Winter Meetings in paradise

It’s safe to say the first time I went to Winter Meetings — yes, it’s capitalized — as baseball’s newsmaker that bridges the World Series and spring training, it was a far cry from next week’s annual gathering in Nashville.

There was no mystery then about whether the Toronto Blue Jays could be suitable suitors for somebody like Shohei Ohtani…mainly because the Blue Jays were in diapers, so to speak, and no second coming of Babe Ruth was on the horizon. The Grand Ole Opry was on another continent. Everybody packed light, because swimsuits fit nicely in carryon luggage.

Yes, now that you ask, it was Hawaii.

The Winter Meetings have been around since Babe Ruth was the first coming of Shohei Ohtani. It’s for anybody who’s anybody in baseball — and some who aren’t anybody — to get together and trade players, change rules and generally make news. That’s why baseball writers go.

The baseball commissioner was Bowie Kuhn, and he made a few headlines with his “state of the union” address, warning this new thing called free agency was going to make the rich teams richer, and that player salaries and pensions now represented 25 per cent of the games fiscal liabilities. Wouldn’t baseball owners love to have a deal like that today? Kuhn also told Oakland owner Charlie Finley that he couldn’t send the A’s to Denver, nor star pitcher Vida Blue to Cincinnati, because it wasn’t “in the best interests of baseball.”

The Montreal Expos that I covered made a little news, completing a five-player trade that brought them lefthander Rudy May and two lesser pitchers from Baltimore for three journeyman. It didn’t exactly stop the presses, which with an eight-hour time change had probably stopped anyway, but it justified being there.

However, what was most memorable from those Winter Meetings had precious little to do with baseball. My wife and I had never been to Hawaii — wives generally made this trip as a reward for being a single parent for six months, because baseball beat writers are on the job every day — so it was the first time we’d walked into a hotel lobby without doors, and with a warm, welcoming wind. It was our first chance to see what paradise really meant. And it was our first opportunity to have a breakfast of bacon, eggs and pancakes for $1.49 in an open-air restaurant across from the Sheraton Waikiki.

We were at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, a date with added meaning after standing on the Arizona Memorial, not far above 1,000 bodies that remain in the ship to this day. It was a sobering reminder that things are not always perfect, even in paradise.

Getting there and back was also imperfect. We were on baseball writers charters from New York, filled with the rich (?) and famous like Howard Cosell but also cigarette and cigar smoke from him and many others. If you’ve ever spent 11 hours in a confined smoky space, you know that it stains your clothes…and your memories.

Not enough to erase “working” in Bermuda shorts, and body surfing, and sun-bathing in paradise. Did I mention I never went back to the Winter Meetings? Even Nashville can’t top Hawaii.