December 22, 2008
Take Me Out To ... The Winter Meetings In Vegas, Baby, Vegas
Baseball's annual swap meet was a mere sideshow to the circus of showgirls, rodeo, slots and neon kitsch, but it ultimately delivered a $161 million jackpot, a 4 a.m. free-agent signing and a 12-player—12!—trade. (Plus the usual frenzy of rumors, half-truths, outright lies and the stem-winding stories from the old baseball men)
MIDNIGHT AT THE Bellagio, and the slot machines are ringing, the Big Six wheel clicks, blackjack dealers are dispensing 13s, and Lou Piniella poses for a photograph with a Chicago family in town to catch the Vegas Christmas spirit. A cocktail waitress looks for the man who ordered the 7 & 7, and she can't find him, so several baseball men nobly raise their hands and chips to save the fair maiden and her orphaned drink. Dice tumble, ice clinks, cards pop, scouts argue about a player who has been out of the game for 20 years, baseball writers stalk the scene like Depression Era hoboes pressing their noses against a restaurant window. Smoke chokes the air, and three women who look to be just off the set of The Real Housewives of Orange County wander through the scene wearing "dresses" (quotation marks necessary), stopping traffic, but only for a moment, because then talk of a three-team trade heats up. The voice of Sinatra croons Let's Face the Music and Dance over the casino sound system, and Tommy Lasorda asks if anyone's heard any more about the Jake Peavy deal. More than anything, however, my feet are killing me, absolutely killing me, because I didn't take to heart the advice of the king.
The king of this year's baseball winter meetings in Las Vegas is an 81-year-old scout for the Kansas City Royals named Art Stewart. He is barely 5'7", and he never played at a level higher than semipro in Chicago, but he's the Sinatra of the baseball bat pack, the chairman of the hoard, the guy behind the guy behind the guy. He has been coming to the winter meetings for 45 years, going back to his scouting days with the New York Yankees, back when he signed the outfielder Norm Siebern by throwing in a working stove for Norm's mother. Art knows everybody, and everybody knows Art, and he will admit that the game has changed, the money has changed, even the baseball people have changed. But there's one thing that hasn't changed, one rule that never changes, and it is this: The secret to the winter meetings is to stand on your own piece of carpet.
"Don't stand on the bare floor," he says. "You have to protect your feet."
You laugh? Don't laugh. See, it's midnight at the Bellagio, and what's happening? All those people who did not find their place on the carpet, all of those eager baseball men who have spent the last five or six hours downing drinks and recalling ballplayers who haven't played in 20 years and proposing deals and standing on the marble floors, well, now their feet hurt. Look at them shifting back and forth. "They're dropping like flies," is how Art puts it, and he adds that over his many years, he's seen countless good guys make bad baseball trades simply because their feet hurt.
"There are tricks to the trade," Art says. "You bet. Tricks to the trade."
LAS VEGAS is not a baseball town, of course. Vegas is a boxing town. Vegas is an event town. Vegas is a tuxedo town, a chandelier town, a Cher town, a magician's town, a dirty-joke town. Vegas is an on-the-rocks, Siegfried-and-Roy, white-tiger, Danke-Schoen, cigar-smoking, Ocean's-Eleven, roller-coaster-through-the-lobby, Eiffel-Tower-replica town. Vegas is the kind of place, as Boston Red Sox senior adviser and baseball oracle Bill James says, where it costs more to get an Internet connection in your room than to have an escort sent up. When you say World Series here, people think poker.
Maybe that's why there isn't a single sign in the lobby of the Bellagio hotel and casino indicating that the winter meetings are happening here. Baseball people have gathered almost every winter since 1904—it may even go back a few years before that—and the meetings have been a point of major interest in New York City* and Chicago and New Orleans and everywhere else.
*The origin of the winter meetings, like the origin of baseball (and the origin of Las Vegas, for that matter), is hazy. But you can probably say the official winter meetings began on Dec. 15, 1911. That was the day that cranky Chicago Cubs owner Charles Murphy became convinced that St. Louis Cardinals manager Roger Bresnahan was trying to steal his first baseman Victor Saier. And so, in the lobby of the Waldorf Hotel in New York City, in full public view, Murphy spent a very long time screaming at Bresnahan, calling him a liar and a thief and promising to run him out of the game. It was quite a scandal. And everyone looked forward to the winter meetings in 1912.
