The Time I Went To The Winter Meetings

Watching the beat-writers "tweets" roll in tonight, announcing the arrival of Omar Minaya to Indianapolis, transcribing the first fifty words out of his mouth, and duly noting his first escape to the men's room, I'm reminded of the time I actually bore witness to this terrible circus. Omar Minaya was walking down the unlit corridor of a hotel, when a group of all the New York press (obviously banded together for safety) literally blocked him from walking any further and penned him against the coat-check. 

It was the 2007 Winter Meetings, and I was 16, a junior in high school. Either the crazy buildup was less in that (mostly) twitterless time, or I was less aware, or some combination of both, but I didn't realize until a few weeks before that the Winter Meetings were coming to me. They were the Nashville Winter Meetings, except that they were actually in Opry Mills the transplanted home of the Grand Ole Opry. Basically, Opry Mills is a facade, a conglomerate of shopping malls and western outfitters, created to lure idiot tourists, expecting to find everyone in cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats, outside of metropolitan Nashville and steal all of their money before they can head back west toward civilization. Not surprisingly then, I rarely had ventured to this place, save for a few extenuating circumstances.

The last time I had seen the Gaylord Opryland Resort, the site of the Meetings, I had been 7 or so and had been there for the annual Winter Lights and Ice Sculpture extravaganza, where parents bring their kids to run around in the synthetic wonderland. A high-brow version of the Winter Meetings. That being nine years prior, I had forgotten how bizarre the Opryland hotel is. The entire place is modeled  as a giant human terrarium, a conceptual travesty that (appropriately) only Opry Mills tourists would find appealing. Along with the canopy of fake trees the decor is fantasy, complete with miniature arch bridges crossing artificial streams, Christmas lights, and gnomes. Where Santa and Co. had walked a decade prior, however, stood fifty men, all in jet-black suits, whispering amongst themselves. I supposed that it was what matrix-Oprymills must have been like when every person became an Agent Smith clone.

Walking through the fairy forest toward the stairs, a few of these characters, fidgeting with their bluetooth headsets and press badges, shot me some funny looks. I realized my careful infiltration of baseball's biggest calender event was already in jeopardy. In my red flannel shirt, untucked from my school-mandated khakis, I looked more like Paul Bunyan, sent to cut down a few of the fake pines, than a baseball executive. Feeling suddenly out of place, I walked faster until I reached the media level, where the ad-hoc studios of XM Radio, MLB.tv, and ESPN were set-up, overlooking scenic Mileycyrustopia. The reporters were situated in two giant ballrooms, double-doors tightly guarded, against the far wall. The long rows of tables faced stages with unattended podiums, but the news factory churned away, with the occasional writer getting up to pester a colleague.

So there I stood in front of these doors, next to my dad (someone had to drive me), wondering what I was expecting to find. A few people walked in and out of the rooms, presumably to go to the bathroom, but I was quickly getting the impression that I had missed all the trades, or everything must happen via email or text message. There was a brief surreal moment considering all those mlbtraderumor and metsblog posts I had desperately been checking for all day at school were coming out of this little room.

Then he burst through the doors. He wore a checkered brown-suede suit, as if daring a subordinate to risk commenting. A tall, attractive secretary in high-heeled boots tried to keep pace as he dictated notes, evidently intent on avoiding someone.

I had imagined this moment many times before, but like most things pre-meditated, it was totally different. Usually, in my imagined version of our meeting, I would waltz into his office in James-Bond attire, sunglasses, and coolly state "You wanted to see me?" He would offer me a cigar, but I would politely refuse his cheap Dominican fare and pull a Cuban from my jacket. Then there would be some pouring of some classy alcoholic beverage into crystal glasses (at age 16 the details of this part were understandably hazy). Then, after a puff on my cigar, I would calmly lay out the hyper-specific details of the trade that would put the Mets over the top. Maybe business cards would be exchanged.

Instead, here came Omar Minaya and all I could do, in my untucked lumberjack shirt, messy hair, and red, running nose was stare. I had no "save the Milledge" petition (which, at the time, I thought was hilarious), just a blank, stupefied look of awe. Then my dad turned to me and asked, as someone might accompanying a toddler to see the man in the Mickey Mouse suit at the grocery store, "Well, you saw your Omar guy. Can we go now?"

But, instinctually, I followed him, through the dark corridor across the coat rack. That's when the horde of reporters pinned him to the coat-check. I recognized most of them from their stock headshots that accompany every article. There was Marty Noble and Brian Costa, etc, etc. I jumped into the huddle, only to be given away by my appearance, age, and lack of notepad or recording device. One of Minaya's assistants removed me, warning that this meeting was media only and highly sensitive information was being divulged. Normally, I would have quipped about whether they always held their top-secret meetings by the coat rack, but still a little shell-shocked complied. "Yea we can go home, dad."

The next day at school, I recounted the whole ordeal in full exaggeration for my friend Clay, a senior and licensed driver, who eagerly volunteered to relieve dad of driving duties. When we got into his tiny Scion wagon later that day, I felt embarrassed for him. Already knowing the tacit dress code of the baseball world, I had put on my best dress pants and a white button-down. Clay was still wearing the argyle-blue thing that he found for the seniors' tacky sweater day at school. This sweater was seriously compromising my credibility, but seventeen miles was a long way to walk.

After parking what seemed like seventeen miles away, we entered the hotel visibly cold, not the professional entrance I had imagined. I led Clay upstairs, only to find most of the media in their rooms and Omar busy attending a scouting banquet. Clay spotted Harold Reynolds and I saw Rick Peterson, but after that it was much quieter than the day before. Feeling slightly cheated, we returned to the forest for over-priced dinner by one of the more exotic two-foot waterfalls. We checked quickly one more time for a wandering General Manager, but it was a school night and we had homework.

Making for the door, however, I saw one last chance for a good story. Steve Phillips, still gainfully employed by ESPN, stood against a railing, looking into the stream. Realizing the potential hilarity of such a souvenir, I approached him and politely asked him to take a picture.

"Sure kid, one second." He then pretended to get a call about Johan Santana getting traded in his headset, ran toward Buster Olney, strategically  positioned by a garden gnome, and pointed toward me and whispered. Then, like girls on a playground, they both quickly scampered away. Incredulous that my opinion of Steve Philips could get any lower, I just stood there.

"You're not going to let Steve Phillips get you down, are you?" Clay asked.

"No."

"Good, he's a dick."

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