ESPN The Magazine
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Each year, baseball hosts the biggest gossip event in all of sport. Hundreds of journalists and scores of scouts, executives, agents, job seekers and yes, even what appear to be a few groupies, attend the sport's annual winter meetings. Held at a different location annually, the three-day event was at Walt Disney World's Swan and Dolphin Resort this year.
The general consensus here (especially from journalists, since the majority of our time is spent in the lobby waiting for a source to walk by) is that the winter meetings can be broken down in two ways:
1. They are, at best, boring;
2. And at worst, excruciating.
There are a few of us who enjoy the banter and adrenaline of tracking down a story and getting it out first. But this year might have set an all-time mark for most rumors and least action. When the Royals are the first team to make a trade, with just a few hours remaining before the meetings break up, you know something's off.
For fans, there is an enormous amount of information and misinformation that flow out of these meetings. But what really happens? And what does it look like?
Finding a way to tell an interesting story about the winter meetings was the challenge. I wanted to get to the origin of the action, the reason why we all sit in the lobby waiting for news, while teams behind closed doors maneuver toward deals, working the hours away. But I needed to find a team willing to let me in.
The Arizona Diamondbacks were gracious enough to allow access. If a trade was made or a free agent signed, I'd be able to share insight into the anatomy of the deal. But alas, these were the 2006 winter meetings, where nothing was happening on the trade front. The Diamondbacks left Florida with the same team as when they arrived.
So what you're left with is a look at the scene in and around Arizona's suite, the hotel lobby and outside at the artificial Disney lake, where baseball people arrived with a ton of cash and left wondering where the market will take them next.
|This is it, the place where we stand and schmooze and gossip for 18 hours a day. Sightings of general managers vary. Theo Epstein, Josh Byrnes and Mark Shapiro were three who kept a low profile. But Brian Cashman, Kevin Towers and Walt Jocketty were often found loitering in the lobby bar, meeting with old colleagues and even socializing with reporters after their meetings were over. Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi got into the fray when a female self-titled "baseball astrologer" approached him. "So, what's new?" she asked him. "If you're any good, why don't you tell me," he quipped.|
Suite 9039 was the working space for the Diamondbacks' contingent of about 15. Byrnes, the team's 36-year-old GM, scans scouting reports on the first day of the meetings as his team chats in small groups. The age range in the room is impressive: from Helen Zelman, a 22-year-old MIT graduate whose expertise in statistics got her a full-time gig this fall, to 63-year-old Bob Gebhard, a baseball lifer and former GM of the Colorado Rockies. Even Gebhard's rusty baritone voice feels as if it's from a bygone era. Gebhard is the one most likely to stick to his gut and not rely on stats, and he usually will offer the best joke in the room.
Bob Melvin, the team's manager, joins the eclectic crew on Monday. "What we got going on?" he asks upon entering. Melvin isn't shy about offering opinions about players both Arizona's and opponents' and their makeup. With a solid young core of players, Arizona is looking to fill holes via trade and less by free agency this winter. When it's time to make a call, or consult a smaller circle of people, Byrnes moves into the attached bedroom for more privacy.
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen heads to the Baseball America awards banquet, held Tuesday afternoon. The banquet lasts more than three hours with 18 awards presented, and many people in the back of the room bolt halfway through. All 30 teams have their own tables, while an open bar and massive amounts of food are provided. Not too many trades happen because all the GMs are here. Many big-time sports agencies also buy a table (roughly $4,000) for the ceremony.
ESPN's Peter Gammons wins a lifetime achievement award, as does Ken Griffey Jr. The D-Backs' director of minor league operations, A.J. Hinch, is named one of 10 people in baseball to "watch" in the next 10 years. Arizona's contingent stays for most of the ceremony before leaving for a 6 p.m. dinner at Shula's Steak House with all of the team's affiliates. Many writers camp outside the ceremony, waiting for team employees to exit. It's a strategic move, since many executives stay hunkered down in their suites.
|Scott Boras, always a key figure here because of his large stable of high-profile clients, gives his first and only media session in the hotel lobby around 7 p.m. on Tuesday. This time, he is announcing the signing of outfielder J.D. Drew with the Red Sox. At one point, Kat O'Brien, a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, emerges from the crowd looking as if she has just been trampled. "I barely made it out of there," she says later. That day alone, Boras' people say they have meetings scheduled with eight different teams. Agents are looking for information just as much as anyone, always wondering how a trade may affect their clients or how much money a comparable player just scored.|
Jeff Pickler, Arizona's scout and video coordinator, peruses the computer Tuesday afternoon as Byrnes, assistant scouting director Chad MacDonald and stats guru Shiraz Rehman view video of a player named in a possible trade. Over the course of three days, dozens of scenarios are discussed, with Byrnes writing down names on a large dry erase board.
