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       L E A D I N G   O F F

DECEMBER 18, 2003

Working the Room in a Winter Wonderland:
The Futility Infielder at Baseball's Winter Meetings, December 12-15, 2003

What's a blog-writing outsider like me doing at Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings? That was a question I couldn't adequately answer, not even after Alex Belth and I entered the lobby of the New Orleans Marriott and cut through a swarm of baseball executives, agents and writers in search of the Baseball Prospectus contingent who had encouraged us to come down. Traveling on my own dime, lacking media credentials and anonymous to all but a small handful of people in the room, I shook my head as I surveyed the spectacle. What had I gotten myself into?

The answer turned out to be four days of pure sensory overload, intensive immersion in a realm of the baseball world I had only previously imagined. I watched, talked, argued, networked, laughed, ate, drank, gambled and strolled through the human sewer of degradation that is Bourbon Street. But mostly I just listened to a wide variety of perspectives about the game and the weekend's happenings. I cemented friendships with people who had previously been only names at other nodes of this electronic wonderland. The whole experience left me so giddy I was unable to fall asleep at night no matter how exhausted my body was.

Back in September, Alex and I had booked our trip at the encouragement of BP's injury expert, Will Carroll. The creator of the juicy Under the Knife newsletter, Will's own experience at last year's Winter Meetings in Nashville resulted in his joining BP's staff, and over the past year, he's become both a supporter of our sites and a reliable, invaluable source of information. He felt that the two of us would benefit by meeting the rest of the BP delegation, gaining access to their network of contacts and getting a first-hand glimpse into the sausage factory of the baseball biz. As we found him in the Marriott lobby on Friday night, his welcoming smile and gregarious manner put us at ease. "You guys are here just in time! We have to get you caught up," he laughed, before BP associate editor Ryan Wilkins delivered the joke's punchline: "You've missed nothing." With the exception of the arrivals, there had been little news beyond the Blue Jays' signing of Miguel Batista... and wasn't that Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi standing a few feet away?

Will and Ryan introduced me to the rest of the BP contingent -- columnists Joe Sheehan, Nate Silver and Dayn Perry, and intern Chaim Bloom — on the fringe of the elevated bar at the center of the lobby, and beers were procured. Slightly starstruck, I sussed out the scene, recognizing familiar faces from the game and trying to gauge their place within the context of the giant cocktail party we were crashing. Most obvious were the managers, looking slightly out of place sans caps: Dusty Baker, Lou Piniella, Tony Pe-a, Felipe Alou, Lee Mazzilli, Ozzie Guillen and Jack McKeon, who spent much of the evening outside, smoking his cigar like a man who'd won a World Series or something. Some of the execs stood out: slick Ricciardi (about whom Toronto Blue Jays second baseman famously commented, "He looks like he was a pimp back in the day"), suave Kenny Williams, stately Omar Minaya, towering Bill Bavasi, and petite Kim Ng, the female Dodger Assistant GM who fits exactly into the slot Joe Sheehan described as "Assistant GM height." Also prevalent were national media types such as ESPN's Jayson Stark and Jeff Brantley, though we couldn't locate Peter Gammons. A few players such as Ron Gant roamed the floor, pressing the flesh in search of another opportunity to play ball, and recognizable former players such as Pete Vuckovich (special assistant to Pittsburgh GM Dave Littlefield) dotted the landscape as well.

But beyond those names, I needed guidance; working the room was a whole gaggle of baseball writers whose bylines may have been familiar to me, but whose faces were not. One exception was Rocky Mountain News columnist Tracy Ringolsby, whose black cowboy hat, mint-green western shirt, prominent gut, and oversized belt buckle (which I'm told reads "Tracy Ringolsby, Baseball Writer") stand out like a sore thumb. Most of the writers had their credentials turned around or tucked into their pockets, so I turned to somebody and asked, "Why don't these guys come with captions?"

Alex, who's been making a name for himself via a series of interviews with writers for his Bronx Banter site, took initiative and began working the room himself. He sought out some of his subjects, such as Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci and former New York Times Yankee beat writer Buster Olney (now at ESPN). He also talked to New York beat writers such as the Times' Jack Curry and the New York Post's Joel Sherman and Mark Hale. By the end of the weekend, he was chatting up Tony Perez and others as part of his research for a young adult book on Curt Flood.

