USA Today Sports
NASHVILLE - A year ago, in my 23rd year working as a baseball writer, I attended my first Winter Meetings. If I'd been 23 years younger, I might have excused my ignorance and discomfort by youthful inexperience. But there was an excellent chance that I was the oldest first-time attendee -- among the working writers, at least -- so youth was no crutch. There were moments when I literally had no idea what I should be doing, and it was only stubbornness that kept me from spending most of the week in the warm cocoon of my hotel room. Nobody would have known.
This year's Winter Meetings were better, but only just so.
Essentially, there are three sorts of writers at the Winter Meetings. There are the national guys -- Heyman, Rosenthal, ESPN's guys, a few other notables -- who run around a lot, going on TV, talking to anyone who knows something, and breaking stories. Some of those guys never actually enter the media work room, where the rest of us slave away for many hours on end. There are the local beat guys, sent specifically to cover their teams. They get invited to special briefings, and they're on high alert for whatever moves their teams make, large or small. And then there are the Web guys, like me. We don't have to do anything, really. We don't have to talk to anybody; if we didn't, who would notice? So when you're like me, you've got a choice: You can essentially do the same work at the Winter Meetings that you do at home, except with clean sheets every night and more expensive food; or, you can try to make something happen.
You can probably guess which of those is easier. I'll leave it to the readers (and my boss) to decide which tack I've chosen during my Winter Meetings experiences (hint: there's no wrong answer). But there are a fair number of writers (and others) who come to the Winter Meetings just to come to the Winter Meetings, which I suppose is like most professional conferences. Because we sure as hell didn't all need to be in Nashville to make the Ben Revere-Vance Worley trade a real thing. Some of us go just to go.
One thing about the Winter Meetings that I've noticed: Everybody loves to complain about the venue. Perhaps because there's almost inevitably a lot of walking involved. I don't know if you've ever seen a bunch of baseball writers in the same place, but we're not in the best of physical condition. As a group. Also, we tend to be in a hurry (or maybe that's just me). Anyway, the nature of the Winter Meetings -- which includes hundreds and hundreds of attendees (more on that below) and a trade show, among other things -- means the event must be held in a large resort hotel. Which means walking. Which is annoying. I get it.
What I don't get is all the complaints this week by people getting lost while navigating Nashville's Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center. Yes, the place is huge and there are rivers and waterfalls and it's like Disneyland and Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory made a love child in the jungle. But for pete's sake, every few feet there's either a detailed map or a helpful sign or a hospitable employee to point the way. There are a number of decent restaurants. And Häagen-Dasz. I actually sort of like the Opryland. I often felt like Sir Henry Stanley, getting from one place to another.
Also, I feel incredibly lucky just to have been here.
It's not particularly thrilling to be breathing the same air as Tommy Lasorda, Gary Sheffield, Jim Leyland, Brian Cashman, and all the rest of the baseball royalty that I've nearly bumped into. If I could sit down with one of those guys for half an hour and talk about baseball, sure. But the thrill of simply seeing someone famous went away a long time ago. You know what's still a thrill, though? Getting to ask a Major League Baseball Manager a question in a press conference. That's living the dream right there, folks. Getting to sit down with bestselling author Dirk Hayhurst for a while. Getting to catch up with all my pals at FanGraphs, and meet colleagues like Derrick Goold and Zachary Levine and John Perrotto for the first time. That's a thrill.
What isn't so thrilling is getting snubbed by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Not for the first time, or the second. For the third time. That actually hurt for a few hours. But the few hours are up, and now it's just inconvenient. The people running the show now will never let me back into the BBWAA, but they're letting a bunch of my friends in. For which I'm grateful.
You know what else I'm grateful for? The Gaylord Opryland is just down the highway from downtown Nashville. Which is essentially the cradle of country music as we know it. I'm going to write more about this for next week, but last year's Winter Meetings in Dallas were ... well, let's just say I didn't react well to my colleagues' lack of interest in whatever might be happening outside of baseball.
I kept asking them, "Have you been to Dealey Plaza?"
"Is that where Kennedy was shot?"
"Yeah," I would say. "I walked there the other day. But you could drive in 10 minutes. It's really incredible. Looks almost exactly the same today as in '63."
"Sounds really interesting. I'd like to get over there, but I don't know if I'll have time."
I must have had this conversation ... Oh, I don't know, maybe a dozen times. I talked to writers who had been coming to the Metroplex every summer for years, covering a team beat, who had never been to Dealey Plaza. Never been to the Texas Book Depository. Never walked to the triple overpass, or stood on the grassy knoll.
The Thursday afternoon after last year's Meetings ended, I went back to Dealey Plaza with Jim Baker and saw everything again. I did run into one baseball writer. The rest of them had gone straight to the airport. Most of them had never left the hotel during the Winter Meetings; most of the rest had left only to sample the local cuisine.
I know, I know ... I sound like a scold, and so this year I resolved to keep my passion for local history to myself. I didn't quite keep that resolution, and in fact I dragged a few FanGraphers to the Grand Ole Opry at the legendary Ryman Auditorium (which they seemed to enjoy well enough). But I generally avoided the temptation to lecture my fellows about what they were missing (which was a lot, but that's for another essay).
For me, then, the Winter Meetings represent a great chance to see my friends in the business, immerse myself in the local history -- did you know that James K. Polk, our 11th President, is interred on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol? -- and, oh yeah, spend a hell of a lot of time in the media work room, feeling like an honest-to-goodness baseball writer for a change. My favorite moment came one night, very late, when there were literally only three of us still pecking away in the work room. One of my colleagues told me about a hot rumor he was tracking down. By the time he published something, it was 2 in the morning, but I stayed up until I'd published something off his something. Rumor-mongers across the land rejoiced, and I felt like I might finally have justified the expense of my hotel room.
That's just one scribe's experience. For the major-league personnel and the agents, it's something completely different. For all the minor-league executives, it's something different. And then there's the hundreds of job-seekers, impossibly ambitious and naïve young men and women wearing nice clothes and roaming the streets in packs of two and three, just looking for any opportunity to work in baseball.*
*If you're interested, Josh Lewin wrote a fine book on that subject; it's been out for a while, but I don't think much has changed on that front.
Next year? I don't know. Next year, the Winter Meetings are in Orlando, Florida. I'm sure I can find some local color if I try hard enough. But next year might be Grant Brisbee's turn. On the other hand, another solid in-person snubbing by the BBWAA might do wonders for my humility ...