7:00 A.M. (EASTERN TIME)
In a normal year, winter baseball games are a gathering of team leaders from all jerseys, players’ agents and journalists, where the hot stove begins to burn and the markets for commercial and free agents begin to buzz. This is definitely not an ordinary year.
Instead of the lobby of the Omni Dallas Hotel and Kay Bailey Hutchison Conference Center, where the Winter 2020 sessions are scheduled this week, these meetings will actually take place. So our collection of baseball reporters leaves winter encounters with their favorite blockbusters and rumors, moments they’ll never forget, things they’ll miss (and what they won’t), with encounters on computer screens and their favorite untold lobby fairy tales.
What is the biggest winter milestone in history?
Tim Kurkjian: The biggest trade I ever reported at the winter meetings was on the 5th. December 1990 at meetings outside Chicago. The Toronto Blue Jays sent first baseman Fred McGriff and top short Tony Fernandez to the San Diego Padres to replace second baseman Roberto Alomar and outfielder Joe Carter. McGriff has hit 105 homeruns in his last three seasons together; one day he could be the Hall of Fear. Fernandez has been an All-Star in three of his last four seasons, an excellent player in his best years. In the previous four seasons, Carter ran an average of almost 30 homeruns a year and of course won the 1993 World Series for the Blue Jays. Alomar was the best player of two teams at the World Championship (1992 and 1993) in Toronto and will be the location for the first Famer’s Balbota. On Trading Day, some media called it Fred McGriff Trade, Joe Carter Trade, Tony Fernandez Trade. The Blue Jays general manager, Pat Gillick, whispered to me late at night that this will always be the profession of Roberto Alomars.
Jeff Pasan: As much as I support the 1990 Carter/Alomar/McGriff/Fernandez blockbuster, the only answer is that the Texas Rangers signed a $252 million, 10-year contract with Alex Rodriguez at the meetings in Dallas in 2000. It is the most coherent individual contract in the history of sport.
Jun Lee: It’s probably biased! The sale of Chris Sale in 2016 of the Chicago White Sox to the Boston Red Sox is a decision that has had an impact on the Red Sox franchise as it goes beyond the team’s world championship title in 2017. Dave Dombrowski’s decision to sign the sale for a massive expansion (coupled with a four-year, $68 million contract awarded to Nathan Eovaldi) eventually put the franchise in such a financial position that it felt the need to trade Mookie Betts and David Price for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who apparently played an important role in crowning the last World Series champion.
David Shenfield: Instead of trading, I’m leaving with two free agent badges: Dave Winfield’s 10-year $103 million contract with the New York Yankees in 1980 and Kevin Brown’s $75 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1998. These two chords shocked the sport and led to the inevitable screams of the downfall of baseball. Both were star players, but not necessarily the best in the game, and Brown was 34 years old. A year earlier, Winfield Nolan Ryan became the first person in the sport to sign a four-year contract with Houston Astros for $4.5 million a year. The owner of the Yankees, George Steinbrenner, ruined everything. Eighteen years later, Brown broke the 4-minute mile baseball version with the first $100 million contract (he came up $14 million short in the annual salary and reached $15 million). The deal pissed off the front officers during the game. No comment, according to commissioner Bud Selig. Brown lasted five seasons with the Dodgers – and they never made the playoffs.
Bradford Doolittle: The signing of the Barry Bonds in San Francisco by the Giants during the 1992 winter sessions was a real earthquake. It’s not every day that the franchise gets the best player in its best years. Love for engagement or hate for engagement, it was a turning point in the baseball chronicle.
Alden Gonzalez: I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ll go with the LA Angels in 2011 and sign Albert Pujols, at least in part, because that’s where I was then – in my early 20s and a month later in my first rhythm, with the busiest team of all, of course. The last day of the winter sessions is usually irregular; at the beginning of the day a design article 5 is held in the large meeting room, after which all managers and journalists walk out of the hotel to catch a return flight. But it seemed that this year’s version would be very different, as nightly rumors spread that the Angels – with two legitimate top bases on their roster – were serious about the man who was the biggest player in the game at the time. The next morning, just before the doors of the conference room opened to the media, the Angels arrived in Pujols with a historical contract. In less than an hour, C.J. Wilson also gave her approval. In one of the most exhausting days in the industry, the Angels have spent over $300 million. I could have lost consciousness.
