December 2011

POSTCARDS FROM THE 2011 WINTER MEETINGS #4

The scene yesterday in the Chantilly West Ballroom at the Winter Meetings would be one of the greatest fantasies a baseball fan could ever have.  Each year, all 30 Major League managers gather for a special reception and lunch with members of the Baseball Writers Association of America.  Standing within a couple thousand square feet are the Who’s Who of big league skippers.  Joe Madden, sporting a pair of his distinctive eyewear and a slick sports coat, is at one end of the room, sharing an anecdote or two with a national baseball writer.  A’s manager Bob Melvin, certainly no stranger to this annual event, having experienced two previous managerial stints with Milwaukee and Arizona, is surrounded by two other Northern California-born managers in Cincinnati’s Dusty Baker and Dale Sveum, the new field general of the Chicago Cubs. 

Over at the drink line is former Yankee great Don Mattingly, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager, talking to an old friend, Buck Showalter, the Baltimore Orioles’ skipper.  And, of course, there’s the man in perpetual motion, new Marlins’ manager Ozzie Guillen, who has already generated as much buzz for the re-born Miami franchise as the signing of Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buerhle during these meetings.  Even for someone as jaded as me, who has worked in professional sports for three decades, I find the managers luncheon to be a true spectacle.  Where else can you find 30 high-profile leaders in one location outside of a NATO or U.S.-European Union Summit? 

Yesterday reminded me of the first time I had the privilege to attend a private dinner in Cooperstown, hosted by Jane Forbes Clark, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was held prior to the induction ceremonies that particular weekend.  It was a wonderful affair, and like any life-long baseball fan, I felt like the proverbial kid in the candy store.  All of my childhood heroes had come to life, with Hall of Famers standing in the buffet line ahead and behind me.  It was baseball’s version of the movie Night at the Museum.  Former stars tended to flock together by team.  There at one table were former Baltimore Orioles, including Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer.  Meanwhile, I was in the food line discussing entrée choices with Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez of the Big Red Machine.  Sometimes we take things for granted, but when you are dropped in the middle of living and breathing Hall of Famers, you quickly realize this is a pretty fun gig.  

As for A’s Assistant GM David Forst, subbing for Billy Beane with the Bay Area journalists, he seemed to have a little fun himself in bantering back and forth.  Only the past few hours, Twitter posts were coming in at a dizzying pace, noting multiple teams that allegedly have shown interest in some of the A’s top pitchers.  Forst would not confirm any specifics, but he did acknowledge there was significant interest shown by teams he or Billy had spoken with earlier in the day.  While David said, point blank, that there would be no deals consummated last night, he did say they have a better idea of the current landscape than they did when they arrived in Dallas Sunday.

This morning, us remaining A’s staff members attended the Rule 5 Draft, and will soon board flights and be on our way home. Thanks for following our blog this week.  I hope it gave you some insight on the proceedings.  Pitchers and catchers report to Phoenix in 41 days.  The season nears.

POSTCARDS FROM THE 2011 WINTER MEETINGS #3

Well, another day is in the books at the Winter Meetings for the Oakland A’s.  To best describe what transpired at Billy Beane Central, I’ll borrow a line once written by my good friend Ben Hyman while he was plying his trade at The Baltimore Sun.  “On a day that nothing happened, nothing happened.”  That about sums it up, boys and girls.  Well, maybe not exactly.  Certainly the A’s braintrust had further meetings and phone calls with other teams today, and possible deals were discussed.  Any of those conversations could be important steps in a process that eventually triggers a trade.  But for now, Billy’s state-of-the-day address to Bay Area beat writers in his suite last night was without much substance or fanfare – or pretense on Billy’s part.

For a second straight night, a recurring subject was the A’s outfield positions.  Billy acknowledged that Ryan Sweeney would be the team’s starting right fielder if Opening Day were tomorrow.  However, beyond that, he could make no definitive statements.  Of the young, upcoming players in the system, he said no one had distinguished themselves with a dominant performance that would merit “500 at-bats this year in Oakland.”  Billy did offer kudos to Jermaine Mitchell, an outfielder who impressed in Sacramento last year before a knee injury required surgery.  He also said Michael Taylor had a solid year with the River Cats last season, but still ideally wants to see him “dominate” on the Triple-A level.