The Bill James Handbook is the main statistical source referenced by Byrnes, who also refers to internal scouting reports and his own notes. Many in the room are quick to look up splits on a whim. The older scouts usually refrain, but it doesn't appear to be out of protest. There is very little contention in the room.
That's because of Byrnes, who has a calming influence in the room. He never raises his voice and carefully listens to everyone, no matter their title or experience. Whoever is in the room at the time (it can vary from two to 15 people) is then asked to assess the value of the trade by placing a number on it, ranging from 20 (low) to 80 (high). The grades translate to almost everything else, too. Gebhard ranks his dessert later that evening by giving his key lime pie a 40. "A 40?" asks Byrnes, surprised at the low number. "A little tart," Gebhard answers. Everyone laughs.
|It's not just the major leaguers who conduct business during the week; minor leaguers also have meetings and many of them tour the trade show looking to upgrade their venue's seats, turf or sausage. Here is a shot of a man snatching a piece of Sheboygan sausage. It is clearly an important moment. Just one floor above, members of Byrnes' staff especially pro scouting director Jerry DiPoto are taking their lobby mingling seriously. After one such mission, DiPoto, a former major league pitcher, enters the suite nearly breathless. At 38, he's one of the more opinionated members of the staff. He returns with information on other teams' possible moves and how they might affect the D-Backs. "That could have been my finest hour as a lobby surfer," he says with wide eyes.|
|It's the last night of the meetings and everyone is ready to unwind. I find agents Chris Leible (left) and Ed Greenberg downing water around 1 a.m. while talking about the late-night trade of client Freddy Garcia, who just went to Philly from the White Sox. Leible also is wondering if another client, Seattle's Rafael Soriano, is actually being traded to the Braves. The Mariners had just told Leible that it wasn't yet a done deal. Leible, though, seems more interested in talking about "Flat Stanley," whom his nephew colored in for a school project. The homework assignment was to have Flat Stanley travel to as many places as possible and have his picture taken. "Flat Stanley's been to the Dominican to visit Jose Reyes," Leible says, "but you've got to get him in your story."|
|Byrnes and his crew rarely leave the room, and it's usually only when they go on "road trips," to visit another GM for trade talks. From what I'm told, younger GMs are required to make the "trip," the front-office version of paying your dues. And sometimes, you're judged by the refreshments in your suite. After one trip to "St. Louis," Byrnes and Peter Woodfork, his assistant GM, return impressed with the spread supplied by Walt Jocketty, the Cardinals' GM. "You should have seen St. Louis' suite," Byrnes says to the room. "Plus presentation." Someone in the room asks how much they paid for it, "$148, I think," Byrnes says.|
This shot of the artificial lake outside the hotel, taken Wednesday, is by far the worst photo I took this week, but it represents the only time I actually stepped outside.
This week is spent in one hotel, and there is no real reason to leave. Just a few minutes after I shot this, I walked by Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who was working out in the hotel gym. Then I passed three GMs, two scouting directors and four agents on my way to the lobby. The next morning, as the meetings wound down and people trickled out of the hotel, a few reporters lingered with their notebooks. The D-Backs were en route to the airport, this time flying commercially; they flew in on the private jet of general partner Jeff Moorad, himself a former agent. Just as their plane was about to take off, I received this e-mail from MacDonald, summing up the meetings for his team, and most others. "Packed flight, delayed five-hour flight time to Phoenix. Captain says it will be a bumpy ride all the way no trade 20!!!!!"
Amy K. Nelson is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine. She can be reached at Amy.K.Nelson@espn3.com