I'm official - for a week
Every off-season, baseball teams hold fantasy camps in Florida. When a fan reads the advertisements, it is difficult not to immediately want to grab your spikes and a glove and run to the nearest camp. That is, it is hard until you see the price point of $6,000 for the experience. I recognize my baseball playing days are over as my twice-repaired right shoulder sounds like a box of pop rocks when I move it even on a good day so my only way to be part of the game is through the keyboard and writing about it. As luck would have it, the baseball Winter Meetings were in my own backyard this year and having written about the sport from the sidelines so many seasons, I felt it was time to foot the bill and make the Winter Meetings a fantasy writers camp (thanks to @usfsucks for that idea) where I could go work along side of the pros, dress like them, eat the same crappy food, and keep the same crappy hours as I covered the meetings for ESPN 1040.
When I learned the Winter Meetings were going to be in my backyard, I made up my mind that I had to go and be a part of it. Of course, any fan can show up at the meetings and wonder through the lobby area and experience the scene in that area. Just being there, you can see agents, managers, players, and front office types. It was there that I got to actually meet Joe Maddon for the first time and converse with him one on one for a few minutes. It was there that I hopped into an elevator with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, and it was there that I also met Yankees GM Brian Cashman and gave him the news that the Carl Crawford signing was confirmed and up on the RedSox.com site at 2 a.m. as I left the meetings that night for a rather unpleasant night of sleep with visions of Crawford in a Red Sox uniform dancing through my head. Yet, that was not enough for me because I wanted the real deal. If you wanted to chat up Peter Gammons (yes, he really wears tennis shoes), Ken Rosenthal, Jon Heyman, or Joel Sherman, they're in the lobby as well. I wanted to be where the action happened and where the media movers and shakers were as someone who has been writing about baseball from the sidelines for a decade now.Before asking for credentials, I surveyed people that had been to the meetings before. Friend of the site Jonah Keri said it was a one and done experience but after reading Maury Brown's piece at The Biz of Baseball, my mind was made up to attend the meetings on my own dime because I remember regretting not attending them as just a fan the last time the meetings were in Orlando in 2006. MLB.com was very quick to approve my credential request as a member of ESPN1040 in mid-November and my boss from my real job was equally as quick to approve my vacation time. After arranging lodging and stocking up on snacks to carry around, it was off to the meetings Sunday afternoon.
When I got on site, things were rather calm until the moment I walked down the hall to pick up my credentials. It was at that moment my Twitter app on my phone let me know Jayson Werth had signed a seven-year deal with the Nationals. A few of the other writers behind me had not heard yet so I told them and we all made our way up to the media room to attend the press conference. It was a short while into that press conference that we all learned it was for $18m a season and the shock of hearing that news was only topped that week by hearing about the Luke Scott interview (more on that later).
The bulk of the meetings kicked off Monday as the main media room and the overflow room filled up. There were two rows of 20 tables running straight back in the main room with five or six people to a table all tethered to a power strip for their laptops and smartphones. A common theme of the week was a row or two of tables losing power all at once due to someone tripping over the cables or the portable fuse box that had to be brought in to supply the power needing a fuse reset. The other common theme was network connectivity issues as many writers had issues getting on the wireless network the first time they logged in. This is how I made some immediate new friends as one of my talents is IT support so I was able to assist many around me in getting online; I could not have asked for a better ice breaker.
I was sitting in the seventh row all week and it was rather entertaining to see what others were doing on their laptops. When they were not working on their own stories, they were either perusing Twitter using Tweetdeck or the standard Twitter site or were surfing MLB Trade Rumors.com. Frankly, I find that to be a bit repetitive because the MLBTR stories were simply posting what was being put on Twitter a few minutes before that. The fact that so many media types were toggling back and forth between the two speaks to the impressive work Tim Dierkes and his staff have done to build that site from scratch. The hours and energy the writers put into their work is quite impressive to witness first hand and it gave me a whole new appreciation for their position and work. The same ones that were there at 8 a.m. were also there at 1 a.m. still working sources and meeting deadlines. Whether you are a fan of the work the Rays' beat writers do or not, understand that they are working hard to get the information from the sources and into print. I appreciated the fact that Marc Topkin, Bill Chastain, and Roger Mooney welcomed me into the group and conversed with me each day rather than treating me as an outsider and keeping me at arm's length like many bloggers are typically treated. Reporting for a team that is so air tight with information makes that job even more difficult and I got to witness that first-hand at the end of each day while attending the end-of-day briefing in GM Andrew Friedman's room.