Probably the lightest moment of the media session came later, when Billy poked a little fun at Gaku Tashiro, the affable dean of Japanese baseball writers in the United States who is serving as a pool reporter.  He asked Gaku why the Japanese media corps continues to cover him and the A’s even though Hideki Matsui is no longer under contract with Oakland.  “Are you guys going to cover us for the rest of my life?” the A’s GM quipped.  He then told Gaku about his experience at the coffee shop in the morning.  He was having breakfast with another team’s GM when he spotted a Japanese photographer with a zoom lense.  “I leaned behind a column, and he leaned right with me and took another shot.”   It appears that Billy, while not leading the league in free agent signings this week, may very well lead the majors in paparazzi.

Mr. Beane was headed to the airport last night to catch a flight, leaving our hotel suite operations to the capable Assistant GM David Forst.  Whether he’ll have new quips for Gaku or other Bay Area writers tomorrow remains to be seen.  In the meantime, I personally made a major acquisition this evening.  I visited the Original Sonny Bryan’s for some down-home Texas barbecue brisket.  It’s a quirky place in that diners, since 1958, have been eating their meals sitting in school classroom desks.  The trick is to not eat so much brisket or Frito Pie that you get stuck in your seat.  After much sampling, I can honestly say Sonny’s cue is big league.  I luckily sprung free from the desk, post-feast, and returned to the Hilton Anatole unscathed.  It’s back to baseball and the Winter Meetings today, though, the final full day in Dallas.

POST CARDS FROM THE 2011 WINTER MEETINGS #2

For me personally, the Winter Meetings are as much about seeing old friends as anything else.  It may sound cliché, but there truly is a “baseball family.”  While the Meetings are conducted, I’m also attending the Public Relations Meetings, which span three days.  These are my people!  While we work for competing teams, we are part of a fraternity.  As a group, we share the same challenges and goals.  Everything that affects the image of our franchise, we take personally.   And if we don’t, then we’re in the wrong business. 

We discussed many issues that impact our universe.  Dan Halem from MLB’s Labor Relations Department spoke to us about the new basic agreement.  Kevin Sullivan, the ex-White House communications chief, addressed the group about social media, building a message and how players can avoid embarrassing pratfalls in the media.  Joe Torre, now executive VP of Baseball Operations for the League, and his aide Peter Woodfork provided an update on umpires, and how meticulous their office is in quality control, how high umpires consistently score under any matrix used, and also emphasized that the Men in Blue are human beings, just like the rest of us.

Yet perhaps the most interesting – and yes, even heart-warming – exchange came from national baseball journalists Ken Rosenthal and Jon Heyman, who joined the PR directors to discuss how they view this phenomenon called Twitter.  First, what they said that was interesting.  Rosenthal, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who now stars on multiple FOX Sports platforms, opened the session by expressing some regrets about the rapid evolution that has seen Twitter totally reshape the media business and how consumers’ habits have changed.  “It’s where we break news now,” said a reluctant Rosenthal, shrugging his shoulders.  “It has its good and bad points.”  While recognizing the immediacy provided by Twitter, Rosenthal also said he agonizes over the fact that the two-source rule that used to be the industry standard in deciding to run a story has pretty much been tossed asunder.  One source and it’s tweeted in a New York second.  And that goes for the veteran scribes, who know that, in their industry, if you “lose” in the tweet posting game – even by one or two minutes – you finish behind the competition.  Rosenthal said there are many more mistakes made, himself included, in what he described as “a lessening of standards” in the media business.  Heyman, who just left Sports Ilustrated to take a position with CBSSportsline.com, echoed Ken’s feelings.  He welcomed the vehicle that Twitter provides for breaking stories.  “It used to be where we would file a story at 8 p.m. and then pray no other writer broke it before we did.  Now, we can control that by immediately tweeting it the moment we’ve got the story.”  

