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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

December 7, 2009 at 6:26 AM

Memories of winter meetings past

My favorite winter meetings moment is nearly 20 years old. It was the 1990 gathering in Chicago, and everyone was bemoaning the rising cost of free agents. I mean, the Giants had spent $13 million — $13 million! – for Willie McGee. That’s $13 million over four years, which would be a sweet bargain today, but then it was outrageous.

So Pat Gillick, general manager of the Blue Jays, and Joe McIlvaine, GM of the Padres, got together and cooked up one of the most magnificent trades in history. Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter went from San Diego to Toronto. Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez went from Toronto to San Diego.

“I was tired of reading about who the next 10-millionaire would be. So we thought we’d give everybody a good old baseball trade,” McIlvaine would tell reporters at the time.

The beauty wasn’t just the magnitude of the deal – three of the four players are ones you have to think about when the Hall of Fame ballot comes, and Tony Fernandez was a perennial All-Star shortstop.

No, it was the element of surprise, which is largely missing nowadays in the age of 24-hour tweeting and rumor-mongering. The media was called into a conference room to announce the trade, as is custom. But when the names were announced, there was an audible gasp, which I’ve never witnessed again.

Those were the first winter meetings I ever covered, and while that particular moment of electricity has never been matched, there have been some highlights – and lowlights.

One of the latter came in 1998 at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville – a garish, far-flung venue that might be a great place to bring Aunt Martha for the train ride around the premises, but is loathed by baseball writers for its vast, unnavigable lobbies. At any rate, that was when all hell broke loose, financially, in baseball. Again, I should add. Huge contracts were being handed out right and left, capped by the seven-year, $105 million deal given to Kevin Brown by the Dodgers. History has shown that signing to be one of the worst in history, but there was Scott Boras on the podium explaining how the Dodgers had come away with pretty much the biggest bargain in baseball history. What made this moment memorable was what was happening simultaneous to Boras’s blathering: an absolutely disgusted Sandy Alderson, at the time one of commissioner Bud Selig’s top lieutenants, holding his own simultaneous press gathering in the back of the room, blasting the deal, which, as I recall, he termed “an affront to baseball.” And that’s before he took the gloves off. It was great theater.

Then there were the winter meetings of 1992, in Louisville, when all hell broke loose, financially, in baseball. (Sense a trend?). That was the year Greg Maddux went the Cubs to the Braves for five years and $28 million, and Barry Bonds went from Pittsburgh to San Francisco for six years and $43.75 million. There were other deals that were an affront of MLB’s sensibilties; Selig was so disgusted that baseball’s quaint little trade-fest was turning into a forum for agents to flaunt their latest outrageous deal (in his eyes) that he canceled the winter meetings for the next six years.

That’s ’92 event has a special place in my heart because I was covering the Giants for the San Francisco Examiner, and was thus immersed in the Bonds’ shenanigans. As I wrote a few years ago:

It didn’t take long to discover that covering Barry Bonds was going to be a weird and wild ride.

That realization hit in Louisville, Ky., at the 1992 winter meetings, when the Giants’ new ownership group scheduled a glitzy news conference to announce Bonds’ signing.

Those of us in a hotel ballroom that evening watched in stunned amazement as a harried Major League Baseball official burst into the room and whispered into the ear of Bonds’ agent, Dennis Gilbert.

All of a sudden, the whole group got up and hastily left the ballroom through the kitchen door — Gilbert and his staff of snappily dressed associates; Willie Mays; Bobby Bonds; and a flustered looking Barry — all of whom were seated on the podium, waiting for the triumphant announcement.

The deal had hit a sudden snag because Peter Magowan’s prospective ownership group had not yet been formally approved by MLB. The departing owner, Bob Lurie, was fearful of getting stuck with Bonds’s six-year, $43 million contract if Magowan’s group was rejected.

The problem was smoothed over, and Bonds was introduced three days later in Louisville.

Another infamous winter meetings moment occurred in 1999 in Anaheim, when the Mariners were engaged in the distasteful business of trading Ken Griffey Jr., who had pretty much limited their options to the Cincinnati Reds. If you’ll remember, the sticking point was Pokey Reese, of all people. The Mariners wanted him, and Cincinnati GM Jim Bowden didn’t want to give him up. In fact, Bowden called a press conference just to make that point. The deal was dead, Bowden dramatically declared. The Reds were pulling out of the Griffey sweepstakes.

“No chance at all. Zero. It’s behind us,” Bowden said. “The next time we’ll pursue him is if he becomes a free agent at the end of 2000.”

It was posturing, of course, as Mariners GM Pat Gillick – who didn’t much like Bowden – fully recognized.

“We figure they get 10 chances to pull out, and then they’re out,” Gillick said. “I think they’re at three. They have seven to go.”

Ah, those were the days. Bowden, by the way, earned his own place in winter meetings legend one year by parading around the lobby in leather pants, a brown pair one day, a black pair the next. That’s an outfit that you’ll never see, say, Jack Zduriencik wearing.

One great winter-meetings story that pops to mind was told to me by Bob Quinn, a long-time baseball executive. It involves his father, John Quinn, who at the time was GM of the Milwaukee Braves, and Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi, father of former Mariner head man Bill Bavasi. The year was 1953, and Quinn was intent on working out a trade that would bring outfielder Andy Pafko to Milwaukee. As Bob Quinn told it, the two had haggled for hours in the lobby when Buzzie told John he was done. He was heading back to his room for the night.

“My dad said, ‘Let me come up for 15 minutes, ” Bob Quinn recalled. “Up in the room, Buzzie starts to take off his clothes, and my dad starts taking off his clothes, too. ‘John, what are you doing?’ Buzzie asks. My dad said, ‘Buzzie, I’m getting into bed with you until we get the deal done.’ ”

Pafko was eventually traded to the Braves.

If that’s what it takes to get some deals done here in Indianapolis, I’m in favor.

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