This article was written by Steve Weingarden
This article was published in the Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016
Introduction and Context
The 2009 Winter Meetings were held in Indianapolis – representing a Northern host city for just the fifth time in 43 years; in fact, this was the farthest-north host city associated with a minor-league team since the 1966 meetings were held in Columbus, Ohio. While Indianapolis provided amiable temperatures, player movement was only lukewarm. Gloom from the continuing dreary economy provided a shadow over the meetings, and slowed down overall movement. Mostly, the meetings served as a precursor for moves that occurred much closer to Opening Day.
The meetings had been awarded to Indianapolis in 2006. The Winter Meeting decision makers “were worried about the cold weather, our hotel situation and other accommodations,” said Indianapolis Indians Chairman Max Schumacher, who was the force behind bringing the meetings to the city.1 Schumacher had endured rejection three previous times in his quest to host the meetings. For Schumacher and his International League club, however, the value of hosting the meetings drove toward a “no surrender” approach. In a city where the competition for the sporting dollar included the Indianapolis 500 and the NFL’s Colts – a team with a strong recent history (they won the Super Bowl in 2007) – it was essential to make an imaging statement about the importance of baseball. Some 5,000 attendees made their way to the Indiana Convention Center for the meetings, held December 7-10, providing a $3.865 million impact for Indianapolis.2
Like the 2008 meetings, the 2009 meetings lacked teeming player movement. Going into the meetings, the major player questions involved the eventual homes of two right-handed pitchers, Roy Halladay and John Lackey, and two position players, outfielders Jason Bay and Matt Holliday.3 Halladay’s situation garnered the most pre-meeting discussion. Despite his expressed affinity for the city of Toronto, Halladay sought to pitch for a team that had a realistic chance at the World Series, and held spring training near his home in Tampa, Florida.4 Halladay was cool toward talks of a contract extension that would keep him with the Blue Jays beyond the 2010 season, and that partly fueled the need to deal the former Cy Young Award winner.5 The end result was a complicated blockbuster that involved the Blue Jays, Philadelphia Phillies, Seattle Mariners, and Oakland A’s. The Phillies acquired Halladay and sent Toronto two top prospects, right-hander Kyle Drabek and catcher Travis d’Arnaud, along with outfielder Michael Taylor. The Jays flipped Taylor to Oakland, receiving third baseman Brett Wallace in exchange. Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. then swapped left-hander Cliff Lee to the Mariners and received three minor-league prospects: right-handers Phillippe Aumont and J.C. Ramirez, plus outfielder Tyson Gillies.6 Lee, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, had been acquired by the Phillies at the end of July and had been especially valuable in the postseason, winning four of his five starts, including the team’s only two World Series victories against the New York Yankees.7 However, he had only one year left on his contract.8 These deals began brewing at the Winter Meetings and were consummated just over a week after they ended.9
Rumors of a different blockbuster trade emerged on the first day of the meetings. A 12-inning loss to the Twins in a tie-breaking game 163 kept the Tigers out of the postseason, but word leaked out that Detroit was considering sending their All-Star center fielder and fan favorite, Curtis Granderson, to the Yankees, while right-hander Edwin Jackson, a power-armed starting pitcher, was rumored to be on his way to the Arizona Diamondbacks. In both cases, the Tigers would receive top prospects in return, a broad hint that the team might be thinking about the future rather than the present, a situation mostly unfamiliar to the Tigers during the tenure of general manager Dave Dombrowski. The Tigers had initiated each trade discussion separately nearly a month prior to the Winter Meetings, but the needed framework for the three-team deal evolved at the meetings, and the final deal was made toward their end. Indeed, Granderson went to the Yankees, their sole prize from the exchange. Jackson transferred to the Diamondbacks, along with right-handed starting pitcher Ian Kennedy, who came from the Yankees. Meanwhile, the Tigers received center fielder Austin Jackson and lefty Phil Coke from the Yankees; and right-handed starting pitcher Max Scherzer and left-handed reliever Daniel Schlereth from the Diamondbacks.10
The Mariners – with the successful acquisition of Lee still a few days away – signed free-agent Chone Figgins, a speedster, All-Star and 2009 American League base-on-balls leader, to a four-year contract. Hopeful that the slick fielding third baseman with defensive versatility would help boost their pathetic 2009 team on-base percentage, the Mariners cautioned that their reshuffling might not be done.11
The end of the meetings turned into stories of the “unwanted.” The Atlanta Braves had been seeking a new home for reliever Rafael Soriano, and the Tampa Bay Rays obliged, sending Atlanta reliever Jesse Chavez in an exchange of right-handers completed the day after the Winter Meetings concluded. 12 The reported reason the Braves needed to make this deal was interesting. Earlier they had signed two free-agent relievers – southpaw Billy Wagner and right-hander Takashi Saito – for a little more than $10 million.13 They made these moves because they expected that Soriano would decline their offer of arbitration.14 When he did accept, however, the chagrined Atlanta front office sought new accommodations for their former pitcher.15
The Boston Red Sox tried to send third baseman Mike Lowell to the Texas Rangers. The MVP of the 2007 World Series would turn 36 before Opening Day, and the Red Sox were looking to get younger. Despite Boston’s offer to pay a lot of money toward his salary, the trade fizzled a couple of weeks later when Lowell failed a physical and the Rangers stamped him “return to sender.”16 Near the end of the meetings, Jeff Borris, agent for all-time home-run and RBI leader Barry Bonds, announced that Bonds’ career was probably complete. Borris noted, “When 2008 came around, I couldn’t get him a job. When 2009 came around, I couldn’t get him a job. Now, 2010. … I’d say it’s nearly impossible. It’s an unfortunate ending to a storied career.”17
The stories for many of the available players, including Lackey, Bay, and Holliday would not be told until well after the Winter Meetings.