Point is, you get all these baseball executives together, and the drinks start flowing, the talk gets animated, money starts changing hands, human beings get traded, and it is quite a show—the winter meetings have always been the biggest rodeo in town.
Only in Vegas this week, there is a bigger rodeo, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, and everywhere you turn, leathery men in cowboy hats and Volkswagen-sized belt buckles argue on cellphones about whether to go see Donny and Marie at the Flamingo or the showgirls at the Luxor's Fantasy revue. It is the cowboys' town this week. Baseball is an afterthought.
"We get a lot of top professional baseball players in to see the show," says Lance Burton, Master Magician and a staple at the Monte Carlo. "Pete Rose has been in several times."
Ah, yes, Pete Rose. He is the one enduring connection between the game and the Strip—he is baseball's Mr. Vegas, its Elvis. Several days a week, every week, year round, he appears at the Field of Dreams store in the Caesar's Palace next door to the Bellagio. He signs autographs, poses for pictures, tells stories and occasionally sells an apology ball for a few hundred bucks—that's a baseball on which he inscribes, I'M SORRY I BET ON BASEBALL.
"I'm the best deal in Vegas," Rose says. "Think about this: When you go see Bette Midler, will she take a picture with you? Will she put her arm around you? Will she sign an autograph for you? No. I give you all that."
When it is pointed out that, technically speaking, he doesn't sing or dance, he shrugs. "Maybe I can," he says. Alas, at the last minute, even Pete Rose cancels his scheduled appearances while the winter meetings are going on. No reason is given. He might just want the whole town to himself.
INSIDE THE Bellagio it looks like the opening bar scene from Casablanca, when everyone is trying to cut a deal. ("And bring fifteen thousand francs in cash. Remember: in cash.") Baseball people huddle by the elevators, outside the Café Gelato, near the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, between the slot machines, around the piano bar, speaking quietly so as not to be overheard, though nobody would really understand them anyway. There's a beautiful economy to the conversations of baseball men—team executives with titles like "special assistant" and "special projects coordinator," the scouts, the writers. The rhythms of the dialogue are familiar to anyone who has ever watched a Mafia movie.
Baseball writer: So when did you get in?
Special assistant: Little while ago. You?
SA: It's a zoo, huh?
BW: Yeah. Zoo.
BW: You hearing anything?
SA: Naw. All quiet.
BW: What about that thing?
BW: I heard there's movement.
SA: Wait. Which thing?
SA: Yeah. It's dead.
BW: Too bad.
SA: Yeah. What you hearing?
BW: Maybe Arizona.
SA: Yeah, I heard something.
BW: You think?
SA: I don't know.
BW: Depends on the third guy.
SA: I didn't know there was a third guy.
SA: Well, a third guy—that could be interesting.
BW: Oakland could get in too.
SA: Wait. Which thing are we talking about?
And so on.
THERE ARE TWO progressive jackpots at these winter meetings. Well, there are more than two, but nobody expects such big-ticket sluggers as Mark Teixeira or Manny Ramirez or Adam Dunn to sign with teams anytime soon, not with everybody but the Yankees moaning about the baseball economy. The biggest jackpot is the big free-agent lefthander Carsten Charles Sabathia, CC for short. He could be the heaviest pitcher in baseball history,* not that his weight has anything to do with it; Sabathia won the Cy Young Award in 2007. He was even better in '08, especially after he was traded in July from the Cleveland Indians to the Milwaukee Brewers (11--2, 1.65 ERA after the deal, delivering the Brewers their first playoff appearance in 26 years).
*That title of heaviest pitcher usually goes to Jumbo Brown, a reliever for five teams from 1925 through '41. Jumbo was listed at 295 pounds. Sabathia is officially listed at 290—but there are reasons to believe that his official weight would be overturned upon further review.
Sabathia was so good in Milwaukee that the Brewers are cashing in all of their savings bonds, pulling out the money they stuffed into mattresses and borrowing from various grandparents in an effort to keep him. The down-market team has reportedly offered him $100 million for five years, a staggering sum, almost double the salary they have ever offered a player. But because the Yankees are said to be interested, nobody believes the Milwaukee money will be nearly enough.