As for myself, with a less bold demeanor and a more nebulous agenda, I began working up a comfort level with the BP guys. Ryan and I have been corresponding for almost two years; as an 18-year-old college student, he had created the Baseball Junkie blog and then sought guidance in expanding to a more full-fledged site, for which I designed the banner. Still in school at Saint Mary's College in California, he now gathers The Week in Quotes for BP and does his share of editorial heavy lifting. Chicago-based Nate is the creator of the PECOTA forecasting system; I spent the weekend peppering him with questions along the lines of, "What does your system say about ____ _____?" Chaim is a senior at Yale with aspirations of working for a major-league team; he spent much of the weekend vying for interviews with various clubs. L.A.-area-based Joe was the senior member of BP on site; roughly the same age as I am, he's clearly comfortable as a baseball insider, possessing an impressive rapport with writers and execs. Austin-based Dayn does consulting work for the San Diego Padres and covers baseball for Fox Sports in addition to his BP writing. And Will, creator of the med-head school of baseball analysis, does ESPN Radio for an Indianapolis station as well as his BP responsibilities. The son of a prominent orthopedic surgeon, Will's hard-won expertise in sports medicine comes first-hand. He's got the signatures of the game's Picassos — scars from stars — on his own body: rotator cuff repaired by Dr. Frank Jobe, knees done by Dr. James Andrews. The man's been under so many knives that he's a medical miracle himself.

We hung around the lobby for a little over an hour on Friday, watching the awkward social dance in our midst before deciding at 1 AM that our work for the night was done. We retreated to our hotel, the Riverfront Wyndham, a ten-minute walk from the Marriott, where Will, Ryan, Joe, Nate and I put together a poker game. Now, I'm familiar with so many cheesy three-, five-, and seven-card variants of poker that I've lost count, but the game of Texas Hold 'Em which transpired was unlike any I've ever played. As I said before, Joe and Nate know their ways around the poker table and punctuated the baseball chatter with stories of various tournaments and betting strategies. Meanwhile I struggled to comprehend meaning for the terms button, blind, flop, turn, and river, and to grasp our game's arcane (to me, at least) betting rules. For my trouble, I was down $15 in the first twenty minutes, but I went on a bluffing spree which got me back within hailing distance of even; from this rally came the exaggerated reports of my short-lived publishing empire -- so little had happened in terms of baseball news that Joe promised to include the poker game in his next day's writeup.

As we played, we flipped through late-night TV, at one point settling on a rodeo where every hat-wearing contestant became an excuse to shout, "Hey, it's Tracy Ringolsby!" The best line of the night came from Will, the evening's biggest patron: "You can't bluff me, I'm not even paying attention!" My chips lasted until 3:30 and I ended the night down $25 -- a pretty cheap poker lesson by the standards of my high-school days. Joe and Will vowed to stay up through their appearance on BP Radio at 7:00 AM, but I was having no part of that. Still, sleep didn't exactly come easily in the midst of such excitement.

Back at the Marriott the next day, we gathered in the bar, waiting for deals to unfold, every now and then stretching our legs by taking laps around the lobby. It was during one such lap that I passed Peter Gammons, hobbling around in sneakers to go with his khakis and blue blazer and talking to Jayson Stark. I overheard the two of them conjecturing about the weekend's potential blockbuster deal, the Alex Rodriguez-Manny Ramirez trade — around which a flurry of deals seemed to hinge — but I felt too conspicuous to actually stop and eavesdrop further. Eavesdropping is practically the national pastime at a place like this, just one of the bizarre social customs that would be frowned upon in other company. More strange conventions: telling a bystander to move over a few feet so that you can keep somebody in your line of sight, ready to pounce once a conversation ends, and lapsing into silence with the person you're talking directly to as the two of you ogle other men chatting across the room. And aside from the bartenders, the aforementioned Ms. Ng, and a few female publicists, that's all there are in the Marriott lobby, hundreds of men, most of them unsexy except for their job descriptions. You'd think Omar Minaya was wearing a thong bikini for all the attention he got.

Apart from the no-go on the A-Rod deal, the big buzz of Saturday was that the Yankee front office had been barred from the meetings by George Steinbrenner, the Boss' typically tyrannical way of punishing the team's on-the-field shortcomings and asserting who's in charge. Truth be told, with several free-agent deals pending and the Yanks trying to protect their C-grade prospects on the 40-man, they lacked the roster space to do anything substantial. So our dreams of finding Yankee GM Brian Cashman passed out in a pool of his own vomit in some Bourbon Street gutter would remain — to use the term the BP guys taught me —"wishcasting." Stark's word that Roger Clemens was mulling a comeback with the Houston Astros following their signing of Andy Pettitte circled the room, far too overplayed a rumor for me to believe; if he's going to decide, it's not going to be in December, folks.