The Business Side
With the growing importance of quarterly meetings, changes in how baseball business was being transacted had become something of a nonstory. Many business stories hit the press before the arrival of the meetings. Red Sox owner John W. Henry publicly grumbled about the revenue-sharing system and paid for it in the sum of a $500,000 fine by the commissioner’s office. Henry argued that baseball was funding several teams that were consistently noncompetitive. He proposed a new revenue-sharing system and pointed out that, “It’s amazing because owners, some of the most ardent capitalists in the country – who have all made their fortunes through capitalism, have imposed a tax system on baseball they would never sit still for in any of their industries.”18
The behavior of two other large-market ownership groups made Henry’s plea for sympathy more difficult to entertain. The Ricketts family purchased the Chicago Cubs a few months prior to the Winter Meetings.19 During the meetings, word broke that Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts had met with the governor of Florida about a possible spring-training move from Arizona to Naples.20 The Cubs had trained in Arizona since 1952 (with the exception of 1966),21 and this potential move, seemingly driven by greed, failed to sit well with Cubs fans.22 In Los Angeles, the co-owners of the Dodgers, Frank and Jamie McCourt, had begun what proved to be a bitter divorce, with their complaints about money being way out of touch with the “average Joe.”23 As the Winter Meetings approached, it was unclear how the Dodgers could even function. Within weeks of the meetings, however, it was almost “magically” announced that Dennis Mannion, and not Frank McCourt, had led the Dodgers over the last year.24 The announcement, while likely meant to assuage nervous Dodgers fans, probably created more questions and disbelief.
Escaping the madness of the owners was longtime Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Don Fehr. Fehr had announced plans to step down in June 2009, and that transition became complete when the union’s executive board approved Michael Weiner as the new executive director at their annual meeting. Coincidentally, one of Weiner’s first official statements was to reject Henry’s brainchild for a new revenue-sharing plan, a conceptualized team payroll minimum that Weiner opposed because, he felt, it could have been the beginnings of a salary cap.25
On the first day of the Winter Meetings, the Hall of Fame revealed new inductees Whitey Herzog and Doug Harvey.26 Herzog, a longtime manager, led the Kansas City Royals to three consecutive American League West crowns and guided the St. Louis Cardinals to a 1982 World Series triumph. Harvey umpired for 31 seasons and was part of six All-Star Game crews. Both men gained election via the Veterans Committee for Managers and Umpires. The Veterans Committee for Executives and Pioneers failed to induct any candidates, which caused yet another round of questions about what qualifications were lacking in union pioneer Marvin Miller.27
In a more sensible public-relations move, Pat Courtney, MLB’s vice president of public relations, on the first day of the meetings was named recipient of the Robert O. Fishel Award for Public Relations Excellence.28
At the minor-league level, National Association President Pat O’Conner recognized the difficult economy as a challenge to operators, and encouraged considerations around ticket pricing as well as out-of-the-box thinking.29 He also highlighted three initiatives. O’Conner noted the continuation of Minor League Baseball’s diversity initiative, started the year before. The initiative had five focuses: race and gender diversity of ownership within the industry; executive-level management; staff-level employment; diversification of the fan base; and development of business-to-business opportunities between Minor League Baseball and a diverse network of businesses. O’Conner called on Wendy Lewis, MLB’s lead diversity executive, to stand up and be recognized as he spoke about the diversity initiative.
A second initiative focused on a partnership with the Baseball Hall of Fame. Included in this work were special membership opportunities for Minor League Baseball employees and fans, ideas for promotions during the season, and unique gifts that could be shared with sponsors, season-ticket holders, and corporate partners. Representatives from the Baseball Hall of Fame were also on hand, and acknowledged by O’Conner.
Finally, O’Conner noted that Minor League Baseball would take over Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida, with eyes on the creation of Vero Beach Sports Village. (Minor League Baseball had hoped to use the name Historic Dodgertown, but the Dodgers blocked an agreement.)30
Like other Winter Meetings from recent years, the 2009 affair was marked by a modest amount of player movement and business activity. However, while limited in amount, the changes were consequential. The blockbuster trade remained a hallmark of Winter Meetings, with deals involving three or more teams being completed, or at least significantly advanced, at this gathering in Indianapolis. As with many meetings in years past, some troublesome and outspoken owners – seemingly all driven by financial futures – added bends in the complexion and provided fodder for all attendees. Leadership in the players’ ranks turned over, a fairly rare occurrence; and past leadership within the player ranks continued to be shunned by bodies associated with recognition of the game. Topics like diversity earned more conversation and planning at the minor-league level. The success of Indianapolis as a host city, upending the traditional unsubstantiated mindset that the meetings could only be held in warmer climates, perhaps paved the way for future meetings in the North – although the next three meetings were to be held in Lake Buena Vista (Florida), Dallas (Texas), and Nashville (Tennessee). In all, 2009 proved to be a rich set of experiences, setting the stage for coming seasons.
