Greetings from the 2012 Winter Meetings

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We are coming to you live from Music City U.S.A.  From the largest non-casino hotel in the country, if you care about such things. The reason: the 2012 Winter Meetings, where everyone in baseball who matters — except the players, for the most part — are assembling to, well, meet.

A lot of you know this drill by now, but for those who don’t, the Winter Meetings are baseball’s version of that one big convention the higher-ups in your company attend each year. Just, you know, with baseball. It’s in a big hotel. There are a lot of seminars and workshops and a big trade show and a job fair and if you didn’t know any better and just looked at it from the corner of your eye, you might think it’s the Annual Conference of Re-Insurers or the National HVAC Technicians Convention. Ninety percent of what goes on here is just an industry trade show, with people wearing lanyards with their name on it, trying desperately to find Blahblahblah Conference Room B so they can sit through some PowerPoint presentation.

But the 10% beyond that involves general managers, agents, players and the like discussing trades and free agent signings and positioning your favorite team for next season. There’s no reason why someone can’t sign Josh Hamilton in mid-November or early January, but when everyone goes off-site to a hotel, they’re just way more likely to talk about such things, so you get big deals. Last year Albert Pujols signed during the Winter Meetings. The year before that Carl Crawford did.  This is where the magic happens.

Among the magic on tap this year:

  • The new homes for top free agents Hamilton and Zach Greinke;
  • Potential trades for R.A. Dickey and Justin Upton;
  • The Tampa Bay Rays possibly leveraging their pitching depth to land a bat;
  • The Kansas City Royals possibly leveraging their position player depth to land an arm;
  • The Phillies, rumored to be in on all sorts of players, trying to find some way to revitalize their offense in order to better complement what is still a fine pitching staff;
  • The Los Angeles Dodgers, who are as rich as Croesus, signing everyone who isn’t nailed down. And they’re taking a long hard look at the players who are nailed down.

In addition to the teams all looking to fill holes, the Winter Meetings will feature the Veterans Committee inductees to the Hall of Fame — we previewed that recently – and some public announcements from the game’s heavy hitters like Bud Selig, Scott Boras and guys like that.  It all happens here, and we’ll have it all.  Before that, though, some scene setting:

source:  I got here on Saturday.  This is a good thing for a couple of reasons. First, this place is gigantic and merely finding one’s room is a massive undertaking.  Seriously, check this out.  It took me 24 hours of trekking in order to get my bearings. Each of those different sections — Cascades, Delta, Conservatory, Magnolia, etc. — has its own giant atrium and gardens and waterfalls and stuff. Each also has its own room-numbering systems. So, for example, your room number may be 0179 in the Delta section. When you have to call the desk you’d say “I’m in Delta 0179,” which sounds a lot more like something from “Battlestar Galactica” than baseball. C’est la vie.

The second reason it was good that I got here early was because I was able to go to this cool restaurant that I’ve been wanting to go to for a long time and have what was nothing short of a transcendent meal. I normally wouldn’t share this info with you because it’s a personal thing, but it will be important for you to know about it in the event NBC fires me for sketchy expense reports. See, the restaurant is called The Catbird Seat, that phrase was one made famous by legendary Brooklyn Dodgers announcer Red Barber (and also James Thurber), and since there is a tenuous baseball connection I’m gonna see if NBC will pay for it. If not, well, it’s been nice knowin’ ya.

The important thing about the geography of the place is that, unlike the previous Winter Meetings HBT has covered, there really is no central meeting place.  Because it’s is so huge and spread out there is less of a sense that conversations are being observed and overheard. Which leads to interesting things like what happened yesterday: my girlfriend Allison on an elevator, hearing someone congratulating some official from the Orioles about … something. Saying “this is going to be great for Baltimore.”  Maybe it’s some business deal we’ll never see or care about.  Maybe, though, it’s a free agent signing we won’t hear about until later today. I don’t know. No one knows. There is a sense in this place, far more than in any of the previous three Winter Meetings, that things are happening just out of sight, behind some fern, beneath some waterfall or in some random grotto. Which is exciting and fun. Oh, and if the Orioles do announce a big signing today, I’m going to choose to credit Allison.

Anyway, that’s the scene.  I’ll be here through Thursday. Lots of things will be posted here at HBT. Other, more ephemeral  things, will be tweeted here.  As always, be sure to refresh HBT early and often this week, as we will be posting something about virtually everything that goes down from the hardest news events to the silliest rumors to everything in between. But don’t worry: we’ll guide you. It’ll all be OK.

