A Brief History of Baseball Winter Meeting Madness

A peek into the past of a baseball tradition reveals some stories that didn't quite make the front page. Bonus: Man falling into fountain.

|
Dec 12 2014, 2:46pm

Photo by Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Every winter, Major League Baseball's wheelers and dealers—general managers, agents, players looking for work, rumormongers, resume-hawkers, and the rest of the riff-raff—descend on a predetermined warm-weather site for four days of heavy negotiating and (perhaps heavier) hotel bar imbibing. For those who care as much about the front office game played by the suits as the game on the field, baseball's Winter Meetings are a sacred annual ritual.

Read More: The Weirdest Cuban Baseball Defector Story You'll Ever Read

"In a way, it's sort of like baseball's Comic-Con," New York Mets broadcaster Josh Lewin told the San Diego Union-Tribune before this year's meetings. Indeed, substitute bright, colorful costumes and the vivacious enthusiasm of comics fans for blazers, polo shirts, and the vivacious enthusiasm of reporters forming a mosh pit around baseball uber-agent Scott Boras, and you basically have the Winter Meetings.

Unsurprisingly, the event isn't always serious and sober. (Did I mention the drinking?) Put enough people operating under the high stress and stakes of professional sports in the same place and a wacky thing or two is bound to happen eventually.

In 1967, the Winter Meetings made their first trip south of the border to Mexico City. The occasion was the elevation of the Mexican League from Double-A to Triple-A status. At the time, baseball's front offices were lily-white. (Note: Although two recent GM hires have been people of color—Dave Stewart and Farhan Zaidi—the racial dynamics haven't changed much, as a whopping 27 of 30 current general managers are white.) The language and cultural gaps between the baseball men and the people of Mexico City made themselves apparent quickly.

"What happened to the British pound was relatively mild compared with the fate of the Yankee dollar in the first few days of the only winter meeting baseball ever held outside the United States," reported Stan Isle's story for the December 9, 1967 issue of the Sporting News. "In too many cases, 'el tourista' (sic) was stuck, and frequently for several bucks."

Isle's headline read "Mexico City's Shoe-Shine Boys Too Slick for Baseball Nabobs." Tom Mee, public relations director for the Twins, found himself coughing up 50 pesos—four dollars then, or about $30 now accounting for inflation—for a shoe-shine after the boy told him he didn't have any change. "I just got tired of haggling with him and told him to keep it," said Mee, "who later learned how much that shine cost." Joe Cronin, the Hall of Fame shortstop and manager who by 1967 had become president of the American League, made the same mistake, except with a 100-peso note.

The Winter Meetings, believe it or not, have yet to return to Mexico. Here's a scan of that article:

Most baseball men like to present a tight and austere image, much like the game itself. But every now and again, figures will inject a little levity into the meetings. In 1975, on the last day of the meetings, White Sox owner Bill Veeck decided to skip the formalities and waltzed right into the hotel lobby, unfolded a table and a few chairs, and planted a sign reading "Open For Business Anytime" on the ground.

The White Sox had finished 22.5 games out of the pennant in 1975, and Veeck thought a shakeup was exactly what his club needed. His stunt saw the White Sox make four deals involving 17 players. "Undoubtedly they will say I'm making a travesty of trading," Veeck said, referring to the rest of his fellow baseball men. "But the game is fun."

Despite its whimsy, Veeck's strategy was a loser. Even though the 1976 White Sox rattled off a 10-game winning streak that saw the club at 19-16 near the end of May, the revamped team finished 64-97, the franchise's worst season in a half-decade.

With the baseball world now running on information age infrastructure, there no longer is a need for Veeck's table shenanigans, nor the walkie talkies Veeck disciple Roland Hemond used in the 1988 Winter Meetings to keep his crew informed. Now the meat of the meetings takes place in hotel rooms, sequestered away from view of reporters and the gawkers inevitably found at such events.

But no matter how much technology finds use at the event, it is still a public space. Combine that with the spectacle of MLB Network's popup set and a gigantic hotel fountain, as we saw three years ago in Dallas, and somebody is bound to make a splash. It just happened to be this guy:

The 2011 Winter Meetings were full of flash. Albert Pujols shocked the world by signing with the Angels. The Marlins went on a spending spree and brought in Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell. The Nippon Ham Fighters posted Yu Darvish, opening the door for him to come to the Texas Rangers and become a star in the United States. But the lasting star of those meetings weren't the players, nor the executives shuffling all the cards.

No, the lasting memory from those meetings will forever be that guy who tripped into the fountain. And if that doesn't tell you what's really important in sports, what will?