1 Anthony Schoettle, “Baseball Meetings Let Leaders Tout Indianapolis to Influential Audience,” Indianapolis Business Journal, December 5, 2009, accessed March 11, 2011 ibj.com/baseball-meetings-let-local-leaders-tout-indianapolis-to-influential-audience/PARAMS/article/14930.
2 Indianapolis Visitor & Convention Bureau, email message to author, February 26, 2010.
3 Ken Davidoff, “Winter Meetings Time for Talk, Trades,” Newsday, December 6, 2009.
4 Geoff Baker, “An Ace of a Deal – Zduriencik’s Groundwork Brings Lee to Mariners; Seattle GM Is Catalyst in Complicated Swap,” Seattle Times, December 17, 2009: C-1.
5 Shi Davidi, “Halladay’s Situation With Jays Unchanged,” Guelph (Ontario) Mercury, November 24, 2009.
6 “Phillies Complete Halladay Deal,” ESPN.com news services, December 17, 2009, accessed September 19, 2017.
7 Long-awaited Halladay, Lee deal finally completed,” Waterville (Maine) Morning Sentinel, December 17, 2009.
8 “Phillies Complete Halladay Deal.”
9 Geoff Baker, “An Ace of a Deal…” Seattle Times, December 17, 2009: C-1.
10 Jason Beck, “Tigers Complete Three-Way Blockbuster,” MLB.com, December 9, 2009. Accessed March 11, 2011. mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20091208&content_id=7778470&vkey=news_mlb&fext=.jsp&c_id=mlb.
11 Associated Press, “Angels Ship Figgins to Mariners,” Daily Local News (West Chester, Pennsylvania), December 9, 2009: 23.
12 Roger Mooney, “Rays Open Checkbook for Soriano to Close,” Tampa Tribune, December 11, 2009: 3.
15 Alden Gonzalez and Rhett Bollinger, “Doc Sweepstakes Intensify,” MLB.com, December 10, 2009. Accessed March 11, 2011. mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20091209&content_id=7781380&vkey=news_mlb&fext=.jsp&c_id=mlb.
16 Jeff Wilson, “Texas Rangers Say No on Trade for Boston’s Mike Lowell,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 20, 2009: C14.
17 John Shea, “Bonds’ Agent Concedes Slugger’s Playing Days Are Over,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 10, 2009, accessed March 11, 2011 articles.sfgate.com/2009-12-10/sports/17182403_1_jeff-borris-bonds-career-federal-grand-jury.
18 Nick Cafardo, “Sox Owner Wants to Overhaul MLB’s Revenue Sharing System,” Boston Globe, December 1, 2009, boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/extras/extra_bases/2009/12/red_sox_owner_j.html
19 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “New Cubs Owner Scoffs at Curse – No Big Changes Are Planned for a Team That He Believes Can Win It All in 2010” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 2, 2009: B8.
20 Rodney Johnson, “Mesa Faces Stiff Competition to Keep the Cubs: Decision Expected in January,” Phoenix Examiner, December 5, 2009.
22 Ken Belson, “Promises and Perks to Try to Lure Cubs from Arizona,” New York Times, January 29, 2010: B13.
23 Bob Keisser, “’McCourtship’ Will Be Must-See Reality Show,” Daily Breeze (Torrance, California), October 24, 2009: 3B.
24 T.J. Simers, “Morning Briefing: At End of the Day, It’s Mannion,” Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2009: C2.
25 Ronald Blum, “Players Want Longer First Round of Postseason,” Associated Press Archive, December 3, 2009.
26 “Doug Harvey, Whitey Herzog Elected to Hall of Fame by Veterans Committee,” National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, December 7, 2009. Accessed March 11, 2011. baseballhall.org/news/voting-news/doug-harvey-whitey-herzog-elected-hall-fame-veterans-committee.
27 Mel Antonen, “Herzog, Harvey Receive Hall Call – Ex-union Head Miller Falls Two Votes Short,” USA Today, December 8, 2009: 2C.
28 “Courtney Named 2009 Fishel Award Recipient,” MLB.com, December 7, 2009. Accessed March 11, 2010. mlb.mlb.com/news/press_releases/press_release.jsp?c_id=mlb&content_id=7769496&fext=.jsp&vkey=pr_mlb&ymd=20091207.
29 “Pat O’Conner’s Opening Session Speech,” MiLB.com, December 7, 2009. Accessed September 23, 2017. milb.com/milb/news/pat-oconners-opening-session-speech/c-7766542
30 Ed Bierschenk, “It’s Out With Old, in With New at Vero Beach Sports Village,” Vero Beach (Florida) Press Journal, December 23, 2010: 1.