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The Winter Meetings Were Awesome... Eventually

I went to the winter meetings. I was worried it would be all about the economics of the game. What follows is a rambling description of how my worries were unfounded.

MLB: Winter Meetings Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

It rained in San Diego this past Sunday. It never rains in Southern California; I’ve been told that several times on good authority. And yet there I was, crammed into the indoor part of a bar with twenty other baseball people, watching the rain pour down and ruin perfectly good outdoor seating.

There’s a certain lazy narrative trick of picking a weird physical characteristic of the event you want to write about, then linking it back to a more conceptual state. Foreshadowing accomplished, story framed, don’t forget to tip your waiter. As I’m nothing if not a lazy writer, I considered using that same trick with the rain. But it wasn’t a metaphor for free agency, or the gloom befalling sunny baseball. It was just rain, sneakily hard and unceasing rain, pressing people together in the narrow entrance.

My winter meetings journey didn’t quite begin there. I was staying at a hotel fifteen minutes’ walk from the main event, but that hardly mattered. When I walked into the lobby on Sunday, the lobby was overrun -- with vendor dudes in snappy logo polos, with aspiring college-age bros in ill-fitting suits and uncomfortable-looking dress shoes, with hair-gelled-up guys in better-fitting suits and fancy leather portfolios to hold their resumes.

And make no mistake; it was nearly all men. Nearly all white men, to be more precise. Industry conferences aren’t known for their diversity of attendance, no matter the industry, but combine sports with that all-of-us-do-the-same-thing-so-let’s-go-do-it-somewhere-sunny impulse that drives conferences, and the masculinity can be overwhelming.

It’s not necessarily toxic masculinity; it would be hard to call the sweaty, nervous 21-year-olds hoping to latch onto a minor league team toxic. And honestly, it feels kind of bad to dunk on those kids at all: they’re just out here chasing a dream, hustling and striving. The vendors, too, are working; they’re selling their new system of optimizing beer delivery or wearable technology that lets you know how much shoulder flexion your left abductor gets, and this is the best time of year to sell those things.

But the overall vibe is still weird. And that doesn’t even get into the group I belong to. Every night at the winter meetings the two bars at the Hyatt, the hotel hosting the meetings, were packed. In theory, there are Baseball Men hanging out there, grizzled managers and agents and talking heads and lifers. But I never saw them; I mostly saw writers. We were there for work, no doubt, but not in the same desperate, must-get-a-job-right-now way that the job seekers and gadget vendors are.

Here, too, the sense of sameness was overwhelming. The dress code is different; writers favor button-down shirts and polos with the occasional sharp T-shirt, maybe some decent chinos and loafers, but not much in the way of overt branding. The beat writers and national powerhouses had little press lanyards around their necks; the internet guys and striving outsiders merely had a beer in hand as ornamentation.

There’s another group mixing with the writers, in uniforms nearly indistinguishable, though with team logos on the occasional fleece: the Team Analytics Guys -- again, mostly guys -- catching up with friends and grabbing a few team-comped beers after a day of meetings. Many of them were writers, not too long ago, or industry-conference-attenders of some stripe, and they have the wardrobe and code of conduct down pat.

There’s a weird disconnect between individual and group dynamics. Everyone I met, to a person, was tremendously nice to me; if they knew who I was, they had some tucked-away compliment ready, and if they didn’t, they still had some kind words and a wry chuckle at the spectacle of it all. Everyone was there to catch up with some old friends and write a few articles about baseball, and no one seemed so jaded by the grind of doing this year after year that they were abrasive about it.

But put 100 of us together, and it’s a monolith. A small conversation between three similarly-dressed people doesn’t look weird. Thirty of those conversations clustered together is something else entirely, passively telling people who don’t look the same that they need not bother hanging out. It’s nothing overt, not necessarily; just the way that these things go. It’s self-reinforcing, too: breaking into a group that feels wildly different than you is hard and un-fun, and so people don’t do it, which keeps the group homogenous.

I should spare a thought for the democratizing power of the internet: with less face time, there’s less implicit pressure to conform. I’ve never met any of my VEB colleagues in person, and I’d never met any of my FanGraphs colleagues before this past weekend, which makes it harder to feel excluded or weird. Even then, though, there are small pressures: it’s easier to pursue a career in sportswriting if you’re well-off to start with, because buddy, there’s not much money in typing some words about your favorite team on your laptop and beaming them to the internet.

But I’m losing focus. The winter meetings are designed as a celebration of baseball; there were banners everywhere trumpeting the league, a giant press room filled with a gaggle of reporters and all thirty managers, and impromptu agent press conferences forming dense knots of tape-recorder-wielding quote seekers around the lobby. MLB Network talking heads dot the lobby at strategic intervals, filming live or taping interviews for later spots.

