What happens at the Winter Meetings and what used to happen
The 1975 Chicago White Sox went 75-86, finishing 22.5 games behind the Oakland A’s in the AL West. They were a team in need of a shakeup. That winter, White Sox owner Bill Veeck -- who had just purchased the team days before -- flew down to the Winter Meetings in Fort Lauderdale with a plan to do just that.
The plan was pretty straightforward. Veeck sat down at a table in the hotel lobby and actually taped a sign to it that read “Open for Business.” By the time Veeck flew back to Chicago, he had negotiated six trades involving 22 players. After that was all said and done, the 1976 White Sox were certainly a changed team. Instead of winning 75 games and finishing 22.5 back, they won 64 games and finished 25.5 back.
Oh well. Can’t fault him for trying.
Veeck’s stunt in 1975 was an outlier even back then, but it’s certainly the case that the Winter Meetings used to be a fast-paced, deal-laden affair. For example, back at the 1971 Winter Meetings, there were three trades involving six teams, 13 players, half of whom were bonafide stars and two of whom were future Hall of Famers. Wait, I’m sorry -- this was on a single day at the 1971 Winter Meetings. Three days later, at the same meetings, there were eight trades, involving a total of 30 players. It was close to impossible to keep up with the wheeling and dealing.
The times have certainly changed. Whereas once general managers and team owners -- who, once upon a time were often the same man -- sat in the hotel bar or hung out in the lobby making deals and talking turkey, now you rarely see a general manager, let alone a president of baseball operations, at the Winter Meetings. They’re all holed up in their hotel suites. They still talk turkey, but it’s done almost exclusively by cell phone. Thanks to the ease of communication and a front office culture that is now geared to a 24/7, 365-day existence as opposed to an in-season, an off-season and a traditional eight-hour day, trades and free agents signings can and do happen at any time.
Or, maybe they don’t happen at all. Last offseason was the slowest since the days of collusion back in the 1980s, with scores of players -- good players -- still looking for work as late as late February. Those general managers were still holed up in their suites down in Orlando, but they were spending far more time doing things besides wheeling and dealing.
So if the deals are no longer flowing like they used to, what actually happens at the Winter Meetings? Quite a lot, actually, even if it’s not as sexy as 30 or 40 players changing teams in booze-fueled trade negotiations at some hotel that got knocked down in 1983.
A big part of the Winter Meetings these days is the annual trade show, which features hundreds of vendors of baseball equipment, services, and promotions. Have you ever been to a minor league game and seen the breakdancing bat boy or the dog who delivers fresh balls to the umps? That bat boy and the dog’s owner are at the trade show, in a booth, showing what they do and setting up dates for the upcoming season with minor league team executives. Other booths have the latest in novelty concessions or the latest in club seating products or the latest in landscaping and turf maintenance. Every ballpark operator and team business, marketing and operations staff in the game are roaming the halls of the convention center.
After the trade show, the most visible part of the Winter Meetings are all of the 20-somethings in ill-fitting suits carrying around their resumes and killing time in the hotel lobby between job interviews. That’s a product of the Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities Job Fair, during which recent college graduates look for work with major and minor league teams. Even beyond the official PBEO job fair, it’s hiring season for baseball front offices, and hundreds of job seekers descend on the Winter Meetings in an effort to be underpaid and overworked in the name of baseball.
Beyond that the Winter Meetings has . . . meetings. Industry meetings like any number of us have had to go to. A seminar for team trainers in the Pioneer conference room on Concourse B. Breakout session 2 for the video coordinators conference in the Magnolia Room. If you look at those video boards that are all over modern hotels, you’ll note that a lot of these are scheduled for 8am or 9am. This year the Winter Meetings are in Las Vegas. The last time that happened, in 2008, I was told that a lot of those early meetings were . . . sparsely attended. Guess we’ll see how it goes this year.
What else? Ah, the Hall of Fame. As I’ve been writing about for the past week or so, the Committee Formerly Known as the Veterans Committee will vote in its new inductees during the Winter Meetings. Likewise, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America will conduct its annual meeting, during which they’ll name its new members and announce the recipient of Spink Award for excellence in baseball writing, with said recipient getting to speak at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony next summer. The Ford Frick Award -- for broadcasting -- is also announced at the Meetings.
That’s the formal stuff. The informal stuff involves a lot of networking, rumor-mongering, drinking and nonsense. A lot of that nonsense involves media members, lower-level team executives, managers, some retired players and a lot of fans simply milling about the hotel. Sometimes clumsily.
It begins in the morning, when gawkers begin hanging out near the ESPN, FOX and MLB Network TV sets which are prominently placed in hotel common areas. As the day goes on, you see more and more baseball figures mixing in with the gawkers, some going to and from the sets on which they are guests, others just chatting with old friends. Things thin out a bit in the early evening as people go to dinner, but in the late evening and into the night, the crowd returns and begins to congregate in the hotel bar. Or bars, if the hotel is big.
This is when -- if you keep your mouth shut, your ears open and leave your autograph book at home -- the magic happens. It’s when you might be able to sidle up to a manager having an off-the-record conversation with a reporter he knows and trusts or a couple of ex-players holding court with some friends and, if they’re feeling magnanimous, with some fans. It’s when you might hear some old war stories or some fun gossip, the sort of which never seems to make it into articles or on “Baseball Tonight.” It’s a time when you can go into a hotel lobby in Las Vegas and, with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the Winter Meetings’ high-water mark. That time -- was it 1971? 1975? -- when the wave of the Bill Veeck era broke and rolled back.
There aren’t any Bill Veecks anymore. His like has been replaced with young, serious-minded Ivy Leaguers who, as I said, are geared to a 24/7, 365-day existence, handling most of their interaction via cell phone. It’s a pity they don’t come down to the lobby at midnight and mingle with the rest of us. And with Bill Veeck’s ghost, which will surely be in attendance. If they did, they might actually remember that this game is supposed to be fun.