“It’s not fun,” ESPN senior writer and Baseball Tonight analyst Buster Olney told the Scene the week before the meetings began. “It’s not really a fun time.... I run every day, but you can’t imagine how exhausted your legs feel after standing up 12 to 15 hours in the lobby.” I made a note to wear comfortable shoes. Olney added, “There certainly isn’t a lot of glamour to it, I can tell you that.” Like many people who don’t get to cover their favorite sport for a living, I figured he was lying. But Olney—who attended Vanderbilt, once covered the Sounds for the Nashville Banner and may be the only writer who elected to stay here two days past the end of the meetings—insisted he wasn’t alone in his opinion.
Turns out he was on the level. On the first day, Jayson Stark, another ESPN columnist, summed up his feelings with a touch of weltschmerz in his voice: “You don’t eat, you don’t sleep, but other than that, it’s just great.” He cracked a sarcastic grin, and then ran after Mets general manager Omar Minaya. Stark, like so many of the seasoned baseball writers, had a big advantage over neophytes and alt-weekly writers covering the conference for the first time: He knew where to be and who to talk to. When I received my media credentials, I was also given a white binder containing about 250 pages of official statistics—nearly every one of them already available online—and a single page showing when the various field managers would be giving their press conferences. Other than that, I was on my own.
If the meetings themselves are tedious, Nashville in particular draws jeers from the sports press. “The writers hate the Winter Meetings when it’s at Opryland,” Olney says. “I mean, they hate it. They friggin’ hate it more than any other place because it’s so vast, it’s so enormous and there’s no central place.”
With Opryland’s labyrinthine paths, decks, concourses, islands, gazebos and gardens—call it a country-fried biodome—it’s hard to figure out where you are half the time, much less catch up with a GM or team representative.
“Instead of one meeting an hour, it’s four meetings in six hours,” ESPN analyst Peter Gammons grumbled as the press conference announcing this year’s Civil Rights Game in Memphis broke up. “Everyone gets delayed because of this place.” Asked whether he planned to party during the four-day conference, Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen shook his head warily. “You cannot be drunk in this hotel,” he quipped. “You will sleep in the lobby.”
Baseball writers from all corners of the country complained not only about the resort’s forking paths, gigantic proportions and multiple escape routes for interview targets, but also about the lack of adequate service staff. “We were at the Jack Daniel’s place and the bar was five people deep with only one bartender,” said a writer for a major national sports outlet. “It keeps happening at these places…. Don’t these people realize that baseball runs on alcohol?”
Long waits at Opryland restaurants were also the norm. But Johanna Wagner, a “media/fan trainer for baseball players” and “fan advocate” from Ohio who introduced herself as “the only woman to visit all 30 Major League stadiums in one season by herself” (she also wrote a book about it, The View From the Stands), found a clever way around the problem: She ordered room service to the bar where she was drinking, a move that elicited a high-five from White Sox GM Ken Williams. Though neither a current nor former player, Wagner was in town networking and looking for baseball-related work. She wasn’t alone.
As hard as sportswriters were trying each night to eat and drink to their satisfaction, a throng of job seekers was working just as hard to get their feet in the door of baseball’s old boys’ club. Most of the fresh-faced twenty-somethings attending the massive job fair were easy to spot, their wide-eyed optimism shocking amid the weariness and practiced decorum of the game’s old guard. (The Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities job fair is perhaps as big a part of the Winter Meetings as the transactions between teams, even if it is less glamorous.) These folks were paying $150 just to see various lists of available Major League jobs, but few of the aspiring GMs who spoke to the Scene —many of whom looked like they’d never worn a suit outside of a homecoming dance before—seemed to mind.
Andrea Maller, an “Astrological Consultant” from Berkeley, Calif., whose planetary baseball predictions appear on an MLB.com blog, also attended the meetings looking to break in. She claims an 80 percent accuracy rate predicting performance based on reading players’ charts. As she sat at the back of the media work room, she attracted a steady stream of familiar “hellos” from sportswriters. “I’ve had some meetings,” she said, though her dream of a Major League job continues to elude her.
With all the meetings, schmoozing, résumé-passing, free coffee in the lobby and mind-numbing tedium, the Winter Meetings often felt like just another business conference. Except that many of those in attendance appear on television at least 162 times a year. And this year’s most sought-after employee, Twins pitcher Johan Santana, was saying he wanted a $25 million salary from whoever was lucky enough to acquire him. Facts like that separate this sort of gathering from those special times when the insurance adjusters of America get together.
One afternoon, as former Yankees catcher Jim Leyritz sat behind the desk at the makeshift MLB.com broadcast booth preparing for a webcast, Karl Ravech and former Mets GM Steve Phillips, now an analyst for Baseball Tonight, chatted on-set as they waited to tape a segment for ESPN. Klieg lights—on the ESPN side, they had the name “Diva Lights” emblazoned on the backs of them—both magnified the shine of Leyritz’s massive shaved head and deepened the orange hue of Phillips’ unlikely winter tan.
Meanwhile, on the floor of the Delta concourse, forming the third point of an imaginary triangle, a boy, maybe 8 or 9 years old, knelt on the carpet with a clear plastic box in front of him. The box contained what looked to be about 200 or 300 baseball cards. He would periodically take a few out, shuffle through them or regard them studiously, as men in dark suits crisscrossed around him, cell phones pressed to their ears.
“If you’re a baseball fan, it’s great, because everyone’s here,” Billy Sample, a career .272 hitter in nine big league seasons, had told me a half-hour before. But this boy wasn’t ready to look up and take it all in, wasn’t ready to leave his tidily organized private world of baseball. With the millions of dollars in business being transacted both all around and unbeknownst to him—in which the heroes of his childhood, like the cards he had brought with him, were mere trinkets to be appraised, fawned over and ultimately swapped, with the most prized cards often going to those whose collections were already most impressive—it was hard to blame him.
P.J. Tobia contributed to this piece.