Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
2003-12-14 17:46
by Alex Belth

Fear and Loathing in New Orleans

After two days at the winter meetings, I can safely say that this is one of the oddest experiences I've ever had. Jay Jaffe and I arrived late Friday night at our hotel—were the Baseball Prospectus gang is staying—roughly a ten minute walk away from the where all the action is going down at the Marriott. Earlier in the week I had e-mailed Tom Verducci about wanting to meet up with him at some point and he simply replied that I'd find him in the lobby of the Marriott. Boy, he wasn't kidding. The lobby of the Marriott is the place to be.

Smack dab in the middle of the hotel lobby is a squared-off bar area that is raised up off the floor by a couple of feet, carpeted and outfitted with tables. The room is populated with up to several hundred men—agents, scouts, front office assistants, kids looking for jobs, and of course, the members of the media. Essentially, it is a big cocktail party. Groups of guys cluster together and chat. It's the kind of scene where you see a guy pull another guy aside and say, "Step into my office." The rest of the men stand around nervously, as if they were limo drivers at the airport waiting to pick someone up.

It is an inherently tense and uncomfortable atmosphere. The mood isn't dour, it's just forced. After all, this isn't a social gathering, this is business. The teams are in the business of signing players and making trades; the agents are in the business of selling their clients, and the media's business is to be up in everybody's business. As a result, everyone is checking everybody else out. This is amusing. When I first walked in, I was getting the once over too. Some guys shot me suspicious, dark looks, as if to say, "Now who the hell is this?" Others looked at me more openly, with curiosity, as if to say, "Who the hell is that?"

The attention doesn't last long, but it is steady. Once one guy determines you are nobody that interests them, another guy is staring at you. And this isn't just me, of course. This is what the entire room is doing to everyone. It is a very strange feeling, watching a room full of guys checking each other out, eyes darting from face to face. The overall effect has the awkwardness of a seventh-grade dance, except there aren't any girls.

If anything, the "girls" or objects of desire in this case, are other, more famous men. Not that there is anything inherently sexual going on, but essentially, you stand around in clusters hawking other guys. Oh, look, there is Peter Gammons, there is Dusty Baker, and Felipe Alou. Do I dare go up and talk to them, or do I just sit here with my back-against-the-wall and gawk at them?

Some of the men are clearly built to thrive in the schmoozy atmosphere, while others look hopelessly stiff, concerned and ill-at-ease. There is a whole range of faces and personality types, but as a whole, it all adds up to way too much testosterone in one confined place. ("A lady, a lady, my kingdom for a female." Actually, that's not entirely true. There are some women in the lobby, but few with anything to do with the meetings. The vibe isn't anti-female, they just don't have anything to do with the business at hand.) There are plenty of hard, old baseball faces, former ballplayers who are now scouts, guys from the front office, veteran sportswriters. Many of them have red necks and pink faces which suggest they haven't seen much snow recently.

As a contrast, there are many boyish guys, who look quite young, walking around as if they were a five-year old at a fair who lost their mother. In general, the men are dressed casually. Some prefer sneakers and a short-sleeve shirt, while others wear suits and loafers. The older guys wear sweaters. I suspect that the agents are the guys in the loafers, reeking of cologne (hello Drakar Noir, boys). There are good-looking, classically handsome dudes, along with over-weight guys, and your classic, homely zhlubs. Most everybody has a drink in their hand. (Jack McKeon was outside working on his cigar much of the time, shaking more hands than a Presidential candidate.)

What is everybody doing? Milling around mostly. Many reporters simply do laps around the bar, looking for their next lead, for new information. The beat reporters are especially active as they have stories to file for the following day. Agents and their assistants are on their cell phones arranging meetings.

The teams all set up shop upstairs in suites. It's like their own individual war rooms. They pour over data, scheme, and carry out their plan of attack. The general managers mostly remain upstairs, preferring to send out assistants to comb the lobby to see what is shaking down. Even if nothing is officially happening, the buzz is constant. Guys say, "Well, if this team makes this move and this guy signs with that team, then we are going to make this move and sign this player."

