Next to opening day and any day the Mets are in a playoff game, the first day of the Baseball Winter Meetings used to be my favorite day of the baseball season. I say “used to be” because this industry trade show (no pun intended) that lasts almost a week doesn’t generate the adrenaline, anticipation and excitement that it did in that golden age when men were men, women were women and baseball players were bound by a reserve clause and could be traded at will. Sure, as a fair minded human being and citizen I believe in the concept that everyone should have the freedom to determine where they will they work. As a baseball fan . . . not so much. While I’ll be quite pleased if Omar Minaya comes home with a reasonably-priced Matt Holliday or John Lackey in his luggage, I’ll find it much more satisfying if he’s able to fleece the Blue Jays out of Roy Halladay, even if did cost us Mike Pelfrey, Daniel Murphy and Fernando Martinez (a trade, by the way, I would make in a minute). Admit it, what’s more fun: arguing about whether your team’s GM overpaid to sign a player or arguing about whether your GM fleeced another GM or got fleeced? And what’s better than being able to debate for hours the trades of other teams? To me, that is (was) hot stove heaven.
But those great days pretty much ended with the end of the reserve clause. Now, for the most part, a team’s success isn’t based mainly on whether their organizations have astute GMs and scouts, but whether their owners have big bucks and cable networks providing them millions to throw at free agents. (I don’t buy the argument that you still need smart scouts when deciding which top free agents you’re gonna buy. If every team had the same budget, every team would have tried to sign Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia.)
Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still be checking the baseball blogs every 15 minutes this week to find out who got signed, who got traded and whether we’ll have to draw up the petition to get Omar fired. But the Winter Meetings will never again be like December 1973, when 26 trades were made involving 58 players. How do I have that stat at my finger tips? Not because of the internet. It’s because that year, in spite of still grieving over the Mets loss to Oakland in the World Series (Yogi, please don’t pitch Seaver on three days rest!), I was so juiced about the Winter Meetings I decided that my ear would be glued all week to a transistor radio (remember those?) when I wasn’t in a college class and I would meticulously write down every single trade (including the waiver deals and the ones for cash) on 3 by 5 index cards. I didn’t know then I would be chronicling one of the busiest Winter Meetings ever. Willie Davis for Mike Marshall. Jimmie Winn for Claude Osteen. Steve Stone (and three other guys) for Ron Santo. Lou Piniella for Lindy McDaniel. Even Tommie Agee was traded that week–from the Cardinals to the Dodgers. I was completely jazzed even though all the Mets did that week was count their losing World Series share.
You wouldn’t think those index cards filled with 1973 Winter Meetings trades would have much value, but like the anal pack rat I can sometimes be, I saved them in a small box where they could remain in pristine condition like my old baseball cards (before I stupidly tossed them out). In spite of free agency, the Winter Meetings continued to warm the cockles of my cockles. Then in the fall of 1977, my senior year of college, I was hired as an intern at the late, great SPORT Magazine, the publication that I adored as a kid growing up wanting to be a sports writer. Like a male version of Ugly Betty, I got coffee for the editors, clipped newspapers for the research department and fact-checked features by writers like Dick Schaap, Dave Anderson and even Woody Allen. After a few months on the job and getting a few short items in the front of the magazine, I summoned up the courage to suggest writing a feature for our December 1978 issue (which hit the stands in November) that would be a labor of love: talk to GMs about the science of making baseball trades.
To my amazement, the editorial staff decided to give the kid a shot. I decided I would build most of the piece around an interview with a recently retired GM since active guys probably wouldn’t want to reveal trade secrets (no pun intended). At that time, veteran Boston Red Sox General Manager Dick O’Connell had left the team the year before and he agreed to meet me in Boston. As nervous as Mike Pelfrey when there’s a man on first, I met O’Connell at one of those exclusive clubs where wealthy and conservative Boston brahmins smoke cigars and sip brandy. As a middle class kid from the Bronx, I was a tad intimidated and hoped I wouldn’t balk. But it was O’Connell who wouldn’t talk. Every question I asked about what goes into making a baseball trade was met with short, single syllable answers. And I hadn’t even yet asked him how in the name of Babe Ruth he could have traded Sparky Lyle to the Yankees for Danny Cater in 1972. As the interview went on, I felt my story slipping into the reject pile. I wouldn’t have been surprised if one of my editors had suddenly shown up to pull me from the game.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. I had to pull something out of my hat. Instead I reached into my briefcase and grabbed my entire batch of 1973 Winter Meetings index cards. I nervously fumbled through them until I found one that read: December 7, 1973–Boston Red Sox trade pitchers Lynn McGlothen, John Curtis and Mike Garman to St. Louis Cardinals for pitchers Reggie Cleveland, Diego Segui and infielder Terry Hughes (the same day O’Connell also acquired Juan Marichal from the Giants for cash). I stuck the card right in front of O’Connell’s nose and practically screamed, “Why did you make this trade?” The interview was over.
That particular tale has a happy ending. Although one editor wanted my story idea killed, I begged the editor in chief to give me a couple of weeks to phone interview every GM who would talk with me so I could cobble a story together. I tracked down a bunch of guys, including then Mets’ GM Joe McDonald who revealed the inside story of how he made the Tom Seaver deal with the Reds (on the urging of his son Jody, now a radio sports jock, he wouldn’t make the trade unless the Reds included Dan Norman). Given Seaver was (and still is) my baseball idol and that June 15, 1977 was one of the worst days of my life, I had to resist the temptation to tell Mr. McDonald where he could stick it and if he could give me M. Donald Grant’s home address.
But 31 years after my story on the trading game was published in SPORT, I still love the Winter Meetings, even if deals are made for a slew of reasons that have nothing to do with the actual ability of the players. Every morning and evening this week, I’ll be yakking on my cell phone with my friend Craig discussing whether Omar Minaya had redeemed himself or is still a bumbling idiot without a clue. Do you think Omar can get Seaver back?