Is there a point to the winter meetings anymore, other than to separate general managers from their wallets?
There was a time, I suppose, when the meetings provided welcome attention to baseball during a long, cold winter by providing fans with trade rumors to fuel the fires of the hot-stove league. But when was the last time anyone saw a hot stove, let alone sat around one? We live in an era of central heating, 24/7 media attention and OPS, and yet we still pretend fans are sitting around a pickle barrel discussing seed prices and Moose Skowron's batting average.
The winter meetings have outlived their purpose, and it's time to get rid of them for good. Far from providing needed public attention, they now mostly provide public outcry. $70 million for J.D. Drew! Holy mother of God! You're kidding me! Baseball needs that sort of talk like the Super Bowl needs more hype. All the winter meetings do is provide a platform for agents to pressure general managers into paying Neiman Marcus prices for players who will be available at Target in a couple weeks.
No one likes the winter meetings anymore. Reporters hate them because instead of being home with your family during the holiday season, you spend 14 to 18 hours a day working hotel lobbies like an NBA groupie, searching desperately for questionable trade rumors while frantically worried that your competitors are scooping you on the Rule V draft pick.
Fans hate them because their favorite team is either: (a) not signing a coveted free agent; or worse (b) signing a coveted free agent for so much money that he's bound to be a financial drain on the team for years to come (hello, Russ Ortiz).
And general managers especially hate the winter meetings because they are under so much intense pressure that it's a wonder several aren't turned into diamonds by the end of the week.
I feel for the GMs during the winter meetings, I really do. Reporters and fans are howling that they must sign someone -- anyone, but preferably not Jose Guillen -- to demonstrate the team is trying to improve, regardless of the talent available. So what if the supply of worthy free agents is low (as it is this year)? The demand always remains high because there are still 30 teams who need to improve each winter. That means the prices will always climb.
On top of that, the general managers are hopelessly outmatched against the agents.
Look at it this way. General managers traditionally reach their position because they are shrewd evaluators of talent (I know, I know, this is not necessarily the case in Tampa or Kansas City, but stay with me on this one) and not because they negotiate so well. Yet they have to go up against agents who make their very living off negotiating contracts. It's like watching American League pitchers bat in interleague games. They simply don't train to hit anywhere near as much as the pitcher trains to get them out.
That's why you have exchanges like this:
AGENT: Would you trade me two tens for a five?
GM: What kind of fool do you take me for? Two tens for a five? I swore last year I would never fall for that one again.
AGENT: As you wish. I'll just call the Cubs and tell them I'll take their offer instead.
GM: Wait! I've got two tens right here!
Ending the winter meetings won't put an end to foolish contracts and overhyped rumors, but it would reduce the numbers slightly. And with the Internet and 24/7 sports-talk radio, there's no need to worry about fans not paying attention to baseball in December without them. Fans are going to be talking about baseball whether general managers are flushing money down the toilet in Florida or tossing it out their office window back home.
TELL YOUR STATISTICS TO SHUT UP
• I received my Hall of Fame ballot in the mail over the weekend and quickly began filling it out in my head. I was soon up to eight players -- Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn, Mark McGwire, Jack Morris, Goose Gossage, Bert Blyleven, Jim Rice, Alan Trammell -- before I even got to the usual borderline candidates I agonize over every year (such as Andre Dawson). Bear in mind that BBWAA writers are allowed to vote for a maximum of 10 players, a limit I've never reached in the past. But I sense a problem brewing with the entry of McGwire and other suspected steroid users. Because Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, etc., probably won't receive the required 75 percent vote when they're eventually on the ballot, we could face a troublesome backlog. Begin with the usual half-dozen or so holdovers each year (Rice, Morris, etc.). Add the steroid suspects who would otherwise be voted in rather easily. Then add the guys who, for whatever reason, are deemed "clean" in the public eye and are on the ballot for the first time. It won't be long before you have more deserving candidates than slots allotted. Of course, fans who think steroid suspects shouldn't be in the Hall anyway won't have a problem with this backlog.
• I was in my favorite place in the world last week -- Seattle's Elliott Bay Bookstore -- and came across Neal Gabler's new biography of Walt Disney. The book is a Baseball Encyclopedia-like 880 pages, but that's not quite so daunting when you consider that 218 of the pages are devoted to notes, sources and bibliography. That's right, 218 pages of notes. That might not be a record, but it is part of a disturbing trend in which the sourcing of books is growing nearly as long as the books themselves. I'm not sure whether this is a reaction to recent claims of plagiarism by well-known historians, or whether it's just an example of authors trying to show off how much research they did (similar to football coaches bragging about how many hours they put in each week). All I know is that I don't want to pay for the extra notes. Save the forests by keeping the notes to a reasonable amount and putting the rest online for the handful of geeks who care that deeply. I mean, if this trend continues into sportswriting, just think how long it would take to get through the footnoting in a typical column:
"Whether Mark McGwire stands a chance with Hall of Fame voters may be the focus at Cooperstown this winter (1), but the greatest balloting injustice (2) remains the disturbing lack of support for Jack Morris (3). Morris went 254-186 with a 3.90 ERA in his career (4), leading the majors in wins during the decade of the 1980s (5). Competitive (6) and quick to anger (7), Morris was the Opening Day starter for his teams a record 14 consecutive seasons (8). He thrived under pressure and he was the definition of a big-game pitcher (9), providing one of the greatest moments in postseason history with his Game 7 10-inning shutout victory in the 1991 World Series (10)."
(1) Associated Press, "McGwire Likely To Fall Short in Hall Vote," Nov. 28, 2006
(2) Personal opinion
(3) Official vote totals listed by Baseball Hall of Fame
(4) Baseball Encyclopedia, Baseball-Reference.com, 1995 St. Paul Saints media guide
(5) 1990 Elias Baseball Analyst, page 288
(7) Personal interviews with former managers Sparky Anderson and Tom Kelly, ex-teammate Kevin Tapani and umpire Tim Tschida, plus evidence left behind by demolished medical kit kicked by Morris in the dugout following a shortstop's error in 1991 game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium
(8) Toronto Blue Jays team notes, April 6, 1993
(9) As defined by Morris himself
(10) Author's personal observation of the Metrodome scoreboard at the end of the game Oct. 27, 1991
• Around this time last year, Felix Hernandez was the top prospect in baseball and the cover shot for ESPN The Magazine's spring training preview issue. After watching Felix go 4-4 with a 2.67 ERA, a smoking fastball and a positively unfair changeup in the final two months of the 2005 season, fans wrapped around the block at Mariners Fanfest for a chance to get his autograph. One fan there told me that Felix represented "hope" while another said it wasn't often you can get in on the ground floor of a future Hall of Famer's career. Then came the 2006 season, and everyone slurped a nice cup of calm-down when an inconsistent Felix went a modest (but not awful) 12-14 with a 4.52 ERA. And Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times had a revealing story on Felix last weekend.
This is how Hernandez essentially summed up his workout routine: "All I do all day is sleep and watch TV. I don't even want to think about baseball. Sleeping and watching TV. That's what I want to do." Felix is still very young (he's only 20) and obviously still can turn things around. But right now his problem is he's under the impression that "King Felix" is a title, not just a nickname.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is back up at a slightly different address, jimcaple.net, with more installments of 24 College Avenue.