The second jackpot is 27-year-old righthander Jake Peavy, who has the second-best ERA in baseball over the last five years, behind that of Johan Santana, who at the moment is the highest-paid pitcher in baseball. Peavy is the property of the San Diego Padres, but that's what baseball people call a "fluid situation." The Padres are owned by John Moores, and he is in the midst of a nasty divorce from Becky, his wife for 45 years.
Divorce details are not public, of course, but rumors fly. Most assume that Moores will have to sell the team and split the money. Therefore, most assume that the Padres will have no choice but to deal Peavy and his $70 million contract. Therefore, most assume that the Chicago Cubs will get Peavy. There are a lot of assumptions at the winter meetings.
Then, as one baseball executive says, "The good thing about these meetings is that I don't know s---, but I look around and I realize everyone around here knows even less."
Here's how dead it is on Day 1: The big story seems to be the Detroit Tigers' trade of two minor league pitchers to the Texas Rangers for part-time catcher Gerald Laird. "I think he's the type of guy that may not only hit doubles, but he'll hit triples," Detroit manager Jim Leyland says. And to show you how slow things are, I write this down.
The pulse of the winter meetings has slowed over the years. General managers used to meet in hotel lobbies, have drinks and make trades they would regret in the morning. In 1974, late at night, Philadelphia Phillies G.M. Paul Owens traded catcher Bob Boone to Detroit for three players. In the morning, though, he pulled out of the deal on the concrete legal claim that he had probably had a few too many when he agreed to the deal. "How do you unshake a handshake?" Detroit general manager Jim Campbell asked angrily. But that's how it was—everybody sort of made the rules as they went along.
Now, it's different. General managers mostly stay in their swanky Bellagio suites alongside trusted scouts, sundry statisticians, a fridge filled with bottles of water, and a bank of computers. They look out over the Vegas skyline; they communicate by texting; and they run every trade and free-agent possibility through simulators and accountants. They talk around deals, refuse to be pinned down and exchange lists of players to choose from. Stinking lists.*
*The late Syd Thrift, a longtime scout and G.M. for the Pirates, Orioles and five other teams, used to hate when other general managers gave him lists—"Lists are for grocery stores," he'd say. "Make me an offer."
And it has all grown so complicated, so distant, so jittery. Most executives seem afraid to make a bad trade, afraid to face the instant wrath of the newspapers and talk-radio hosts and bloggers. There are no pigeons left in baseball. It's safer to stay indoors.
"You know what Pat Gillick told me?" said Allard Baird, the onetime Royals G.M. and now an assistant to Theo Epstein in Boston. "I asked him why he got out [in November], after he won the championship in Philadelphia. He said, 'Allard, nobody trades anymore. And that was the whole fun of it.'"
THERE'S ANOTHER rule that Art Stewart picked up in his half century plus in this crazy game: Never leave before the last pitch is thrown. He learned that 50 years ago in Chicago Heights, Ill., on a day when scouts went to check out a young pitcher named Jerry Colangelo—the same Jerry Colangelo who would one day own the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Phoenix Suns. Colangelo got knocked out in the second inning, and all the other scouts headed for another school to look at another prospect.
A new kid came in, one whom everybody called Warm Up because he never got to pitch. Well, Art thought the kid threw pretty well. He stayed—and later signed him. The kid was Jim Bouton, who won 21 games for the Yankees in 1963.
It's 1 a.m. Vegas time, and Art's standing on the carpet, and he's welcoming people like he's in a wedding receiving line.
"We've got to get this deal done," Cubs manager Lou Piniella shouts as he wraps his arms around Stewart's neck.
"Well, if you change a couple of names on your end, we can get it done," Art says.
"Arthur, are we still talking?" Los Angeles Dodgers ambassador Tommy Lasorda asks.
"You bet, Tommy," Art says back. "We're open for business."*
*"We're open for business" is a reference to one of the great stories in the history of the winter meetings. It was 1975, the meetings were at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Fla., and the owners had (against their better judgment—and on the second vote) allowed showman Bill Veeck to repurchase the Chicago White Sox. They were worried that Veeck, who in his previous life as an owner had sent a midget to the plate, would make a mockery of the game.
The next day Veeck and his general manager, Roland Hemond, set up a table and phones in the lobby of the Diplomat. And they posted a homemade sign that read: OPEN FOR BUSINESS. BY APPOINTMENT ONLY. Then Veeck and Hemond sat there for 14 straight hours and made four trades, the last one—Bee Bee Richard to St. Louis for Buddy Bradford and Greg Terlicky—just seconds before the midnight deadline. And the crowd cheered.
