Hot pants and opera: True baseball stories
By Larry Stone
Seattle Times baseball reporter
The winter meetings are a perversely invigorating ritual of the baseball calendar, forever evolving but still the best surge of free offseason publicity the sport has ever devised.
That holds true even when they fizzle, as was largely the case at the just-completed meetings in Nashville, the Tigers-Marlins blockbuster notwithstanding.
Fans love trade rumors with a fervor that never fails to amaze — love them perhaps more than the eventual trade itself, which has the potential to be exposed, sooner or later, as a fateful paragon of miscalculation.
Back in the good old days, long before Blackberries and cellphones, general managers would meet late at night in the bar, hash out a trade, shake hands and move on to the next deal. At least that's the steadfast nostalgic image as related by baseball lifers.
Legend has it that at the 1974 winter meetings in New Orleans, the Phillies and Tigers consummated a midnight blockbuster in which the Tigers were to send veterans Bill Freehan and Jim Northrup to Philadelphia for catcher Bob Boone and pitcher Larry Christenson.
In the morning, however, when everyone had sobered up, the Phillies executives had no recollection of the deal, and nixed it.
Maybe it happened, maybe it didn't. Folklore is as much a part of the winter meetings as reality.
It wasn't folklore, however, when Cubs GM Jim Hendry finalized negotiations with free-agent Ted Lilly during last year's winter meetings from his hospital bed, where he was recovering from an angioplasty.
I can also vouch for the reaction to the totally unexpected trade that was announced in 1990, when Pat Gillick of the Blue Jays and Joe McIlvaine of the Padres orchestrated a whopper: Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter to Toronto for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez. It was the only trade announcement I've ever witnessed that was greeted by an audible gasp from the assembled media.
It hearkened back to the more innocent days, when White Sox owner Bill Veeck and one of his executives, Roland Hemond, put up a card table in the hotel lobby in 1975 with a sign that said "open for business."
Former Padres GM Jack McKeon, aka Trader Jack, once consummated a trade while waiting in line to check out of the hotel, separated from his GM counterpart by two customers.
In 1997, executives from the Giants and Indians revived trade talks in the middle of the night and finalized the Matt Williams/Jeff Kent trade in the lobby while dressed in bathrobes and slippers.
But that's nothing compared to the deal that Brooklyn Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi (Bill's dad) and Milwaukee Braves GM John Quinn made in 1953. The two had haggled all day, with Quinn intent on landing Andy Pafko from Brooklyn. As Quinn's son, longtime baseball executive Bob Quinn, relates the story, Bavasi finally told John Quinn he was retiring to his room.
"My dad said, 'Let me come up for 15 minutes,' " Bob Quinn said. "Up in the room, Buzzie starts to take off his clothes, and my dad starts taking off his clothes, too. 'John, what are you doing?' Buzzie asks. My dad said, 'Buzzie, I'm getting into bed with you until we get the deal done.' "
Pafko was eventually traded to the Braves.
There are a million stories from the winter meetings, which bring together every team's executives, all in one hotel for four days.
I've covered about a dozen of them, for three newspapers, in disparate locales such as New Orleans, Louisville, Boston, Dallas, Miami, Anaheim and Nashville — though any reporter will tell you the site is irrelevant. I've always said they could be in Paris or Topeka, and it wouldn't matter. You virtually never leave the hotel, particularly now in the days of around-the-clock coverage propagated by blogs and the Internet.
But that's OK, because if you left, you might have missed some magical moments over the years. Here's a few that I'll never forget:
• Jim Bowden of the Reds, in 1999, calling a news conference to declare that the Ken Griffey trade with Seattle was dead because Cincinnati absolutely was not parting with Pokey Reese.
• Bowden, parading around the winter meetings one year in not one, but two pairs of leather pants, one brown and one black. It remains an unprecedented clothing statement by the usually staid members of his profession.
• The time that I asked a scout from the team I was covering if a rumored deal was going to happen. I saw his boss approaching, rendering the scout unable to talk, so I jokingly told him, just before the other fellow arrived, to wink if it was true. I chatted with the two of them for several minutes, and then, as my source started to walk off with his boss, he turned around and gave me a dramatic wink. The trade was announced the next day.
• Three years ago, a baseball reporter from The Washington Post who is an accomplished pianist and trained opera singer was holding court at the lobby piano in the wee hours of the morning. He was singing bawdy self-penned songs to an audience of reporters. One of the songs, to the tune of "Stand By Your Man," concerned Jason Giambi's much-publicized link to the BALCO investigation.
Sure enough, as the Post reporter was belting out the song, who should walk by but Yankees GM Brian Cashman, accompanied by Padres GM Kevin Towers. Cashman stopped and listened to the song. Then, without skipping a beat, he pulled out his wallet, dropped a dollar bill in a tip jar on the piano, and walked off.