The major-league half of the winter meetings will open this weekend in Chicago -- instead of Los Angeles as originally planned -- but even with a new location, it figures to be the same, old story.
The annual trading convention has lost much of the urgency that once made it the focal point of off-season baseball business. Where there was once a trading deadline that kept suspense building throughout the week, there now is a thriving free-agent market that makes trading more difficult and less important. The 26 clubs will be represented at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare (the headquarters hotel), but many of them already are conceding that very little is going to happen.
Baltimore Orioles general manager Roland Hemond is not one of them. He has been talking trade since early October and hopes that his countless conversations with other clubs count for something.
"I always go in with the idea that we'll do something," he said. "We don't usually get shut out. You hope and try to convince people that they shouldn't go with the thought in mind that they aren't going to do anything. Because if you say you're not going to do something, you have a tendency to back it up by not doing anything. You should go in with a positive attitude."
But the deadening impact of free agency has been compounded this year by the likelihood that another group of quality players will become new-look free agents in January.
There is room to wonder if baseball's trade market will do any serious business before spring training.
Hemond remains optimistic, even in the face of the most muddled off-season in the post-reserve clause era. By his own account, he has come away from the winter meetings empty-handed only once since 1971.
Still, Hemond concedes that the environment is not conducive to the kind of trading activity that once made the winter meetings such a bustling marketplace, and the lack of a firm trading deadline has taken away what little incentive was left to close a deal at the convention.
"There was talk about that," he said, "that maybe [reinstituting a deadline] would help. The last convention before the free-agent draft was instituted, I was working for Mr. [Bill] Veeck, and we made six trades in three nights."
Those days are gone forever, but there is strong sentiment that ** something needs to be done to keep the meetings alive.
"I think what would really help along those lines would be to have a trading deadline again," said Philadelphia Phillies general manager Lee Thomas. "The way it is now, it's too much like treading water. It gives people an excuse to wait. They should have to make up their minds."
There also has been talk of moving future conventions back into January so that there is less competition with the free-agent re-entry system.
The majors' half of this year's meeting was in danger of being canceled when the major-league clubs pulled out of the Los Angeles convention because of the ongoing contractual dispute between Major League Baseball and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. But the commissioner's office rushed to reschedule, moving the major-league meetings to Chicago before anyone got a chance to find out if they would have been missed.
Most baseball business is transacted over the phone, anyway, but Hemond said that there is no substitute for face-to-face trade discussions.
"In a face-to-face setting, you have more of the principals of each club involved," he said. "You might have your club president, your manager, your owner present. That gives you the opportunity to caucus for a few minutes, have a quick discussion and come back and say, 'You've got a deal.' When you do it over the phone, you might have to go back and talk to your people and they have to talk to theirs. There's more time for something to get in the way of a deal."
Hemond has been on the phone almost constantly since the regularseason ended. The Orioles tried to make a pre-emptive trade in early October, but found most teams reluctant to talk seriously because a giant crop of free agents is ready to hit the market.
The club's priorities have not changed, but the inability to strike a deal forced the front office to focus more attention on free agents. There are offers outstanding to left-handed pitcher Matt Young and first baseman-outfielder Franklin Stubbs, but neither is expected to make a decision until after the meetings.
Hemond reportedly made a play for Boston Red Sox outfielder Mike Greenwell soon after the Red Sox were eliminated from the playoffs, but Boston general manager Lou Gorman later told the Orioles and the rest of the major leagues that Greenwell was not on the block. Interest also has been expressed in Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Von Hayes (who is available) and California Angels outfielder Dante Bichette.
The Orioles have a better feel for their roster than many other teams, because they have only one front-line player, Mickey Tettleton, testing the free-agent market. By comparison, the Pittsburgh Pirates have eight players on the open market, which makes it virtually impossible for them to be an active participant in this year's trading festival.
# American League * Detroit: Signed OF Rob Deer, Milwaukee. Re-signed OF John Shelby.
* Kansas City: Signed P Mike Boddicker, Boston.
* New York: Signed P Steve Farr, K.C. Re-signed P Tim Leary.
* Oakland: Re-signed C Jamie Quirk.
:. * Toronto: Signed P Ken Dayley, St. Louis.
National League * Chicago: Signed P Danny Jackson, Cincinnati.
* Cincinnati: Re-signed P Tom Browning.
* Los Angeles: Signed OF Darryl Strawberry, New York Mets.
=1 * San Francisco: Signed P Bud Black, Toronto.
Japan Central League * Taiyo Whales: Signed OF R.J. Reynolds, Pittsburgh.