Winter Meetings generate behind-the-scenes lore
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Johnny McNamara was amused at the way a rumor could fly around the hotel lobby at the Winter Meetings.So during the 1980 gathering at the Anatole Hotel in Dallas, McNamara, who was the manager in Cincinnati, Jim Fregosi, the manager of the California Angels, and a writer decided that they would circulate around the lobby asking people if they had heard San Francisco was going to hire Alvin Dark as its manager. Within a couple of hours, Giants general manager Spec Richardson was seen in a heated discussion with Giants owner Bob Lurie, Richardson was upset that Lurie had hired Dark to manage the Giants without even consulting Richardson for his opinion. Lurie was at a loss to answer. The headlines over the next few days will be on deals that are done or fall apart during baseball's annual December gathering, being held at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville this year. But there are the sub-stories that so often lead to the chuckles that are as much a part of the Winter Meetings lore as trades and free-agent signings. The final day of the Meetings is highlighted by the Rule 5 Draft, in which teams can pay a $50,000 fee and select players who have at least four years of professional experience, but were not placed on 40-man rosters. It is how the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Roberto Clemente from the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was a key component to the building of the expansion Toronto Blue Jays, whose selections in their early years included George Bell from Philadelphia, Willie Upshaw from the New York Yankees and Kelly Gruber from Cleveland. And then there was the 1988 Rule 5 Draft. With the first selection of the process, the Atlanta Braves selected right-handed pitcher Ben Rivera from the Atlanta Braves. Seems there had been a clerical mistake on Rivera's service time, and the Braves, not wanting to risk losing the live arm of Rivera, paid themselves $50,000 to select Rivera. Rivera finally made it to the big leagues in 1992, appearing in eight games with Atlanta before being dealt to Philadelphia for Donnie Elliott. During the 1979 Winter Meetings in Toronto, the California Angels were set to acquire right-handed pitcher Craig Swan from the New York Mets for 21-year-old shortstop prospect Dickie Thon. With the two teams headed to the media room to make the announcement, Mets president Lorinda de Roulet, whose mother Joan Payson was the team's original owner, told Angels general manager Buzzie Bavasi that the Mets wouldn't make the deal because Thon "is so young." Bavasi, taken aback, replied, "If you want an older shortstop, you can have Bert Campaneris [who was 37]." And then there was the 1978 Winter Meetings in Orlando, Fla. During the previous summer, the Detroit Tigers had selected Michigan State wide receiver Kirk Gibson in the first round of the Draft, and sent him to Class A Lakeland of the Florida State League. Gibson had the cockiness of an All-American football player, and it rubbed some of his teammates the wrong way. One day Bryan Lambe, the Orlando coach and a former New York state high school wrestling champion, called Gibson on his attitude and pinned him in the middle of the clubhouse. Bill LaJoie, who was the Tigers' scouting director and No. 2 in command, worked to keep the incident quiet, knowing that general manager Jim Campbell would probably fire Lambe if learned of the incident with Gibson, a personal favorite of Campbell. At the annual Winter Meetings dinner with Minor League affiliates, Campbell, who was promoting manager Jim Leyland from Orlando to Triple-A Evansville, asked Orlando officials who they wanted to replace Leyland. He was told Lambe was their choice. Campbell was curious why there was such interest in Lambe. "Anybody who can pin Kirk Gibson is good in my book," Campbell was reportedly told. Lambe didn't get the job. He got fired. Lajoie was right. Lambe now laughs that when he went to work at the Major League Scouting Bureau, Lajoie called him and told him if he had known Lambe wanted to scout, the Tigers would have had a job available. "I told him you released me as a player and fired me as a coach, and I'm not going to go 0-for-3 with you," Lambe said with a laugh.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.