You’ll notice, though, that there isn’t much actual baseball there. For the first few days of the meetings, I was struck by that. We were all there because we love baseball; and yet, the closest we got to baseball was one guy walking around carrying a baseball bat for no obvious reason. I focused way too much on this the first few days; why was this celebration of baseball just a hodgepodge of business-looking types milling around in a hotel?

That’s not to say that I wasn’t having fun as I mulled over the paucity of actual baseball. The vicarious thrill of being around Important Things is real, and the chance to meet a ton of people whose work I admired from afar was incredible. I talked to Derrick Goold, who I’ve been reading for years; I was too taken aback and off-balance to tell him how impressive and heroic his life-saving turn at a game this year was. Instead, I said something to the effect of “and I like your column.” I met writers I’ve always admired, and my FanGraphs colleagues are awesome; I’d happily hang out with them in any random context, baseball or otherwise.

But for the most part, it felt as though the meetings were about, not baseball, but the economic trappings of baseball. Contracts, team-building, non-tenders, the Rule 5 draft; you get the idea. We sat in coffee shops or bars, chatted in hotel lobbies; and talked all about the economic gobbledygook that underlies so much baseball analysis these days. Blake Treinen was interesting for his surprising non-tender, Stephen Strasburg for what his contract said about the state of pitching.

If you’re prone to be a little melancholy about the direction baseball is headed in, it could all feel like a little much. Were we there to celebrate a game or the economic machinery built up around that game? Behind closed doors there was more real baseball going on; pitching and hitting coaches interviewing for new jobs or talking to prospective hires about how they’d best improve players. But out in the open, it was just pieces of a game. We could just as easily be talking about an OOTP simulation, or a fantasy salary cap league.

But the last night I was there, just when I was starting to flip from awe at the spectacle of it all and joy at meeting so many of my colleagues and writing idols into a jaded ennui with the commodification of it all, something amazing happened. I was in the hotel bar talking about data infrastructure (baseball writers -- they’re wild!) with a mixed group of FanGraphs writers and industry people when one of them interjected with something completely out of the blue. “Yasmani Grandal -- there’s no way he was the 19th-best player in baseball, right? Forget WAR -- that can’t be right. ”

Just like that, the veil was lifted. We veered off sharply in that direction, talking about Grandal, and then why pitchers like throwing to certain catchers, and then whether Yadi was overrated or underrated and whether Buster Posey could have been a shortstop. Before long, we were talking about games we’d been to as kids, or the time at the conference that someone exchanged a nod with Peter Gammons and got giddy.

We talked about interesting players, childhood heroes, whether the Padres could catch up to the Dodgers in the foreseeable future and how weird it would look to see Bumgarner as a Dodger. The exact topics and the people I had each conversation with are lost to the mists of time; it was 1:30 in the morning on the fourth night of a conference where every night ended at a bar, after all.

But a huge chunk of the room, underneath the discussions of economic austerity and labor relations and team control, was still in love with baseball. One crack in the armor of treating it as an abstraction, and the joy broke through. Maybe all of us, the whole time, thought we were supposed to be talking about the economic engine. But we were there in the first place because of the game.

The meetings ended the next day. By the time the Rule 5 draft started, enterprising hotel staff had hauled down the banners that loudly proclaimed “MLB Winter Meetings 2019” and replaced them with 20 foot tall nutcrackers and a surfeit of Christmas trees. The hotel was back to normal occupancy, sparse in the pre-Christmas season. San Diego was as it always is -- sunny and temperate. My previous night’s epiphany might never have happened, might have been all a dream, the universe seemed to be saying.

But I’ll remember it for quite a while. While baseball is incredibly fun, the discussion of baseball can tend towards mundanity. It’s easy to get lost in all the boring stuff, in figuring out trade values and contract details and roster construction. I’m as guilty of it as the next writer, and potentially more. But that doesn’t mean that people who write about baseball don’t love baseball, or that the team analyst types, poring over datasets for incremental advantages, aren’t really in it for the crack of the bat and the smell of freshly mown grass.

That was my biggest takeaway from the winter meetings. I went there to revel in the glory of baseball, and the spectacle of all thirty teams and their retinue in one place was indeed grand. But I left feeling refreshed. I sometimes worry that baseball is starting to feel like too much of a numbers game, like the exciting stuff happens in spreadsheets rather than on the field. But that will never be the case. The people running the spreadsheets are doing it due to a deep enjoyment of the game, and good luck optimizing that out of the world. Baseball is in the hands of people who love baseball, even if it’s not immediately evident.