When he was in high school, Hans van Slooten had a part-time job operating the control board at the Little Falls, Minn., radio station his father managed, mostly during network programming that required little technical expertise. So van Slooten sat in a radio booth night after night, paying close attention to Twins games and waiting to hit “play” on local commercials whenever Herb Carneal and John Gordon went to a between-innings break.
“I was a fan of Chili Davis,” van Slooten recalls. “I sat there and listened every night, and I just really got into baseball.”
Now he is immersed in baseball like few others. The game and its history lend themselves to statistical quantification that no other sport can match, and if those millions of numbers have an epicenter, these days it’s in the small office of his St. Paul home. Or maybe his couch, if the Twins are on TV.
“People talk about their dream job — this is one of those things where you fall into something and I can’t imagine wanting to do something else,” van Slooten said. “It’s not something I planned.”
But this spring, it became his reality. In the Internet age, there is no more credible and ubiquitous website in baseball than Baseball-Reference.com, the go-to encyclopedia for fans, researchers and media members. And van Slooten, a 39-year-old native Minnesotan and Twins partial season-ticket holder, is now in charge of the site’s day-to-day operations.
“Maintaining the site is a huge responsibility, because we have millions of users, people that rely on it on a daily basis,” van Slooten said. “It’s our biggest site, our best-known site, and it’s the sport that I truly love.”
To millions of fans, loving baseball means loving the numbers it generates, and that thirst for mathematical exploration has exploded in the Internet era, even among players themselves. “You don’t play for statistics, by any means, but I think most players are aware of some of the numbers. It’s pretty hard to miss them on the scoreboard,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “We try to use them to help us understand how we can better succeed. … There are a lot of fans out there who really enjoy tracking them.”
Van Slooten was one, joining the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and reading various analyses on the web, but he had no ambitions to turn that fondness into a career. After graduating high school in Little Falls, he went to college at Illinois, got a degree in computer science and took a job in Chicago, managing software developers.
He and his wife moved back to Minnesota in 2011, but van Slooten soon grew tired of his job. When Sean Forman, a former math professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and founder in 2000 of the reference websites, advertised for a developer to run Hockey-Reference.com, van Slooten made a career change and joined Forman’s six-man staff. Fifteen months later, Forman decided to focus on managing the company, which now covers seven pro and college sports, and promoted van Slooten to the baseball site.
Now he’s getting comfortable with his role as a curator of more than a century’s worth of baseball facts and minutia. (With the help of another website, Retrosheet, B-R has boxscores for every game back to 1914, and most of them back to the 1870s.) He spends part of each day debugging the daily updates that Baseball-Reference.com receives from MLB and other leagues — the site now warehouses statistics from every professional minor league, along with leagues in Japan, Cuba, Mexico and several other countries — and making constant improvements to the site. “We want to keep it simple, for users who just want to look up Derek Jeter’s RBIs,” van Slooten said, “but also make available the most advanced statistics out there.”
Along with Forman, he is also working to create a better mobile app, to reach “our largest growing base. With fans sitting in front of their phones with their iPads, to being at games and looking up stats dynamically, we’re well aware that mobile is our next big opportunity,” he said. They are also trying to determine how to present a treasure trove of new, technical data that baseball has begun collecting, measuring virtually every move on the diamond.
“It’s amazing how much information is out there,” van Slooten said. “But it’s baseball, so there’s an audience for all of it.”
The White Sox retired Paul Konerko’s No. 14 before Saturday’s game with the Twins, just one year after he retired. That’s unusual in the AL Central, a division where most retired numbers belonged to players from long-ago eras. A look at the division’s other retired numbers:
Indians: An extreme example of retired-number stinginess: Six players have had their numbers retired, but none played in Cleveland more recently than Larry Doby (No. 14) in 1958. The Indians did “retire” No. 455 in 2001, to honor the fans for 455 consecutive sellouts.
Royals: The franchise retired three numbers — George Brett’s No. 5, Frank White’s No. 20 and manager Dick Howser’s No. 10 — from their glory days in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Considering the Royals went 29 years between postseason appearances, it’s understandable that there aren’t more.
Tigers: Another franchise that doesn’t retire numbers for recent players, Detroit’s only such honor for someone active since the 1970s isn’t for a player. The Tigers retired No. 11 five years ago for manager Sparky Anderson.
White Sox: The White Sox have retired 10 numbers, including four (counting Konerko) of players who were active in the past 20 years (Carlton Fisk’s No. 72, Frank Thomas’ No. 35, Harold Baines’ No. 3). Of course, this is a franchise that likes to retire numbers; the White Sox set aside Baines’ in 1989 — more than a decade before he retired himself.
Who needs a DH?
On Wednesday in Pittsburgh, Mike Pelfrey became only the sixth Twins pitcher since the DH rule was adopted in 1973 to collect two hits in a game (Eric Milton did it twice). But he’s not yet among the seven pitchers who have three career hits. The Twins’ post-1973 hit leaders among pitchers:
Johan Santana, 8
Eric Milton, 6
Kyle Lohse, 4
Joe Mays, 4
Brad Radke, 3
Carl Pavano, 3
Scott Baker, 3
Part of the 199 Club
With his home run Saturday, Torii Hunter needs one more homer to become the eighth player to hit 200 home runs in a Twins uniform. The seven ex-Twins ahead of him:
Harmon Killebrew, 475
Kent Hrbek, 293
Justin Morneau, 221
Tony Oliva, 220
Bob Allison, 211
Kirby Puckett, 207
Gary Gaetti, 201