After spending a few hours in at the hotel on Friday night, the mystique that these proceedings held in my imagination before we arrived quickly wore off. It was a humanizing experience. Yes, this is the heart of baseball business, and look, these guys are human just like the rest of us. They aren't so removed. They seem so, well, regular. Hey, there is Scott Boras talking to a reporter, oh, there is Jeff Brantley, and Jayson Stark. Here comes J.P. Riccardi—a slick, and dashing figure—and whoa, here comes Dusty Baker and Lou Pinella. There is Lee Mazzilli. How about Tony Perez and Omar Minaya?

These men are regular in the sense that these guys don't glow, or have a spotlight following them around the room (although the more recognizable figures like Baker, and the ESPN television guys were steadily approached by casual fans who happened to spot them.) Still, it is a surreal situation to be in as an outsider. I worked in and around the movie business for over a decade, so being around famous people is nothing new for me. But even though I've been in close proximity to some of the biggest actors in Hollywood, and have had conversations and even relationships with others, I've never been in a single room where there was a who's-who of celebrities.

The capper is that this is a big weekend for high school football here in New Orleans. People are here from all over the south for a series of games (or maybe it's one big game). So sharing the lobby with baseball's best and brightest, are scores of families from the midwest, usually hurrying about the place with bags of McDonalds or KFC. There are schools of cheerleading teams parading back-and-forth in short skirts, arched backs and perky breasts. Add the hotel staff to the mix—cleaning women, doormen, bellhops, bartenders—and you have a room full of people who are all seemingly unaware of the other's existence, all happily self-contained and self-absorbed. Where is Hunter Thompson and a suitcase of pharmaceuticals when you need him?


So what have I learned, and who have I met? And more pointedly: What in the hell am I doing here? I am here to meet some of the guys I interviewed during the course of the past year, as well as to introduce myself to other members of the press whose work I respect and enjoy. At the very least, I knew coming into town that I would be able to meet the Baseball Prospectus gang, which I have, and that has been great. I did get to see Tom Verducci, who is a tall and athletic guy, with youthful good looks that will probably never dessert him. He chatted with me for a while on Saturday afternoon, and he's as affable in person as he was over the phone. I saw Buster Olney briefly too and quickly introduced myself to Peter Gammons (Will Carroll introduced me to Jayson Stark). Several members of the New York press have been especially gracious: Joel Sherman, Mark Hale, Jack Curry and Mark Feinsand.

On Saturday afternoon, I spotted Howard Bryant of The Boston Herald. After I introduced myself, he said something to the effect of, "Oh yeah, I've been by your site. You were pretty tough on my book." Gulp. Indeed I had been. Talk about being put on the spot. But that didn't stop us from having an interesting conversation about the book's subject—racism in the Boston sports world. Bryant is an engaging, bright guy, and I enjoyed getting a chance to rap with him for a minute. We talked about the stigma of being black and playing in Boston, and it wasn't until later in the afternoon that I wondered to myself if Howard is in fact the only black reporter on the Red Sox beat.

There was a lesson in our encounter for me as well. If you write something and put it out there, you have to be accountable for it. When he brought up that I had been critical of his book, I didn't exactly recall what I had written about "Shut Out"—I remember thinking that book was in need of a better editor than it had, because the subject was fascinating—but I'm glad that he didn't seem to take my criticism personally, and that I didn't let it trip me up enough to feel humiliated or uncomfortable.

I'm pleased that I've been able to make connections with some of these guys, so in essence, my mission has been accomplished. But it is not an especially easy or relaxed experience. Not that it is supposed to be. After all, the lobby of the Marriott is about nothing if not competition. Since when is that supposed to be a day at the beach?

