OXON HILL, Md. — To the outside world, Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings appear a regal gathering of the top executives in the game, swinging potential blockbuster deals between hotel suites while the sport’s biggest fans hold their collective breath. It’s not that this isn’t true, but it’s only a small fraction of what goes on in early December each year as the forces that control our national pastime flock to a single hotel and convention center.
In the past five years or so, the Winter Meetings have become a televised spectacle, with live coverage on multiple networks, both regional and national, throughout the five-day affair. With the exception of a secondary MLB Network set in the lobby area at the Gaylord Convention Center, the rest of media row is perched a level above, away from the real meat and bones of the event, with the view of the Potomac and an oversized, avant-garde fake Christmas tree filling the backdrop.
There are surreal moments as business is conducted outside the gates of the ballpark, with the standard-bearers of the game looking oddly out of place when out of uniform. There’s Bruce Bochy in slacks, carrying a giant cardboard box into an elevator. There’s Brad Ausmus in a button-down, looking confusingly at which escalator he’s supposed to take. There’s Joe Maddon, walking into the lobby bar in a tan leather jacket and taupe pants, to meet nobody in particular, taking a couple pictures with fans, then sauntering off.
But two levels below, countless meetings and discussions are taking place that will have far greater unseen impact on the sport than anything the cameras catch.
Some of these are part of the Professional Baseball Employment Opportunity Job Fair, where roughly 800 job seekers — ranging from college students to lawyers — are vying for about 500 positions in Major and Minor League Baseball ranging anywhere from internships to low-level minor league general manager positions.
Hordes of suited hopefuls line the wall sockets along the carpeted halls outside the convention rooms, charging cellphones they hope will ring with the offer of a foothold, a way into the game. With badges labeled “JOB SEEKER,” they are easy to spot and, for some front office staff from teams with desirable jobs posted, targets to avoid, lest they find themselves hand-shaken and lobbied.
Some are new to the Winter Meetings, but a surprising number are return attendees, people who have already worked in the game in some capacity, but for various reasons are back again, subjecting themselves to the cattle call of the Job Fair. They will drop resumes into the boxes for positions for which they are qualified or think they can land an interview, then wait and hope.
Shane Philipps is on his second Winter Meetings, having attended in 2014 in San Diego, where he landed his entry to the baseball public relations world, a gig with the High Desert Mavericks of the California League, a High-A ball affiliate. He might still be there, not here, except that franchise recently folded, its affiliation moved to a new team in the Carolina League.
“Unfortunately the organization was terminated, and I found myself back here,” he said. “But (I’m) very excited, very eager from that experience I got from my initial Winter Meetings coming back here.”
Despite the bitter taste of having the first rung on the ladder to his career snap underneath him, Philipps is still fully committed to making his way in the game.
“Very much so,” he said. “It’s baseball or nothing.”
Joining Philipps in one of the huddles are aspiring broadcasters Steve Granado and Max Gun. Each knows the slanted supply/demand nature of those looking to broadcast and the jobs actually available to them, but each has toed this rope before. This is Granado’s third Winter Meetings, having landed the Rancho Cucomonga Quakes PR job in 2014 and the Boise Hawks broadcast gig last summer after graduating from Cal State Fullerton. Gun, who graduated from Michigan State in the summer, is on his second Winter Meetings, having followed in Granado’s steps to the Rancho job last year.
Both were disappointed to find that all the broadcast jobs posted this week were only seasonal opportunities, meaning they may have to do this dance all over again next year if they settle on one. But Gun doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing, as it would allow him to focus on another sport in the offseason. He’s also enough of a veteran of these affairs to know that job boards aren’t the only places to find an avenue.
“The main thing is getting out, meeting other people at the bars after hours, shaking hands, introducing yourself,” he said, noting that he plans to stay each night until after midnight despite the fact that he’s staying over in Alexandria. “You never know what can come out of that.”
Granado knows he wants to stay in play-by-play, but is willing to explore the other opportunities that might be out there as well.
“I put two applications in that weren’t broadcast,” he said. “For me, obviously play-by-play is what I want, and I’m trying not to think about what happens if I don’t get it.”
The other action is in the ballroom next door, the same place NatsFest was held in early 2014, where over 250 vendors have gathered to pitch the next generation of technology, infrastructure, entertainment and equipment to not just the 30 big league clubs, but the 160 minor league teams in attendance. In all, over 4,000 baseball professionals and hopefuls will convene at National Harbor this week.
The breadth of products at the Trade Show is a reminder of just how many considerations come with running a professional sports franchise. Vendors sell anything from custom novelty bats to pitching machines, from graphic design work on logo sets to stadium seats, from air and water filtration systems to new video boards.
There are old companies and new ones, all here for the same reason despite their clear differences. There’s American Needle, an apparel company that sells throwback designed shirts and hats, which has been around since 1918. They also sell to high-end department stores like Nordstrom and have been supplying product to minor league teams to sell in their team stores for the past decade.
On the other end of the spectrum is Bottoms Up, a beer dispensing technology that allows for fast, automated, perfect pours of beer through a hole in the bottom of the cup, which is then sealed by a magnet. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t sound like much when you explain it, but opens your eyes when you see it in person. In other words, it’s perfect for the ballpark.
Five years ago, Josh Springer was in a van with a model unit driving up and down the West Coast, hawking his eye-catching product to anyone who would let him demo it. Now his dispensers are in thousands of venues including 37 minor league parks and with teams as high profile as Liverpool FC.
There’s other action around the fringes at National Harbor as well, where league meetings are held to help game plan for the challenges of the upcoming season. There are awards ceremonies and organizational dinners where affiliated minor league clubs get to mingle with their big league counterparts, celebrating another successful year of partnership. Then Thursday morning comes and brings the Rule 5 Draft and the endless stream of guests checking out and heading for the airport.
Years from now, most baseball fans will probably remember this week for the time Chris Sale was traded to the Red Sox. But for thousands of the people who make the sport run, it will be the time they got hired or found the next great amenity that will be enjoyed at the ballpark next season.