Jesse Rogers: In 1999 Johan Santana was selected by Marlins of Astros under Rule 5 and then sold by appointment to the twins in Minnesota. The Santana is considered the second best 5-line pickup truck. (Draft article 5 was not made during the winter sessions when the pirates voted for Roberto Clemente of the Dodgers) Getting a player of this calibre without giving up his equipment is a manager’s dream.
Which team made the most noise at the winter meetings in which year – and how did it end?
Shenfield: Let’s see what the Duke White did for the Cardinals of St. Louis during the winter rallies of 1980. The cardinals were neutral for more than ten years and ended up with 74-88 in 1980. In August the duke was hired as a GM-club and he also became manager and started to re-found the club. He signed a contract with Darrell Porter as a free agent, then made three big deals with 23 players and sold 12. He buys two future Hall of Fame (Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers) and then exchanges Fingers for another Hall of Fame – Ted Simmons. The agreements concerned four-star trappers (Porter, Simmons, Gene Tenace, Terry Kennedy). He exchanged the future winner, Sai Yang (Pete Vukovich). In total, 11 of the 23 players collected at least 10 ARMs for their careers, and most of them were still at the beginning or the first phase of their careers. And that’s not all. In the next low season, the duke used two players purchased in 1980 (Sixto Lescano and Larry Sorensen) to support the purchase of Ozzy Smith and Lonnie Smith. The cardinals had the best record in the NL-East in 1981 and won the World Series in 1982 – and have been pretty good ever since.
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Kurkjian: The largest increase in the number of winter gatherings was recorded in Dallas in 2000 by the city’s rangers, who are owned by Tom Hicks. Rangers signed a record $240 million contract with Alex Rodriguez, twice as much as any other team. In those days, it was a huge amount of money. Officer Rodriguez, Scott Boras, sat in the lobby of the hotel explaining every rule of the contract to anyone who wanted to listen. Rodriguez had three brilliant years in Texas, with a combined OPS of 1,030. In the MVP vote he came in sixth, second and first place. He won two gold gloves. But the day of the deal, one of the rangers told me it was great, but it was a bad signature. We don’t have money for anybody anymore. Oh, really? In three years, Rodriguez Rangers have played 216-270 games, finishing fourth in the West American league each year, with a total of 99 games from first place. On the last day of the meeting an ice storm of biblical proportions hit the metro system of Dallas-Fort Worth. Was that a sign that something was going to happen?
Doolittle: Let’s go back to one of the most epic cases in the history of winter reunions, when the Blue Jays sent McGriff and Fernandez to San Diego for Carter and Alomar. Toronto won the World Series in 1992 and 1993, with Alomar acting as a catalyst and Carter becoming the historic home base in 1993, completing the World Series.
Gonzalez: Based on their income, I will join the Miami Marlins in 2011. They were on their way to a new, taxpayer-funded stadium whose owners promised to spend money on lists. Jeffrey Loria, David Samson and Michael Hill therefore patrolled the Hilton Anatole Hotel in Dallas as mafia imitators, negotiated with all the big free agents and sometimes put pressure on them to make quick decisions. In the end they signed with Jose Reyes, Mark Bearle and Heath Bell for a term of five days – and it went as badly as you can imagine. Seven months later, the Marlins sold most of their good players and started another major renovation.
Copy this: It may not seem so bad today, but when the Yankees signed a 10-year contract with Winfield in 1980, it shook the sports world awake. The free desk concept is still in its infancy, and the players just didn’t have mammoths then, even though they were only worth $23 million. Winfield was good for them, but the Yankees didn’t win anything when he was in New York.
Passana: The owner of the White Sox, Bill Wick, literally opened the Open to Business sign at meetings in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1975 and started with six companies. That didn’t work out so well. Chicago was 64-97.
What are your favourite winter gatherings?
Lee: The series of small deals the Red Sox made at the 2012 Winter Meetings, signed by Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli, did not make headlines or contract records, but proved that the biggest deals do not need to be signed by the biggest players. The quiz (.801 OPS, 15 homeruns, 26 doubles) and Naples (.842, 23 homeruns, 38 doubles) gave a measure of the depth of the Red Sox and played an important role in the World Championship 2013 in Boston.