But it is awkward scoping out somebody that you would like to meet, and then waiting for them to break away from their present conversation to jump into their face, shake their hands, introduce yourself and stick a business card in their palm. It's like that Looney Tunes cartoon where Bugs goes to the dog races and falls in love with the mechanical rabbit who zips around the track. After whooshing by him once, the next time around Bugs spits out his spiel to her as fast as his gums can flap before she zips away again.

That's how I feel approaching some of these guys. Look, there are breaking away, time to pounce. Quickly, give them your whole pitch in less than 30 seconds, because suddenly there are five other people who want to shake their hands and get a piece of them. It is rewarding to get the opportunity to meet some of these guys. But it is exhausting and socially painful at the same time too.


What exactly has happened? Well, I'm sure if you are reading the papers on the Internet, you know just as much as I do. Keith Foulke went to the Red Sox, and Mike Cameron went to the Mets, leaving Billy Beane and the A's assed-out, without much of an offense left in Oakland. The A Rod deal is dead...for now. Some guys said it was dead, dead, while others said, "Nah, it's dead for the time being, maybe for the duration of the meetings, but it could always be revived." J.D. Drew was moved to Atlanta and Juan Encarnacion went to the Dodgers. By the end of the day on Saturday, the Kevin Brown deal went through.

And what about the Yankees? Well, for starters, nobody from the Yankees is even here in town (with the exception of two of their trainers). Why? Apparently, it is one of the ways George punishes his staff. By not letting them go to the expo. The Yankees have reached a two-year deal with Kenny Lofton, and to a man, everybody I've spoken with thinks it is an awful move, and one that is coming directly from The Boss.

I spent most of the day troubled over the news. Steinbrenner never loved Andy Pettitte, and he apparently doesn't have much respect for the senior-ranking member of the Yankees—Bernie Williams—either. Even though he's several years older, can you imagine something like this ever happening to Derek Jeter? Williams isn't only "losing" his job to another center fielder, he's losing to an older guy, who is worse than Bernie. Williams is a far superior offensive player, and if he's a weaker defender, it isn't by much. To make matters worse, Lofton's reputation is not a nice one. He's supposed to be a selfish jerk. What kind of respect is this?

"What about when the Yankees face lefties," I asked one writer. "What makes you think George has thought that far ahead? You know how he is, he loves the big names."

From what I've been able to gather, Steinbrenner is worse than he's ever been. He may not carry on in the papers like he did twenty years ago, but down to the secretaries, he's crazier and more boorish than he's ever been. The fact that senility is creeping in has not helped, but made him more irrational. So if the 2004 Yankees are not quite as bad off as they were in the eighties, the signs say they are headed in that direction; history does seem to be repeating itself. There is a general belief that Torre will not make it through the season. I know there was a lot of talk last year that Torre would get canned, and now that is even more likely to happen.

The Sheffield deal will get done essentially because Sheffield doesn't have any other options. No other team is going to offer him the kind of money that Yankees will. Plus, he and George and a match made in heaven. Steinbrenner is letting him sweat a bit, but according to the guys I've spoken with, the deal will get done. The Yankees will wait until after the Rule 5 draft on Monday morning to announce their pacts with Lofton, Gordon and Quantrill.

Yankee fans, we need to prepare ourselves. The Zoo is back in full effect. I've got another day at the winter meetings zoo, and quite frankly, I miss my girlfriend, and am ready to go home. But there are still more adventures to have, and more guys to meet—I'd especially like to see Tyler Kepner and Gordon Edes. Hopefully, there will be some more interesting moves today. Jay and I are going to poke our heads around the French Quarter today looking for used bookshops to see if we can find any goodies.

Perhaps I'll get a chance to throw in another update. If not, I'll be back on Tuesday morning.

Epilogue: As I finished typing this entry, Jay woke up and turned on the TV, and we were greeted with our President telling us that Saddam Hussien has been captured. Hey, where are those pharmaceuticals already?

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