What's amazing about Art is how excited he is, even late at night, even after all these years. He pulls out his legal pad and scribbles names and numbers and gossip and lies. He talks the way baseball people talked in the old days; there's urgency in his voice. For everyone else, every sentence is conditional, every offer a trial balloon, every overture merely a conversation starter. Just as Veeck and Thrift were, Art Stewart is a man of action.
"Hello, Dayton," Indians G.M. Mark Shapiro says the next morning when he phones his Royals counterpart, Dayton Moore. "I hear you need to talk to me."
"Well, I'm always happy to talk to you, Mark," says Moore, who wasn't expecting the call.
"No, I thought it was urgent," Shapiro says. "I was told you needed to talk with me immediately."
Moore smiles and shakes his head. "Let me guess," he says. "You were talking to Art."
Peavy talk heats up; Brian Cashman leaves town
NO, GENERAL MANAGERS can't set up in the lobby anymore. The place is crawling with agents trying to get a little face time for their players, kids just out of college who desperately want to work in a major league front office, former players who are trying to get back into the game, fans looking for a recognizable face and sportswriters who are desperate to find something, anything, that resembles news. If G.M.'s showed up, it would be like the Beatles getting mobbed in A Hard Day's Night.
So with the men who make news locked in their suites, the Bellagio lobby turns into a rumor echo chamber. The first big rumor to make the rounds on Day 2 is that Yankees general manager Brian Cashman slipped out of Vegas and headed for San Francisco to meet with Sabathia. Nobody seems quite sure how Cashman made it out of the hotel without being noticed. "He must be like James Bond," says one baseball scout, though nobody is quite sure what he means.
The other persistent echo is that Peavy is going to the Cubs. According to the grapevine, the deal is all but done. The trouble is that some say it's a two-team trade, others say it is a three-team trade, and for a while it is even rumored to be a four-team trade.
After so many hours the talk begins to overwhelm you, and the only way to escape the madness is to pull a Cashman, get out of the hotel, go down to Fremont Street—a $25 cab ride from the Bellagio—and catch a little bit of what Vegas used to be. You can see Binion's and the Golden Nugget and the neon cowboy smoking a cigarette on top of the Frontier. Here it's a bit rundown and seedy: exotic dancers, sad-looking men slumping at craps tables, wrinkled women who pull the lever on the side of the slot machine rather than pushing the more convenient MAX BET button in front.
There is no sign of baseball anywhere—nobody wearing a baseball cap, nothing baseball-related for sale, no one talking about the Gerald Laird trade. Two women dressed like mermaids stand outside a casino named Mermaids, and I ask if they have ever heard of Brian Cashman. They have heard of Cashman, but they seem to be confusing him with Big Jim Cashman, a classic character who helped build Las Vegas. They do not care about baseball. They do offer me beads to wear.
CC signs; Peavy deal blows up; an old-fashioned baseball trade saves us
EVERYONE KNOWS THAT the Red Sox and the Yankees do not like each other, but seeing the "You sunk my battleship" looks on the faces of Boston officials in the moments after New York signs CC Sabathia (seven years, $161 million) tells a more complete story. "You have to understand," one Red Sox official says, "they won last night. Sure, we knew there was a good chance they would sign CC. We planned for it. But now that it has happened, I can tell you, it's like a punch to the gut. We never stop competing with the Yankees."
Within minutes his Blackberry buzzes, and he is summoned to the Red Sox suite. And just minutes after that, the rumor hits the Bellagio floor that Boston is serious, very serious, about trying to sign super slugger Mark Teixeira.
THE GENERAL SENSE throughout Day 3 is that these meetings are a dud. Yes, in the wee hours of Day 2 the New York Mets signed closer Francisco Rodriguez, who saved 62 games for the Angels last season, and baseball men are talking about the Metropolitans' finally being collapse-proof in the last weeks of September. We'll see about that. Yes, the Sabathia signing livens things up for a moment. But the Peavy trade crashes and burns and leaves Cubs G.M. Jim Hendry walking through the casino muttering, "I'm not trading seven players for one."*
*This leads more than one wise guy to suggest that the Cubs could not have traded seven players to the Padres anyway. It would need to be an even number so that the players could be split evenly in the divorce.
