Winter meetings leave trades out in the cold

BASEBALL

December 02, 1990|By PETER SCHMUCK

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- OK, so you think nothing is going to happen this week at the winter meetings.

You're probably right. Baseball's annual trading convention isn't what it used to be, not when about 20 of the 26 teams represented at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare here have a serious case of free-agent vapor lock.

This is particularly distressing because the winter trade-a-thon was designed to be a media event. It is supposed to be an oasis of baseball business and banter in a vast football wasteland. It is also a time of renewal -- season-ticket renewal to be specific -- but that's another story.

There was a time when this convention was a hot-stove heaven. Baltimore Orioles general manager Roland Hemond remembers making four trades in one day during one of the last winter meetings before free agency turned the off-season into a silent auction. Now there is just a hotel full of hesitancy and an enormous press room, where hundreds of sportswriters spend their idle time (all five days of it) interviewing each other.

It is little more than a five-day stakeout, highlighted by a string of luncheons and awards ceremonies. But it's baseball, which is all have to live for until the Colts sneak back into town.

If there is any significant activity, it probably will be on the free-agent front, where dozens of quality players remain unsigned and dozens of general managers remain unwilling to move forward without them. The art of the trade seems to be going the way of the dinosaur and the nine-inning pitcher.

But there will be no shortage of rumor and speculation. Something is always about to happen; it just never does. And if that makes any sense to you at all, then you should've been a baseball writer. Here's a day-by-day look at what you would be up against:

Day 1: Adventures in lobbysitting

The lobby of the headquarters hotel is the nerve center of th winter meetings. It is the place where Hemond and the late Bill Veeck once put out a sign that said "OPEN FOR BUSINESS" and proceeded to trade away half the players on the Chicago White (( Sox roster. But that was in the good old days, which -- as previously reported in The Sun -- have been over for some time.

Now the lobby is just the place where people check into the hotel before going to their rooms to wait for Franklin Stubbs to call and tell them where he wants to play next year.

Nevertheless, it is a great place to sit around and wait for something to happen, even though everybody knows that nothing is going to happen; and even if it did, it certainly wouldn't happen with a bunch of nosy people sitting around trying to look inconspicuous.

Day 2: Lobbysitting II

Though many baseball executives will still be waiting by th phone waiting for Stubbs to change the balance of power in their respective divisions, others will grow tired of sitting in their rooms watching goat-wrestling on ESPN and venture out into the aforementioned hotel lobby.

Mingling will occur. Trade talks will be scheduled. Lunch dates will be agreed to. Mere handshakes will spawn trade rumors as big as the Hancock Tower.

Winter meetings veterans will praise the convenient floor plan of the Hyatt O'Hare and exchange horror stories about last year's convention at the giant Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tenn. The lobby was so large and circuitous that teams turned down trades just to save a walk to the press room.

Day 3: The Rule V draft

The first guaranteed news day is Monday, when the front offic contingents from all 26 clubs assemble in the main ballroom to take part in the Rule V major-league draft.

The Rule V draft apparently got its name from Rule V, which allows clubs to draft certain players who were left unprotected by their respective teams when the major-league reserve lists were filed in November.

If a player is selected, he must be kept at the major-league level for the ensuing season, or be offered back to his original team for half of the $50,000 draft price.

The draft allows veteran minor-leaguers to get a shot at the major leagues that they probably would not get from their original clubs. It also provides teams such as the player-development-oriented Orioles with a chance to out-scout the opposition and steal a promising player.

Day 4: The Stockholm syndrome

This is the point in the winter meetings when everybody starts to get a little stir crazy, particularly if nothing has happened to justify more than 72 hours of standing around an airport hotel.

The writers begin to identify with their captors, which explains all the glowing reports about the six-year minor-league free agents the Orioles are planning to sign to fill their run-production gap.

Some baseball executives, frustrated by the lack of meaningful trade discussions, will decide to pack up and go home early.

Day 5: Exodus

When there was a trading deadline, the last day of the winter meetings was the best day. Suspense built to a crescendo as club officials rushed to consummate last-minute deals.

In the absence of a deadline, club officials will just rush to make last- minute plane reservations. It will be just as easy to close the deal over the phone in February.

There will be talk of finding a way to spice up the winter tradefest. There also will be talk of dispensing with it. Long distance is, after all, the next best thing to being there.

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