Kurkjian: My favorite job at the winter meetings was on the 4th. December 1988. The Orioles, the team I covered in the Baltimore Sun, sent base player Eddie Murray to the Dodgers for pitchers Jay Howell and Brian Holton, and shorttop Juan Bell to the Dodgers. Murray wouldn’t have been Famer’s first transporter until after 12 years in Baltimore. It was a big problem for both teams, but it was kept secret until we found out that Roland Hemond, the general manager of the Orioles, and Fred Claire of the Dodgers had met in a hotel in Chicago just before the meeting to discuss the matter. When I called Hemond in his hotel room, he told me that you ask difficult questions, and that you don’t answer any of them. Hemond is the darling of all time, he did everything honestly and by the book. So when I came on stage with him to officially announce Murray’s deal, I asked the third player to get the Orioles, said Hemond: I’m sorry, I can’t tell you until the deal’s done. Ten seconds later, he announced a deal.
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Shenfield: The 1977 exchange, involving four teams of Rangers, Pirates, Mets and Braves, consisted of 11 players. Farmer’s Hall, Burt Blyleven, was the best player to go from the Rangers to the Pirates. The Rangers bought from Al Oliver, then triple All-Star of the Pirates, and from the Mets – John Matluck, one of the best left-handed wingers in the game. Rangers took a step back and in 1977 they sent the first star player, Willie Montanese, to the Mets. A big winner? Pittsburgh, like Blyleven, helped the Pirates win the 1977 World Series. We definitely need more appointments with four teams! Do it, Jerry Dipoto.
Gonzalez: When the Cubs signed John Lester in 2015, it was mainly because it meant that the Favorite Losers suddenly became a powerhouse. The Team Cubs finished last in 2014, but Joe Maddon arrived, Chris Bryant was on his way and Jake Arrita showed up. Those meetings made you feel like the Cubs could do something important. They then signed an excellent six-year contract with Lester for $155 million – for his services they did better than the Boston Red Sox, the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers – proving that they are serious. The news spread late Tuesday night in downtown San Diego. I was in the Gas Lamp District on my way home from dinner. And right in front of me, Maddon was walking towards Theo Epstein. He was blasted aboard as planned.
Passana: The Washington Post’s famous baseball writer Dave Shaneen orders a spicy Hetty B chicken for delivery to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel – and saves me from fainting from low blood sugar.
What is this rumour that has never been mentioned and that has shocked the winter sessions?
Kurkjian: My favorite rumor at the winter meetings didn’t last long and like many other rumors it was nothing. Phyllis GM Paul Owens, Dad, as we called him, was a character. After a few drinks at 1:30 in the morning at one of the winter meetings, Owens showed in a jacket and tie on the floor of the lobby bar, as we know, the correct way to do the hook slide. During the winter meetings of 1979 Owens called the writer Phyllis at 2:30 a.m. to tell her that he had just bought Sutter. The writers thought, at least for a minute, it was Bruce Sutter, the closest star to the Cubs. Owens laughed a lot and then told the writers that Phyllis had been given a small jug by Burke Suther.
Passana: The Marlins will play in 2011 in the derby of Albert Pujols. If you think they dodged a bullet, Marlins, instead of giving $191 million to Jose Reyes, Mark Boerle and Heath Bell.
Doolittle: Unfortunately, the history of my winter sessions is more recent, which means that all my experiences wait until something happens, and then nothing happens. Even the rumors have been boring the last few years.
What’s the craziest quote you’ve ever heard at a winter meeting?
Copy this: It’s easy to talk about quotes, just pick one from Scott Boras, that’s another story. There are many, but what about the fact that the Yankees only move slowly out of season: If a nurse comes into your room with a thermometer, it’s not the patient’s temperature that day. It’s their health that matters when they’re ready to leave the hospital. And they’re not ready to leave the hospital.
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Kurkjian: My favorite quote from all the winter meetings goes back to 1982. The humble Rangers, the team I mentioned in the Dallas Morning News, have gone in search of some important contracts or signatures, all of which are needed. Instead, they did not return home until Odell Jones was released in draft article 5. I asked how the team was going to explain the failures of the games to their fans. Assistant General Manager Paul Richards, an honorable baseball player, said well, we have to sell… …Odell Jones.
Passana: I’m gonna… House. — From unidentified agent to unidentified agent during the breaks in the 2013 Stakeholders’ parking lot remain unknown.
What do you miss most / least in meetings now that they are virtual in 2020?
