Winter Meetings as memorable for stories as deals
My favorite story of the Winter Meetings goes like this ...
"Hello, David," Roland Hemond said, passing me in a hotel hallway one morning in 1988.
He kept walking.
"David?" I asked.
Hemond, then the general manager of the Orioles, turned and smiled sheepishly. His expression gave him away.
"We haven't even talked to the Braves," he stammered.
With that, he hurried away.
I had only a vague idea of who David Justice was. When I tell the story now, people can't believe I was unaware of one of Atlanta's best prospects. Hey, stuff slips through the cracks.
I almost chalked it up to Hemond being busy and distracted. He remains one of the most beloved and respected men in Major League Baseball, a mentor to hundreds, a friend to almost everyone lucky enough to know him.
Still, he can be, well, eccentric.
There was the morning he strolled happily out of the Hyatt Regency in Miami and hopped into a rental car.
He drove two hours across Alligator Alley, but when he arrived at the ballpark in Fort Myers, he was approached by a guy in the front office.
"Did you get the wrong rental car?" the man asked.
"I, uh, uh," he said.
In his excitement -- Hemond has more enthusiasm for his job than anyone I've ever known -- to get to another baseball game, he'd hijacked the rental car belonging to Baltimore attorney Ron Shapiro.
Almost everyone who has known Roland Hemond has a story or two like that one. For instance, there was the time he showed up in the office of Orioles manager Frank Robinson in what was then known as Skydome with a large bandage on his head.
"Professor," Robinson said, using the nickname he'd given Hemond, "what happened?"
"I picked up the game notes and was reading them and walked right into a concrete pillar," he said.
"You've got to be more careful, Professor," Robinson said.
Hemond grinned again.
"Actually, I did the same thing two years ago," he said.
Now do you understand why people love Roland Hemond?
OK, back to our odd conversation in a hotel hallway at the 1988 Winter Meetings.
Later that day, I approached an Atlanta hardball writer.
"I think the Orioles and Braves have discussed David Justice," he said.
The guy said Justice was untouchable.
"Yeah, but I think the Orioles have inquired. You never know," I said.
Why do you think that, I was asked.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," I said.
Hemond never came close to acquiring Justice, and he wasn't exactly upset that the story got out, either. He knew it would get the good folks back in Baltimore talking about the Orioles, and that any publicity is good publicity.
For years, publicity was why baseball had the Winter Meetings, an annual gathering of club and league executives, doctors, trainers, traveling secretaries and job seekers that will begin Monday in Nashville.
It's four days of briefings, networking, etc. But the interesting part of the Winter Meetings occurs in hotel suites and restaurants and hallways.
Instead of texting and e-mailing, it's an opportunity for general managers to sit down with other general managers, agents and even players to discuss trades and free agency.
The Winter Meetings are held in early December at a time when teams are full speed into their season-ticket campaigns, and if we're lucky, the week will produce a flurry of baseball news -- free-agent signings, trades, quotable quotes.
Some Winter Meetings are more interesting than others. In 1975, Hemond and his boss at the time, White Sox owner Bill Veeck, set up a table in a hotel lobby with a sign that said, "Open for business."
In three days, they made six trades involving 22 players. The 1976 White Sox lost 97 games, but they dominated the Winter Meetings.
Those of us who've been to more Winter Meetings than we can count all have our favorite stories.
One involves a reporter who stopped by his hotel's front desk after a long night on Bourbon Street.
"I'd like a 6 a.m. wakeup call," the reporter said.
"Sir, you just missed it," the clerk replied.
Another came out of a long night at the bar. As the night wore on and more stories were exchanged, two reporters covering the Texas Rangers became convinced their team was about to pull off a huge trade for Pirates second baseman Johnny Ray.
They hustled up to their rooms, dusted away the cobwebs and produced hot copy for their morning newspapers. Unfortunately, one of their competitors wasn't present. Hah, he'd been scooped!
What they didn't know is that the other reporter had a scoop, too, reporting that the Rangers had reached a deal with free-agent designated hitter Cliff Johnson. That reporter woke up the next morning to learn that he'd missed the Johnny Ray trade. He was distraught, knowing his boss would not be pleased.
At mid-morning, the Rangers called a news conference.
"Johnny Ray, right?" the guy asked one of the team's public relations men.
"Cliff Johnson," the PR man said.
"What about Johnny Ray?" the reporter asked.
"We're not getting Johnny Ray," the guy said. "Those guys got that wrong."
Here's the funny part of the story: The guy who'd broken the Johnson signing but missed the Ray mistake got chastised by his boss for not being on top of the gossip.
There was also the year a well-known (at the time) general manager called a news conference to announce a trade. Thirty seconds into his opening statement, one of his assistants panicked.
"Hey, chief," the assistant whispered loudly, "that's not the trade we made!"
The general manager stopped himself, cleared his throat and started over, this time with the correct trade.
There's unlikely to be a moment like that one in Nashville. Regardless, it's the one time of the year when representatives of every club gather in one place to talk shop, exchange proposals and maybe make a deal or two.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.