Alas, third-day Vegas numbness has set in. The first time I came to Vegas, maybe 10 years ago, the cab driver pointed out at the MGM Grand and New York, New York and the Mirage and all the rest, and he said, "You see all these big and shiny buildings. I want you to remember something when you're here, and never forget it: Losers built this town."
That realization tends to hit home on the third day in town, that day when the slot-machine bells start to pound against ear drums, and everything smells like cigarettes, and you forget what the sky looks like, and the Caligula-inspired buffets no longer seem especially charming, and you wonder why anyone would pay 50 bucks a ticket at the Imperial Palace to see impersonators of Donna Summer and Justin Timberlake. Most people probably would not pay that money to see the originals.
Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire walks around in a beige sports coat that he apparently picked up in one of the Bellagio stores. "You know what I paid for this?" he asks as he reaches out to let you feel the material. "I paid $580. I could have bought three jackets at Target for that."
Just when it seems as if the baseball--Las Vegas connection never quite clicked, something happens. A rumor. A three-way deal. Lots of players. And there's a little bit of a baseball buzz in the bar by the craps tables. Then a lot of buzz. The scouts talk louder. The writers work the room. Managers play slots.
The word finally comes down. It's a 12-player deal. Twelve players! The Mets are getting a reliever with the most interesting name in baseball, J.J. Putz. The Indians are getting a reliever with the least interesting name in baseball, Joe Smith. The Mariners are getting six players, four of them with last names that begin with C.*
*Carp, Carrera, Chavez, Cleto—it looks as if Seattle didn't want to plunge too deeply into the Baseball Register.
"Best thing I can say about this trade, guys, is it's an old-fashioned baseball trade," Mets G.M. Omar Minaya tells reporters. "Here we are in the year 2008 and talking about millions of dollars, and this is how trades were done. Just a pure baseball trade."
So true. A pure baseball trade. And it brings a little celebration to the final night of the winter meetings.
ART STEWART hears all the names that announce just how long he's been at this crazy game—Art, Artie, Arthur, Stew, Stewie and, of course, Mr. Stewart. Baseball men congratulate him because he just won another award: Midwest Scout of the Year. Art has reached that point in his life when people want to keep giving him awards.
Art is recalling the first time he saw Bo Jackson hit after he had drafted the Auburn star for the Royals in 1986. Bo had not swung a bat in months, but the first pitch he saw he slammed over the centerfield fence. The ball whacked off the scoreboard, some 450 feet away—it was one of the longest home runs any of the onlookers had ever seen. Bo hit the next pitch even farther. The great major league scout Buck O'Neil was among the observers that day, and he famously said he'd only heard that sound, that unmistakable crack of the bat, twice before. "The first time was Babe Ruth. And the second time was Josh Gibson."
Art's eyes are a little bit watery now, and you might think it's from the lateness of the night or the emotion of the story or the cigarette haze, but no. He's thinking about Donna. They met at a ball game, of course. Another scout had tried to make a move on her, but he worked for the wrong club. "There's only one team," Donna said. "And that's the New York Yankees." Art worked for the Yankees. He and Donna were married for 47 years.
They were made for each other. He scouted; she traveled with him. He worked the lobbies; she listened for rumors. Sometime in 2007 they were at a game when she said her back throbbed. The doctors said she had breast cancer. She died last February.
Everyone felt sure that Art would not make it back to the game after that. "She was my life," he said, and for the first time baseball seemed empty to him. He did not want to go to spring training. He felt that way for a long time. But then he came back to the game—because he realized that baseball makes him feel closer to her.
"Donna would love this here," he says, and all around him are baseball men drinking and lying and proposing deals that'll never happen. Over the speakers Sinatra sings again; this time it is I Could Have Danced All Night. Art closes his eyes and remembers that he and Donna had seen Sinatra at the Golden Nugget not so many years ago. They had front-row seats. Someone in baseball had gotten those seats for them.
"This is a great town," he says. "And this is a great game." With that, some baseball people wander over to talk deals, and Art Stewart comes to life again.
"Hey," he calls out to me after a while, "how are your feet?" As he mentions it, I realize that my feet are throbbing. I look down and see that Art Stewart is standing on the carpet.