Kurkjian: What I will miss the most – and the least – of the winter meetings are the millions of trips through the room. There is so much love, so much knowledge and so much misinformation to fear. The lobby has changed considerably over the years. It is now difficult to find the GMs in the lobby; they are locked in their private rooms with armies of helpers, none of whom can finish the sliding hook in the lobby bar at 1:30.
But one thing never changes: the number of rumours you hear, some of which are ridiculous. A few years ago, during a winter meeting one day, it was my job to walk across the room and report on the most disgraceful rumours I had heard. One of the team leaders, not the director general, kept his mouth shut at the bottom of the chain like a pitcher talking to his ketchman at a meeting in Kurgan, and then warned me about a free agent who might be free.
I heard the CEO say he killed someone.
I won’t miss it.
In the weekly series on the changing face of baseball, we asked our MLB reporters to tell us the best stories they’d ever seen – with one line in mind: You had to be there to see it for yourself.
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Lee: The fact that the entire baseball world gathers in the hotel lobby and you have the opportunity to communicate with sources and friends from the entire industry that you only see a few times a year, often at major baseball events such as the All-Star Game or the World Series. It is a great annual reminder that the world is much smaller than it sometimes seems.
Passana: I’m going to miss the drinks in hotel rooms at 3 a.m. where I hear a funny story or get a good tip. I won’t miss the 6:30 wake-up call.
Doolittle: The only real event in the meetings I have attended in recent years is the announcement of the Hall Committee elections, which took place on the first evening of the meetings. Whether you agree with the mood or not, it’s usually the players who were missed in the BBWAA vote, and it’s always touching to see their fame knowing they’re connected to Cooperstown. I’m in the hotel lobby. Not at all.
Copy this: You will certainly miss a meeting with directors and agents that you will not see for a year, but that you will simply discuss with them. You can’t run around big hotels looking for people.
Gonzalez: The last thing I will miss is the general concept; it has reached a point where there were almost never any leaders in the lobby, which sometimes seemed rather pointless to report on the spot. So they had a lot of lost media representatives, some of whom were looking for a lot of information – usually due to insignificant, misleading or incomplete circumstances – and others were just pretending to work. Usually I’m going to miss a couple of nights – I’m going to have dinner with my journalist friends, all worried about the risk of interrupting the main news, and then I’m going to end up at the hotel bar, not knowing which managers, coaches, agents or even players might be there. That’s when the real story happened.
What is your best fairy tale in a Wintertreffen lobby (or bar)?
Passana: At the 2015 meetings, my then colleague, Tim Brown, received a note: Near Cincinnati, Aroldis Chapman, who was about to go into the red business, ran into trouble on the ground. He didn’t have any hard parts.
So we started hunting and found what we thought was a promising trail: Report to the police near where Chapman lived. It’s a problem: They had to be picked up personally. Besides, Nashville’s not far from Miami.
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Luckily, my friend Max is a teacher in South Florida and he told me that he would like to rush to the police and ask for documents. After a few hours and 17 cell phone calls, we had a complete file – and the story of Chapman, who allegedly fired a gunshot inside to undermine red trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, leading to his landing with the Yankees and eventually his first suspension under the new domestic violence policy of the MLB.
Doolittle: It’s personal, and it says I’m a walking bag of personality disorders. You’re familiar with the term fanboy, right? Whatever the opposite of that term is, I am. When I meet someone I don’t know, but who I respect very much, I can’t bring myself to admit it, no matter how much it means to me as a person, as a writer, as a baseball reporter, whatever. I’ve never in my life asked a man for his autograph. I’m not proud of it.
A few years ago I was queuing up in Orlando for Bill James’ dinner. I’m no different than many baseball writers and I want to be an analyst – James had and still has a big influence on the way I think about the game. Coincidentally, we both grew up in the Midwest. I was introduced to him a few years ago at a SABR event in Kansas City, but because he felt uncomfortable and fleeting, I knew he wouldn’t recognize me. I followed him to the supply line, which should have taken at least 10 minutes. I met him again while I waited for the elevator, then I took the elevator to different floors, just the two of us. I may have nodded my head at one point, but no words were exchanged.
Copy this: The signing of the Lester Cubs in 2015 was sometimes about to collapse before it was over. Both parties were not sure that the other party was completely honest about the leaks, but when the deal was closed, everyone was enthusiastic. But that’s hardly ever gonna happen. Then the party of the Cubs started in their room and moved to the hotel bar for a long night of partying.