All of you are fans so you are well aware of the team's policy not to comment on any trades or specific players and that policy, in Friedman's own words, "works well for them at times and against them." Given the fact that most of the Rays-related talk of the week surrounded trade rumors of Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza, getting anything more than general comments on the talks from him was impossible. Still, the sessions were informative because he stressed everything was fluid and that the team was actively working all avenues within the constraints of their process. The fact that members of the Rays staff were rarely seen in the lobby throughout the week speaks to how hard they were working the process in the upstairs work room. A huge thanks to both Rick Vaughn and Dave Haller for permitting me to be a part of those meetings as a new face in the pool of writers that typically join those sessions.
The meetings took a more personal tone on Tuesday when the news broke that Carlos Pena was going to sign with the Cubs on a one-year deal for $10m. I had slim hopes of him coming back but never believed that even Scott Boras could get Pena that kind of contract. Pena, despite the struggles of the past two seasons, was one of my favorite players because he genuinely looked happy just to be playing the game of baseball in an age where too many players whine about being paid to play a kids game. It sunk home as he walked into the press conference and hearing him talk to the various media types out in the hallway afterwards. I hope he goes to Chicago and hits 50 home runs and endears himself to that fanbase as quickly as he became a fan favorite to Rays fans. I do not care what uniform Pena wears for the rest of his career - I will always be grateful for what he did the past four seasons and will pull for him moving forward. Conversely, Luke Scott went from one of my favorite baseball players to follow to one I hope never dons a Rays uniform with an extremely controversial interview later that same day.
Scott came into the media room a much smaller man that I ever envisioned wearing a TapOut shirt, an Oklahoma State University trucker style hat, and carrying pictures from a recent hunting trip. He granted an interview to Yahoo's David Brown that many close by listened to and walked away with stunned looks on their faces. Scott is already well-known for his stance on the second amendment but entered the world of absurdity by outing himself as a birther doubting where President Obama was born. I was stunned as I listened to a guy talk about for accountability for the truth while at the same time perpetuating one of the biggest urban myths of this decade. For the full interview, click here, but to hear Scott in his own words, view the video below.
The personal disappointment of Carlos Pena definitely exiting from the Rays franchise and the shock of hearing Luke Scott go off the deep end was nothing compared to the feeling late Wednesday night as the Carl Crawford news broke. Topkin and I had just finished a conversation about how news breaks on Twitter when Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe reported the signing to Boston. The only confirmation the ten of us still in the media room at 11:40 needed was Abraham sprinting to his laptop to get his story in. Suddenly, the room started to fill up again with everyone else who came back to get their stories in as I sat there typing a story while trying to keep my emotions in check. I long ago had come to grips with the fact Crawford had played his last game with the Rays but I was not ready to come to grips that he would be returning to Tropicana Field at least three times a season with one of the two teams I most despise. I was not angry at him in any way, shape, or form because Crawford deserved every cent of that contract but the signing helped resurface my anger toward the inequities of the caste system which is Major League Baseball. It is the only major sport left in which 30 teams are asked to pursue a common goal with uncommon parameters. The Red Sox and Yankees enjoy revenue streams from their stadiums like few in baseball, some of that from their success and some from their population advantage. Both have lucrative radio deals and have their own television stations from which they reap in significant revenue while other teams have to settle for relationships with existing channels that get the better end of the bargain.
