One of the literal last gasps of the baseball winter meetings occurred in the press conference room at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare 28 years ago. When a Toronto spokesperson stepped to the podium and announced the Blue Jays had traded two stars, Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez, to the Padres for two stars, Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar, even the most hard-bitten journalistic hounds and scribes let out a collective gasp. That is what surprise sounds like.
Imagine today a trade involving four players–all of whom would wind up on Hall of Fame ballots, with one of them elected–that nobody saw coming. No anonymous sources, no tweets, no rumors left on base. That’s how the Toronto-San Diego blockbuster happened in 1990–out of nowhere.
“We don’t make too many trades these days,” said then Toronto GM Pat Gillick, after days at the winter meetings devoted to free agent signings. “Holding these auctions makes you feel like this is a Swiss bank instead of a Hyatt hotel.”
Technology has changed baseball, journalism and the news cycle, and the winter meetings are where all those changes collide. The annual collision this year comes to Las Vegas and the Mandalay Bay hotel-casino Sunday through Thursday. The pace of activity hasn’t changed much–actually, more signings get pushed toward the new year–but the perception of activity ramps up because the internet allows round-the-clock publication of every rumor, especially the ones agents want floated as a way of doing business.
The meetings have become the Tweeting Olympics, with minute-by-minute updates with the filigree of qualifiers such as “serious” discussions. (I, for one, would like to hear about the discussions that are “not serious.” An agent and a club get together to … tell jokes?)
The first winter meetings I covered were the 1985 meetings at the Town and Country hotel in San Diego. The place didn’t even have a true lobby, so the baseball people would hang out by the outdoor pool to talk shop, as we reporters hovered nearby to see who was talking to whom. You’d see Ken Harrelson, Alvin Dark, Whitey Herzog, Tony LaRussa and scores of other executives, managers and scouts. (The meetings featured 13 trades, but were so quiet when it came to free agent signings that the players began taking notes about collusion, an argument they would win.)
In 1989, I covered the meetings with a broken foot, an especially bad bit of timing because they were held at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, which is approximately the size of a small city. And covering the meetings then was like being a cop on the beat; you had to walk the beat to get the pulse of what was happening. You ran into people in order to pick up information.
In 1993, when Barry Bonds signed with the Giants and Paul Molitor with the Blue Jays, the hotel in Lexington, Ky., was so primitive that you had to make and receive phone calls through the hotel switchboard operator, as in Petticoat Junction.
Today you could cover the winter meetings nearly as well from home as you could from the host hotel, such is the wonder of smartphones, now the preferred mode of communications. “Running into people” is no longer required, mostly because executives hunker down in high-tech war rooms in their hotel suites with laptops glowing into the night. They leave the rooms only occasionally over the course of five days, in part because the grounds are covered with even more job-seekers than reporters.
The meetings are bigger than ever; they are the industry’s convention, and they require the footprint of any major convention. The job-seekers, the minor league teams, the promotional and marketing people … just about anybody in baseball and many of those eager to get under the big tent fill enormous floor space.
Big as they have become, though, the meetings lack the storytellers and the colorful personalities. Bill Veeck would set up a table in the lobby and hang a sign that said, “Open for Business; By Appointment Only.” Trades were so easy to make that former Padres GM Jack McKeon, known as “Trader Jack,” once made a trade with Bill Lajoie while the two of them were standing in line to check out of the hotel. McKeon, who once made an 11-player trade with the Cardinals, would always be found in the lobby. His room was for sleeping. Phillies GM Paul Owens once made a late-night deal with Detroit, only to back out of it the next day on the plausible claim that he might have had too many drinks. Gillick, who authored the kind of colorful quote that has withered from de rigueur to endangered, got out of the business when trades became protracted, cumbersome and more rare.
About the closest we get to such entertaining days now is the annual lobby appearance by Scott Boras, the super agent/salesman who uses metaphors the way you would chew on salt water taffy, twisting and stretching them to his own delight.
Boras will be the star of this year’s meetings. Among his clients is Bryce Harper, the 26-year-old free agent outfielder who just happens to live in Las Vegas and eventually will sign the richest contract in baseball history. The signing probably won’t happen at the winter meetings, but that’s not a bad outcome for baseball. It serves to prolong what has become the real currency of the winter meetings: rumors. — By Tom Verducci
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• The seventh episode of Fall of a Titan: The Steve McNair Story is out.Give a listen to our serialized SI True Crime podcast here.
• John and Jim Harbaugh, Jon and Jay Gruden, and, soon, Zac and Press Taylor. Meet the 30-something brothers who are coaching's rising stars. (By Andy Benoit)
• As our Sportsperson of the Year announcement draws near, check out our roundup of this year's lasting storylines and sports figures.
Vault Photo of the Week: The Story Behind a Dunking Michael Jordan
Picture this: A future Hall of Fame photographer, suspended in a cherry picker in a red-and-blue parking lot. Beneath him, a future Hall of Fame basketball superstar dunking over and over again.
In 1987, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED sent Walter Iooss Jr. to Lisle, Ill., where Michael Jordan was hosting a basketball camp. Iooss had never met Jordan. But during the camp, he sold MJ on an idea for an intricate aerial shoot. Iooss painted half of the camp's massive parking lot red, and the other side blue. If Jordan arrived in his white Bulls jersey, Iooss would use the red section. But Jordan rolled up in red, so the "blue dunk" was born.
Iooss went on to photograph Jordan countless times. A friendly point of contention was always the number of times the six-time NBA champion would be required to dunk. "Each year, we did fewer dunks," Iooss says. "I'd go, 'Twelve.' He'd say, 'Walter, you're nuts. Four.'"
Then Iooss would chirp back. "'No, c'mon. We can't do this job in four. How 'bout 10?' 'Six.' 'Eight.' 'Deal.'"
Iooss, who was recently inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame, calls Jordan his "absolute favorite" subject to photograph.
The highest praise Jordan ever directed towards Iooss?
"He's quick," Jordan wrote years later. "And he's good."
—By Sam Brief
Gift Guide Season
With the holiday season officially kicking off, your wallet's about to get a little thinner. Over the next handful of newsletters we'll highlight one of our gift guides to make that year-end shopping a little bit easier.
This week head over to our list of the Best Health and Fitness Gifts for People Who Love to Work Out.
Made for the multisport athlete who jumps from running on the roads, to lifting weights in the gym, to swimming laps in the pool, this newly-launched fitness watch from Polar boasts a wrist-based heart rate tracker and access to a ton of workout data with just a few button taps. One of the newest and coolest features of this tracker is the training load feature, which gives info on cardio load, muscle load and perceived load (how hard you think you worked) after a session. For the person on your list who's a more serious athlete or data nerd, this is a great gift.
Editor's note: What kind of stories and content would you like to see in the Weekend Read? Let's chat at SIWeekendRead@gmail.com.