ORLANDO, Fla. – It has been a few years since I attended the winter meetings, and a few decades since I covered my first one in Miami in 1991. This will be No. 15 overall, and the first under the auspices of Jerry Dipoto and his itchy trigger finger, so it should be fun.
It’s one of the most grueling assignments in baseball writing, but also the one with the biggest potential – away from the field – to provide an indelible memory or aha moment.
And I’m not even talking about the leather pants Jim Bowden sported one year as general manager of the Reds.
I got both in 1992 in Louisville, one of the most surreal winter meetings in history. That was the year Carl Barger, president of the fledgling Florida Marlins, collapsed and died of a heart attack in the lobby, mere months before his team was to play its first game. It was also the meetings where Greg Maddux signed with the Braves (how did that work out?) and Barry Bonds signed with the Giants – the team I was covering at the time.
When it comes to indelible moments, high on the list was the news conference in Louisville to announce the Bonds’ signing, complete with Bonds, his agents, and his godfather Willie Mays all sitting at the podium in a packed meeting room. At least until an agitated official went on stage, whispered in the agent’s ear, and suddenly the entire entourage got up and exited through the kitchen. News conference over. It seems that with the pending sale of the Giants not yet complete, the outgoing owner, Bob Lurie, was unwilling to sign off on the deal over fears that he would be stuck with Bonds’ then-outrageous six-year, $43-million contract if the sale fell through.
Everything was eventually worked out and the Bonds’ signing was announced, but the outlay of cash on free agents during those winter meetings – teams spent $228 million in five days to sign 35 players – so alarmed baseball officials that they essentially canceled the winter meetings for six years. The business portion of the meetings continued, but GMs were forbidden from attending.
“I wonder if it’s appropriate to participate in something so decadent,’’ said Andy MacPhail, then GM of the Twins.
When the winter meetings resumed in 1998, the decadence continued unabated with the signing of Kevin Brown by the Dodgers to a seven-year, $105-million contract that baseball people were certain would be the ruination of the sport. Sandy Alderson, then a high-ranking MLB official, called it “an affront to baseball,” and Padres president Larry Lucchino said he was “in mourning — not for the Padres, but for baseball.”
Baseball survived that signing, and all the other megadeals signed at the winter meetings, including Manny Ramirez by the Red Sox in 2000 for $160 million, Alex Rodriguez by the Rangers in 2001 for $252 million, C.C. Sabathia by the Yankees in 2008 for $161 million and Albert Pujols by the Angels in 2011 for $240 million.
Let’s face it – we’ve all become numb to the numbers when it comes to free agents. It’s hard to be shocked even when Giancarlo Stanton signs for $325 million over 13 years – the same Stanton whose trade to the Yankees, along with the signing of Shohei Ohtani by the Angels, could clear the decks for a flurry of activity in Orlando.
Trades are the real bread-and-butter of the winter meetings –and its original raison d’être, back in the days when a wheeler-dealer like White Sox owner Bill Veeck could set up a table in the lobby with a sign that said, “Open For Business.” True story – that happened in 1975 (the last year before free agency hit MLB, tellingly), and Veeck made six trades involving 22 players at the winter meetings that year.
Those were the romantic days of GMs wheeling and dealing in lobbies and hotel bars. Jack McKeon once made a trade while in line to check into the hotel. The Giants and Indians talked all night on a trade involving Matt Williams for Jeff Kent and consummated the deal in the lobby wearing bathrobes and slippers. One famous story involves two drunken GMs agreeing on a trade that so horrified one of them in the morning that he called it off, causing his counterpart to fume, “I want to know, how the hell can the Phillies unshake a handshake?”
In a similar vein, in 1973 the Braves traded pitcher Ron Schueler to the Phillies, thinking they were getting Philadelphia’s promising left-handed pitcher, Randy Lerch. Actually, they had agreed to receive a pitcher with the similar name of Barry Lersch – much less talented.
Get old-time baseball executives together, and the crazy winter meetings stories never stop: Oakland’s Charlie Finley trading Reggie Jackson to the Orioles while lounging in bed, McKeon promising a late-night group of sports writers hanging out in the bar he would make one more transaction that evening and coming back at 2:45 a.m. to announce the deal was done.
As longtime executive Buzzie Bavasi once said, “Sometimes, it was the wine making the deals. But we sure loved making them.”
And a good, robust trade still excites the senses, like the four-team deal in 1999 that involved the Rockies, Brewers, Rays and Athletics and resulted in nine players switching teams. You needed a flow chart for that one.
I’ll never forget the gasp in the room when the two-for-two deal between Toronto and San Diego was announced in 1990 – Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez to the Padres for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar.
Four All-Stars, one Hall of Famer and two near-Hall of Famers in a swap no one saw coming. That’s what the winter meetings are all about. Let’s hope we get some of that in Orlando – and if there’s action, my money is on Dipoto being in the middle of it.
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