As for the heart-warming part, I think what I enjoyed most about their presentation was this:  While both Rosenthal and Heyman are fierce competitors, along with the likes of Buster Olney, Jayson Stark and Jerry Crasnick, you could see they were friendly rivals who clearly respected – maybe even empathized with – each other.  In a way, they, too, are part of the baseball family.  They have been covering countless Winter Meetings, World Series and ordinary every day games. Through the years, they have built close relationships with hundreds of journalists, GMs, PR types, agents and, of course, players and managers.  Yes, they call them “sources,” but in a way, they also consider them friends.  That is not a conflict of interest, merely a statement about the human condition.  And I, for one, am glad we can enjoy the company of people, no matter which side of the fence they work from, or whether they’re a team rival. 

Next up, I’ll give you an update from the GM suite.  Billy Beane spoke to our beat writers recently, but to be truthful, there wasn’t much to report.   He said he remains open-minded about possible trades, and has communicated or met with more than half the teams in MLB.  However, he also cautioned the writers, stressing that being open-minded does not necessarily mean we’re “shopping” any players.

POSTCARDS FROM THE 2011 WINTER MEETINGS #1

As the 2011 Winter Meetings commence today at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, Oakland A’s beat writers Susan Slusser, Joe Stiglich and Jane Lee will scour the hotel lobby and vigorously work their cell phones in search of any noteworthy development on the free agent or trade front. In fact, I just spotted a contingent of my old Japanese media friends in the lobby, who are still riding herd on the Hideki Matsui story and where he might land in 2012, so add them to the list.  In light of Billy Beane’s recent comments about the club sitting in wait-and-see mode until Major League Baseball’s Blue Ribbon Committee comes down with its ballpark recommendation – after nearly three years of study, we might add – expectations are rather low that we’ll see much action this week in the Lone Star State. However, if you’re part of the A’s Faithful, I can offer you a few things to look for during the meetings.

Beyond the reports filed by our Bay Area reporters covering the event, you’ll be treated to hours of live coverage by national TV networks and Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.  Later today, Beane will appear on MLB Network’s Hot Stove show at 3 p.m. PST, followed by segments on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight at approximately 3:25 p.m. and on CSN Bay Area’s Chronicle Live program at 7 p.m. In addition, skipper Bob Melvin joins MLB Network Radio on Sirius/FM with Mike Ferrin and former Mets’ GM Steve Phillips at 3:30 p.m.  Melvin also is scheduled to appear Tuesday on MLB Network’s Hot Stove show at 2:45 p.m. PST and later on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area’s Chronicle Live.

It should be interesting to see the reaction Billy gets this week, particularly in the hotel lobby where fans congregate. His already high profile has been elevated to near Rock Star status with the movie premiere of Moneyball.  Being protrayed by Brad Pitt will tend to do that.  While Billy has been very gracious with his media time, he tends to shy away from the bright lights in favor of spending time in the A’s baseball suite during the Winter Meetings.  He and Assistant GM David Forst, well aware of the team’s unsettled outfield situation and need for some middle-of-the-order hitters, will no doubt be laying the groundwork for possible future deals.  Beyond that, it’s difficult to predict if anything of substance will materialize this week.

One area of interest here will be a couple of Hall of Fame announcements.  By the time you read this blog, the Golden Era Committee might have revealed this year’s inductee.  Former A’s owner Charlie Finley is one of those being considered.  While he may not be the favorite this time around, there’s no doubt he is worthy of the honor.  Beyond assembling a team that won three straight World Series championships from 1972-74 and produced four Hall of Famers in Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Reggie Jackson and Dick Williams, Finley also impacted the history of the game through his innovative ideas.  Among them were the designated hitter in the American League and night baseball in the World Series.  Also, this Wednesday at 8 a.m. PST, the Hall of Fame will announce the 2012 Ford C. Frick winner, the broadcaster elected to Cooperstown.  Of course, our beloved Bill King, who so eloquently described A’s baseball for 25 years before his untimely death, is among the favorites.  Let’s cross our fingers and hope this is finally the Year of the King.  If it’s good news Wednesday, I would expect thousands of Bay Area sports fans to shout, in unison, that old familiar refrain made famous by Bill: “Holy Toledo!”

This is the first of a series of daily blogs I plan to write this week. I hope it brings you closer to the Winter Meetings here in Dallas. We appreciate you thinking about us during the offseason.

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