Since the story broke so late in the evening, Thursday morning started with all of the radio reports and phone calls from friends and family either offering their condolences on my loss or rubbing it in my face as I have the unfortunate luck of having many Red Sox fans as friends and even family. None of those calls incensed me as much as listening to the local sports talk show callers or reading their comments online as they treated Crawford like an traitor who took the money and ran to greener pastures. Those ungrateful fans would have done the same thing had they been afforded the luxury of being able to choose between two job offers - I know I would have because I have done it. I have earned two degrees from the University of Central Florida, I have season tickets to both their football and basketball programs, and I live within walking distance of the campus. My love for all things UCF is well known to anyone who knows me because I would not be the person I am today without the knowledge and experience I gained while at UCF. I had a job offer from UCF at the same time I received a job offer from my current employer and I went with them because they offered me a significant amount more than UCF did for a similar position. Crawford did the same thing as the only other announced offer that Crawford had received was $34m less than what Boston ended up giving him. Fans are allowed to be emotional; after all, fan is the root word of fanatic. That said, some of the reactions from people on Twitter and other forms of social media were downright shameful and made me embarrassed to represent the Rays fanbase. Crawford never threw a bat at an umpire, he never fathered a litter of kids with a variety of women, nor was he ever caught with drugs or pulled over for a DUI at an ungodly hour of the morning. Fans of the organization could not ask for a better representation of the franchise these past nine seasons while many of the other talented outfielders around him had those previously listed issues. He should be revered, not reviled, regardless of what uniform he wears moving forward.
The overall experience of being at the Winter Meetings is one I would not trade for anything. Being there when the Crawford news broke is a moment that I will never forget nor will I forget telling Cashman the deal was official. Shaking hands with Friedman and Maddon and talking with both were surreal experiences for someone who has had a child-like crush on their body of work but my favorite part of the meetings was putting faces to the names of the people I have long admired online for their work covering baseball. It was terrific to sit down and review video of Adam Russell and Cesar Ramos with ESPN's Keith Law as I have been a long time fan of his work and to bounce those thoughts off Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein was another thrill as I have been reading his prospect work since he started as an independent expert online. Maury Brown covers the business side of baseball very well and was very helpful to me both prior and during the meetings. Kristi Dosh is a must-read on the legal side of baseball and despite her very problematic laptop, gets her work done and yet still has time to facilitate a twitter-based dating hour each weekday. Amanda Rykoff is a member of the recently-launched espnW site that I have conversed with for a long time, mainly related to her fantasy baseball obsessions as she dominates her local leagues and I have no idea how she maintains her energy despite not consuming any caffeine and sleeping in a cabin in Camp Wilderness where I believe Deliverance shot some scenes. Craig Calceterra of NBC Sports is very quick with the quips and looks exactly like his avatar on Twitter. You don't believe me? Check it out:
Maury Brown, Craig Calceterra, Kristi Dosh, and me
Mike Axisa and Joe Pawlikowski are Yankees fans that lead the writing team at RiverAveBlues, write for Fangraphs, and Axisa does some MLB Trade Rumors sites. They and Rykoff are three Yankees fans I can actually hang out with and not want to strangle so I suggest following them on Twitter (@mikeaxisa, @joepawl, @amandarykoff). It was good to see Fangraphs' Eno Sarris again and meet the Daves behind the entire thing, David Appleman and David Cameron. If you made me go to an island with only one website, Fangraphs would be my choice. I would be lost as a baseball analyst without it. It was also great to finally meet the guys at MLB Radio: Jordan, Mike, Brent, and Pat. They have been great to me throughout the years having me on the shows both on the real and fantasy shows and were nice enough to bring me live on set with Mike Ferrin and Flash Gordon one night. The way the off-season is headed, I could see Flash Gordon in a Rays uniform as the guy is still in terrific shape and I could always enjoy watching that amazing curveball of his.
Me on with Ferrin and Flash
Lastly, a big thanks to Brian Killingsworth and Carey Cox of the Rays' Marketing group for taking the time to meet with me to discuss the social media aspect of the Rays fanbase. You all will be happy to know that they are both big fans of the work DRaysBay does and they have some exciting things planned for the 2011 Fanfest and the regular season related to the social media aspects of the fanbase.
If you are reading this and I did not mention your name, it is not because you did not leave a lasting impression on me it is because I am already dreading the, "tl;dr" comments below. I hope you enjoyed this look behind the scenes of the Winter Meetings as well as the coverage that both Tommy Rancel and I were able to provide live from the meetings and we hope that we will be able to do it again next year.