, 436 RBIs) is out with an injury. Could this be their year? Who knows? Anything can happen. Why, a mathematics professor in Philadelphia has even succeeded in separating a few Web surfers from their money.

"I like to joke with my wife that if I'd created this site five years ago we'd be millionaires," Forman says. "If Excite'll pay $800 million for Blue Mountain Arts, this oughta be at least worth a couple million."


King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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