About eight years ago, I worked for Registered Rep. magazine, a monthly periodical covering the financial services industry. (It was basically a trade publication for stockbrokers.) I apologize in advance for not uncovering and exposing the housing bubble and credit default swaps; you should know that I was, uh, a pretty terrible financial reporter. No reporter should ever have too much expertise in their subject – lest they lose the natural, curious inquisitiveness that drives all great reporting – but suffice it to say, I had none. I have no idea how I ever finished a story; I rarely had the slightest clue as to what I was talking about. Reading an old story now is like trying to decipher hieroglyphics.
Anyway, one of my primary assignments back in the day was to go to corporate conferences, those ones that are always at a nondescript hotel right by the airport, for a week to report on “industry trends” and develop broker sources. This was as stultifyingly boring as it sounds, so I had to come up with a coping strategy to get through it: I would pretend I was actually covering baseball’s winter meetings. I would try to work myself into some modicum of excitement: I wasn’t talking to Hilliard Lyons reps about 529 plans; I was talking to Texas Rangers execs about Kameron Loe. This was effective only in short stretches, but that’s all I needed; if you squinted, everyone was wearing the same ugly suits and garish ties. The only difference, really, was that the people attending the financial services conferences were shorter.
This week baseball holds its winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn., and it’s always good to be reminded that all your favorite television networks and dutiful reporters are making a huge deal out of something that’s essentially a corporate training conference/job fair. It's four days of conference rooms and bar tabs and fresh-faced earnest 22-year-olds desperately trying to get jobs making copies for Theo Epstein’s assistant’s assistant. Or, as a friend put it: “Baseball’s Winter Meetings: White Guys With Lanyards!”
The great part, of course, is that baseball’s winter meetings are nonetheless great fun, the way the NFL draft and NBA draft are fun, the way the NFL draft combine is fun, or would be, were there not so many fat men in their underwear running around. In lieu of an actual sporting event to watch, the simulacrum of the winter meetings does the trick for starved fans. Nothing is happening, but it feels like something is always about to happen. It’s not a sporting event, but it kind of impersonates one. It's a virtual sporting event.
And, like the drafts, it has been made about 10,000 times more fun because of Twitter. Honestly, I will spend the next four days pretty much staring at Twitter. You often hear old-timers in baseball complain that the winter meetings aren’t as much fun anymore, that no one consummates deals over whiskey at the hotel bar at 3 a.m. like they used to. I highly doubt that this was ever really the case – making deals because you were drunk and in a strange city is the sort of thing people claim used to happen because they were too drunk to remember what they actually did; they probably just passed out watching an old “Law and Order” episode, covered in empty sample liquor bottles, crumbs and cheese, like the rest of us do in hotels – but regardless, the winter meetings are so much better than they used to be because the rest of us are a part of it now.
What actually happens at baseball’s winter meetings matters so much less than what we all imagine is happening. There are so many rumored deals and backroom shenanigans at the winter meetings that if every report that came out of there were real, no one would have time to eat. Everything at the winter meetings is important, and nothing is. You get reports like, “Just saw Jon Daniels walking hurriedly through the lobby,” a report that means nothing but sounds intriguing. Daniels is in the lobby? And he was in a rush? MUST BE A HAMILTON DEAL COMING! It’s ridiculous and pointless and the very definition of idle speculation, which is why it’s so awesome. It’s amazing that the winter meetings existed BEFORE Twitter. If they didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them.
This bothers some older baseball reporters, and with absolute justification. Last week, because Sports On Earth and MLB Network share a corporate parent (and because 10:15 on a Wednesday morning in November is pretty much the definition of a no-risk timeslot to try someone out), I appeared on MLB Network’s Hot Stove.
(I’m obviously a work in progress on television, but, like, you know, uh, I, like, er, I’m like working on it, OK?) While discussing social media in relation to the winter meetings, MLB’s Ken Rosenthal, who’s as good a baseball reporter as you’ll find, pointed out that it’s frustrating that no one seems to mind that so much information that comes out of the winter meetings is wrong. I'm sure that for someone like Ken, who has decades of experience in this business, this is annoying; he can spend hours tracking down every source he can to confirm every rumor he can, and while he was doing that, a claim from @cavemanfarts_mlb that the Cubs have traded Alfonso Soriano to the Dodgers for Yasiel Puig, four Dodgers Dogs and a limited edition Mouse Rat CD has been retweeted 2,000 times.
This must drive Rosenthal and other baseball reporters nuts; their job is to nail stories down, to confirm them. But the winter meetings aren’t about confirming anything; they’re about sensing vapors in the air, publishing them to the world and then sprinting along to the next one. That’s why this is fun! If we just waited for official team confirmation of deals, no one would care about the winter meetings. The rumors that are wrong are the point.
You can say this is a degrading of the hard and fast rules of journalism, and I’d be hard-pressed to argue with you. (Though the notion that rumors and speculation were invented by Twitter is crazy; they’re just a lot louder and faster now.) But sports fans don’t follow baseball for media lectures. They follow baseball, and all sports, because they are entertaining diversions. And few things are more entertaining and diversionary piffle than rumors from the winter meetings. I’ll have to sift through so much fake junk over the next four days. I absolutely cannot wait. Sure beats acting like I understand whatever the hell a 529 plan is.
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Hey, if you’re the Cubs, you GOTTA make that trade. Thanks, @cavemanfarts_mlb! Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.