April 19, 2014

Winter Recess

December 13, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

“In the bleak midwinter

Frosty wind made moan;

Earth stood hard as iron,

Water like a stone.”

- Christina Rossetti

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Doubleday Field, Cooperstown

The winter meetings have come and gone.

Theo Epstein (currently known in New England as Santa Claus) and the Boston Red Sox have succeeded brilliantly in signing both Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, thus promising a very bright future for the organization.  The seven-year $126-million-dollar Jayson Werth will soon make his way to the nation’s capital.   The ink on Jeter’s contract is now dry, though hard feelings about lack of respect may linger in Tampa and the Bronx for some time.

The rolling bags have traveled home from Orlando, all the Blackberries and iPads and microphones too, as the Swan and Dolphin Resort clears its suites for incoming holiday guests, cleans its corridors and meeting rooms to make way for another full week of conferencing executives, maybe a few celebrities too. The big baseball networks have returned to their broad desks and familiar turf in Bristol and Secaucus.   Peter Gammons is back home in Massachusetts, declaring Adrian Gonzalez “one of the great human beings in the sport” and simultaneously celebrating a formidable Boston lineup, an exciting aggregate defense, and the return of pinball to Fenway Park, while CC Sabathia has made it known to the New York Daily News that the Yankees are the team to beat in 2011.

(Oh, and by the way, go Pats.)

For one bustling week in early December, the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort housed the game of baseball. Hailed in a recent MiLB article as “the epicenter of fun and excitement,”   Lake Buena Vista and its numerous attractions temporarily filled the void that baseball itself left behind not very long ago, offering a venue in which “unforgettable surroundings inspire creativity” and where “elegance and sophistication await.”  The Swan and Dolphin hosts all kinds of visitors:   families seeking magic, baseball executives signing contracts, numerous corporations gathering for meetings. Deloitte & Touche, Lotus Development Corporation, and the Metal Powder Industries Federation, to name a few.

The elaborate hotel pleases its guests with “huge rooms and the best beds of any resort yet.” Goofy shows up at breakfast.   “Every family should go here at least once,”  states one traveler.   The only complaint you might hear is that the hotel is often “full of grumpy conventioneers untouched by the Disney spirit.”

With its numerous conference rooms, eateries, spacious lobbies and luxury suites, Disney World offers an impressive setting for a sports meeting:   Shula’s Steakhouse, Picabu, Shula’s Lounge, Java Bar, Todd English’s Bluezoo, Kimonos, Splash Grill, Grotto Pool, Dolphin Lap Pool, Swan Lap Pool, White Sand Beach, Watercraft Rentals, Meru Temple and Tea Garden Mandara Spas.   If you didn’t have an opportunity to attend baseball’s winter meetings,  you might enjoy the event belatedly by taking a virtual  tour.

The lobbies and hallways and suites of the Swan and Dolphin accommodated a good deal of activity last week.  From my vantage point (sitting at home in a chair), there was  an ample amount of looking forward and looking back, intelligently so.  Many animated conversations took place, both retrospective and prophetic in nature, as seasoned broadcasters spoke with the assuredness of hindsight and the happy what-ifs of possibility.

While experiencing the winter meetings from afar, I couldn’t help but wonder what tense I was living in:  past, present, or future.   Straddling  the realms of what was and will be, virtually every televised dialogue looked back or forward in time, to the extent that the present tense seemed to vanish.   For one whole week, that sense of being alive in the moment – which is the very essence of baseball, it seems to me -  didn’t even exist.   The only certainty that existed in the present  time was the bold mark of a dollar sign, usually followed by nine numbers and two commas.  That appeared to be the single most important reality.

The winter meetings were not the only source of news in baseball that lifted us out of the present.  As late November gave way to December, in came the ballots and the names of candidates eligible for next year’s Hall of Fame inductions.   Time to look back over 33 careers … then fast forward to what may happen come July 2011.  Even as the futures of top prospects and the contracts of elite players loomed large in Disney World, the past  continued to assert itself in sobering ways:   the untimely loss of Ron Santo; the melancholy news about Bob Feller; the sorrowful sense of beloved players slowly passing, as if to make room for other figures on the diamond.