Now, into the craziest week of baseball’s offseason.  But first: a picture of the band that was playing in the hotel’s Irish pub last night. Their name was — really — Def Leprechaun, and I found that to be quite amusing. They gave a shout out to the baseball people in town and played Peter Paul and Mary’s “Right Field.” I liked ’em. I shoulda bought one of their t-shirts.

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Crowd honors Jose Bautista in his last Blue Jays home game

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Jose Bautista ran onto the field on Sunday afternoon, alone, in what was likely his last hurrah as a Blue Jays player. The 36-year-old outfielder signed a one-year, $18 million contract with the club prior to the 2017 season and is not expected to get his $17 million option picked up for 2018. During Sunday’s series finale, he got a fond farewell befitting a decade-long career as one of Toronto’s most prolific hitters, drawing standing ovations every time he stepped up to the plate.

The Blue Jays came out swinging against the Yankees, building an eight-run lead on Teoscar Hernandez’s first-inning home run and a smattering of hits and productive outs from Darwin Barney, Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson and Kendrys Morales. Bautista supplemented the drive with his own RBI single in the fourth inning, plating Hernandez on an 0-2 fastball from reliever Bryan Mitchell.

Later in the inning, he nearly scored a second run on a Kendrys Morales two-RBI single, but was caught at the plate on the relay by Starlin Castro.

It’s an encouraging end to what has overwhelmingly been a disappointing season for the Toronto slugger. Entering Sunday’s finale, he slashed .201/.309/.365 with a franchise single-season record 161 strikeouts in 658 plate appearances, numbers that somewhat obscure the six straight All-Star nominations, four MVP bids and 54-homer campaign he once enjoyed with the team. Even a bounce-back performance in 2018 likely wouldn’t command a $17 million salary, but there’s no denying his impact on the Blue Jays’ last 10 years, from his signature bat flip to his tie-breaking home run in the 2015 ALDS.

The Blue Jays currently lead the Yankees 9-2 in the top of the sixth inning. Expect a few more standing O’s before the end of the game.

Why more baseball players don’t kneel

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Bruce Maxwell was the first baseball player to kneel for the National Anthem. There may be others who do so, but I don’t suspect many will. Indeed, I’m pretty confident that the protests we’re seeing in the NFL today, and will see more of once basketball season begins, will not become a major thing in baseball.

Some will say it’s because baseball or baseball players are more patriotic or something, but I don’t think that’s it. Yes, baseball is a lot whiter and has a lot of conservative players who would never think to protest during the National Anthem or, for that matter, protest anything at all, but I suspect there are many who saw what Colin Kaepernick and other football players have done — or who have listened to what Steph Curry and LeBron James have said — and agreed with it. Yet I do not think many, if any of them will themselves protest.

Why? I think it mostly comes down to baseball’s culture of conformity.

Almost everyone in baseball comes through a hierarchy. Even the big names. Even if you are the consensus number one pick, you do your time in the minors. Once there, conformity and humility is drilled into you. This happens both affirmatively, in the form of coaches telling you to act in a certain way and passively, by virtue of all players being in similar, humbling circumstances. Bus rides, cheap hotels, etc. In that world, even if you are ten times better and ten times richer than your teammates, you fall in with the crowd because doing otherwise would be socially disruptive.

The very socialization of a baseball player is dependent upon them learning to talk, walk and carry themselves like all those who came before. No one is given special treatment. In the rare cases they are, it’s head-turning. Bryce Harper was a more or less normal minor leaguer, but since he got their earlier by bypassing his final years of high school, he was thrown at and challenged in ways no other minor league stars are. It does not take much for a guy to be singled out for punishment or mockery and even the superstars like Harper are not on solid professional ground as long as they’re still in the minors. Indeed, between a player’s education, as it were, in the minors and their pre-free agency residency in the majors, it can be a decade or more before a unique personality or a true showman is able to shine through, and by then few are willing. They’ve been conditioned by that point.

Even budding superstars can be roundly criticized for the tiniest of perceived transgressions or the most modest displays of individuality. Think about all of the “controversies” we have about the proper way to celebrate a home run or run the bases. If that’s a cause for singling out and, potentially, benching or being traded or being given a shorter leash, imagine the guts a baseball player has to have in order to do something like take a knee during the National Anthem. A guy with multiple MVP Awards would likely be in an uncomfortable spotlight over such a thing, so imagine how brave someone like Bruce Maxwell, who has barely 100 games under his belt, has to be to have done it.

CC Sabathia, a 17-year veteran, spoke out yesterday, but I suspect he won’t kneel for the National Anthem when he lines up with his teammates before the Wild Card game next week. Other ballplayers will likely wade into the fray in the coming days. But I suspect baseball’s very nature — it’s very culture — will keep ballplayers from following in the footsteps of the many NFL players who took a knee today.