That's the way the Winter Meetings work for a man in my position. You stand or sit around, talking baseball, waiting for some rumor to either be validated or dismissed by your network. "Whaddaya hear?" is the most common question asked, followed by "Have you heard?" It probably doesn't sound like much, but when you've got the well-connected intelligence that I was suddenly privy to, each morsel of information generates excitement. Minutes after a rumor would reach us, somebody — most likely Joe or Will — would head off to pump one of his connections for further details and then return to the pack, shaking his head or nodding effusively. It scarcely mattered that the BP dispute with MLB over credentials (see: the Pete Rose brouhaha) left them frozen out of the media room; all the news that anybody cared about passed through the lobby on its way there. Badges? We don't need no steenkin' badges.

And when the biggest news was that the Phillies were considering Kent Mercker and the Royals about to sign Tony Graffanino, we were quite content to roll our eyes and keep talking baseball, comparing perspectives, recounting tales from our viewing experience, or making new friends. One of the more enjoyable parts of the weekend came on Sunday afternoon, when I sat around for over an hour discussing baseball books with Alex, Ryan, Nate, Geoff Silver, former Assistant Director fo Baseball Administration for the Cincinnati Reds, and Tim Marchman, reporter for the New York Sun and editor at Ivan R. Dee, which is publishing books by Will and Nate. My big contribution to the discussion was to hawk Seasons in Hell, Mike Shropshire's hilariously gonzoid account of the mid-'70s Texas Rangers of Whitey Herzog and Billy Martin. Tim, who's writing a book on Bud Selig and has been sniffing around current collusion allegations, gave a great thumbnail sketch of books devoted to the game's labor history, most prominently Marvin Miller's A Whole Different Ballgame, which his publisher is bringing back to print. Alex discussed some of his Curt Flood research, then started kicking around the topic of books about Latino ballplayers, particularly Cuban defectors. My reading list grew by the minute.

A couple of deals stand out as illustrating the way the meetings work. As we broke for a late lunch Saturday afternoon, Dayn told us that he'd heard that the Padres offer to centerfielder Mike Cameron — three years, $15.75 million — had been topped by the Oakland A's. Later that evening, when Joe Sheehan hit us with that ill-advised second round of hurricanes at Pat O'Brien's, Chaim got a call telling us that the A's had lost out on Cameron to the New York Mets. Ryan, an A's supporter, muttered in frustration as our group — showing the night's final stand of rational thought when it came to baseball — tallied up the damage from the A's losing out on both Cameron and reliever Keith Foulke. "A tough weekend for Billy Beane," as someone remarked.

The Miguel Tejada deal was another lesson (and even worse news for Beane). Tejada's name had popped up in several contexts during Friday and Saturday; word was that the Seattle Mariners had increased their offer, the Detroit Tigers were still trying to throw money at him, and whatever happened to his interest in the Anaheim Angels anyway? Sunday afternoon's bombshell was that the Oakland shortstop had signed with the Baltimore Orioles for six years and $65 million. "Six, sixty-five," we kept repeating over and over as if it were some sort of talisman. The discussion quickly turned to Oriole owner Peter Angelos' willingness to spend money now that Albert Belle is off the payroll, and his apparent confidence that the O's will be receiving a nine-figure settlement for allowing the Expos to move to Washington, D.C. Veddy interesting, we agreed, and then Alex and I left with former Big Easy resident Tim, bound for a stroll around the quieter parts of the French Quarter. When we returned, the buzz surrounding the O's was even louder: not only were they getting Tejada, but also Vladimir Guerrero (who shares the same agent as Miggy) and Ivan Rodriguez. Neither of those two deals came to fruition by the weekend's close, but the speculation that the Orioles were finally spending money again brought talk of the "AL Beast" division.

Back to the Cashman situation, another object lesson in the world of the Winter Meetings. Jack Curry's Saturday piece in the Times had sounded the Mad King George alarm and set a subdued tone for every Yankee-related discussions I had all weekend:

One baseball official who has spoken to a few members of the Yankees' hierarchy said the 73-year-old Steinbrenner had stopped seeking the opinions of Cashman; Oppenheimer; Mark Newman, a vice president; Gene Michael, the trusted evaluator who has been with the organization for more than three decades; and other club executives whose opinions normally help mold the Yankees.