So much of baseball is memory and nostalgia, speculation and projection, looking back on what once was and may never be again, on what might have been, and what may yet be.

And yet it’s the present – the sense of being acutely alive while watching a game – that drew most of us to baseball in the first place.    What seized our imaginations upon first encountering baseball was that exhilarating sensation of being  fully alive in the present moment – as the pitch crosses the plate, as the batter takes his swing and connects, as we reach out to embrace or high-five the person beside us, while believing however temporarily that life is most assuredly good.    In the beginning we bonded to a game and it captivated us because it was happening in ways that made us feel conscious of living happily now, unlike so many other mediocre experiences we tolerate throughout the years.

But a good deal of baseball is lived disproportionately in the past and in the future, maybe even in the subjunctive mood and conditional tense.  Has been, was, will be, might be, if, what if, woulda, coulda, shoulda. Not much is in baseball. Not during the off season.    Not in winter.

There are few forms of activity I enjoy more than a baseball conversation, which deals mostly in past, future, and subjunctive.    I dread the off season as much as any fan, and just like you, I find ways to fill the void.     Baseball conversation goes a long way in doing so.

So, for a week in early December with supper on my lap, I watched the on-air personalities talk about baseball night after night, until Harold Reynolds grew hoarse and Greg Amsinger looked weary, even as they engaged the ever-youthful Jed Hoyer in a substantive discussion about the Gonzalez trade, then sought to elicit information from Tom Verducci about the HoF balloting, and as they playfully mimicked Ron Washington for his irrepressible antics in the dugout; then there was talk  of moving Neftali Feliz to a starting role, a topic that got Mitch Williams fired up, just as you might expect; and finally things began to wind down as everyone wondered what to make of Cliff Lee, who was reportedly hunting somewhere out on Nolan Ryan’s expansive Texas property.

My favorite conversation during the winter meetings was one that took place between Kevin Millar and Ozzie Guillen.  It wasn’t really about anything, and perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it so much.   Ozzie offered a few bits of expletive-free wisdom regarding the future of the AL Central, including the relative significance of  Victor Martinez returning to the division.   But for the most part, it was a light-hearted, energetic give-and-take between Guillen and the ever affable Millar.   Clothe Kevin Millar in a dark wool suit with a lavender tie, sit him at an executive desk with an MLB studio microphone, and he’s still a cowboy.

Suddenly the winter meetings didn’t feel like meetings anymore.  And they didn’t feel like winter, either.   The discourse between two baseball guys wasn’t dry and speculative;  instead, there was a joie de vivre on the set that closely resembled the joy and immediacy of a real game.   Maybe this happened because a former player knows how to cowboy up at the Swan and Dolphin, just as he once did in the clubhouse and on the field at Fenway Park, all the way to that blissful final out of the 2004 World Series.   It’s as if the momentum of that victory continues to drive the spirit of one man who cannot stop smiling and can hardly sit still in the lobby of an Orlando hotel.

I don’t love the quiet days and empty nights when the games of summer aren’t playing on our television screen and when nothing is happening on the field just a mile from home.   When the skies grow dark at three in the afternoon, you look to something to fill the void.

As I turned the page on the 2010 winter meetings, leaving them in the past where they belong, I realized that one key ingredient was missing at the Swan and Dolphin in the midst of all the attractions and the important news that surfaced and the distinguished personalities who walked Disney’s lobbies.    There was no field.    You can’t have baseball without a field.

The field I know in December is a snowy place.

In New England we sometimes talk about “putting the garden to bed” in winter, only to witness its resurrection come spring, just as our ball fields lie dormant until the kids wake them up again in milder weather.  Much as I love the talk of the game, a warm-weather destination, and the dramatic trades that promise an exciting new season, the winter meetings of Walt Disney World are mostly a teaser full of tenses outside the present.   They aren’t baseball.   Baseball is the snowy field a mile from home, waiting for players to return again.

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