The official said a Yankees official had told him that Steinbrenner had sometimes acted so single-handedly and haphazardly that, if he did listen to someone about pursuing a player, it was just as likely to be an accountant as a scout.

Michael said he had not been quizzed about signing the 35-year-old Gary Sheffield to a three-year contract, about signing Kenny Lofton to a two-year deal or about acquiring Kevin Brown from Los Angeles.

"If you ask me if they've contacted me about anything, I'll say they haven't," Michael said. "That's all I can say."

On Sunday, Joel Sherman published another piece in the Post about the Yankee GM's apparent dissatisfaction; "Fed-Up Cashman Tells Pals He's Gone After Season," as the headline blared. Sherman wrote:

Several of his industry friends say Cashman has told them he has had enough of Steinbrenner, and that when this season and his contract ends, he is going to leave the only organization for which he has worked. One NL executive summed up the sentiment by saying, "He's done there."

Steinbrenner barred Cashman or any Yankee official from attending these meetings, which is viewed as another slap at his GM. When reached yesterday at his Connecticut home, Cashman refused comment on his long-range plans...

Steinbrenner could always can Cashman before the end of the year. But a person who has spoken with Cashman said he is more worried that, out of spite, The Boss will pick up his 2005 option rather than fire him. Furious at one juncture during the postseason, Steinbrenner screamed at Cashman that he would not pick up the option and Cashman could go work for the Mets....

Friends say Cashman accepted a three-year, $3.3 million extension previously because his wife is from the area, and he did not want to uproot his family. But now, one of those friends says, "This is his last year in the circus. I wouldn't even be surprised if he got out of baseball and went into another business. He's tired of the screaming matches with George, not being listened to and just the general disrespect."

Late on Sunday, Alex introduced me to Curry, and right around the time I was flattering him with the fact that my lil' ol' blog links to him often and pressing my business card into his hand, word came around that — guess what — Cashman's option for 2005 had been picked up, and that at least one of the so-called friends of Cashman was a certain pallid, malnourished-looking guy wearing several World Series rings. Delicious.

Not all of the Yankee news was so positive. When word arrived that the Kenny Lofton deal was as good, I begged Dayn (whose Padres had at one point shown an interest) to recommend to GM Kevin Towers that Lofton be signed immediately. "I'd be derelict in my duty if I did that," smiled Dayn. Damn. "Two years?" asked enraged Yankee fan Joe Sheehan, cracking his knuckles and narrowing his eyes. "When I'm home over Christmas, we're gonna get together and take out George, Brooklyn-style." I did feel pretty good — or at least somewhat validated — when Will told me that his sources had confirmed that the Yanks "failure" to sign Pettitte was indeed a medically-motivated decision.

Along with the Yanks, much of the weekend's focus fell on the Red Sox. Their signing of Foulke seemed to indicated a return to the concept of a true closer, but even that news paled in comparison to the speculation about the A-Rod deal. No sooner would Will announce that his source had told him the deal was "dead, dead, dead, DEAD" than I'd be talking to somebody like Verducci and he'd say, "Oh, I'm hearing it's still alive." Curry confided that he had a new angle on the deal which nobody else had seen, but his published suggestion that Byung Hyun Kim would be a Texas-bound throw-in fell on deaf ears.

For all of the Sox talk, I never once did see Theo Epstein, or Billy Beane — the other poster-boy for the BP approach — for that matter. While they were briefly sighted by our crew, these most interesting characters stayed largely out of sight during the weekend, working deals out of their rooms upstairs rather than walking the Marriott floor. But for every power broker who kept a low profile, another one was sitting two tables away. I fell asleep Sunday night with the smell of Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf's cigar permeating my clothes. Now that's getting close to the action.

It was an amazing, exhilirating weekend, one I can barely do justice to in this space. So much happened that was "off the record," ("Who knew Nate Silver had a plus arm?") but there was even more which my supersaturated little mind just couldn't absorb in the time we were there. Check out my boy Alex's twin takes on the weekend's proceedings — he captured the atmosphere of the lobby so well that I can't even compete. Thanks to Alex for being my right-hand man throughout our travels, bearing the burden for my surgically repaired shoulder. Special thanks to the BP boyz as well for making me part of an unforgettable weekend; being introduced to so many great people as a "Friend of Prospectus" flatters me by association. And welcome to any of you reading this on the basis of having met me in N'awlins — I hope my amateur take has brought a new angle to something that seems like old hat, and that you'll keep coming back for more.