In about a week, on Dec. 5, the Lords of Baseball, and their legion of GMs, managers, scouts, agents and their megabucks-seeking clients will gather in Dallas for the final ritual of the 2011 season.
Baseball's winter meetings might not be the three-ring circus of horse trading, power drinking, lying and gamesmanship they used to be. But the swap meet remains the biggest and most intriguing convention in professional sports.
Baseball men used to say when Hall of Fame GM Pat Gillick went to the winter meetings, he had every MLB exec on speed dial. And that was before Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the vast, invisible cyber-Cloud that holds all our secrets. Phils GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has 4G, is armed, will travel . . .
I covered 21 winter meetings before social networking took over, back when you had to pick up a landline phone and ask GM X whether he could come to the Phillies' suite at 3:30 p.m. Oh, yes, snacks and adult beverages would be served.
Gentlemen, shuffle your cards and start dealing . . .
My first winter meetings was San Francisco in 1968. The last was Miami Beach in 1991.
Here are some highlights and lowlights, with an insincere apology to my liver:
* Los Angeles, 1970: The meetings were hosted by the California Angels, Gene Autry's team. The Cowboy had put some Hollywood pals in the front office, and I was schmoozing with a venerable club PR official at a welcoming party. The man kept proudly mentioning his "companion," a longtime Hollywood actress. I finally asked her name. "Arline Judge," he replied.
Arline Judge was my second cousin. The B-movie femme fatale grew up in Bridgeport, Conn., as part of my dad's extended family. Arline achieved frequent gossip-column notoriety by marrying seven times. No. 2 was future Yankees co-owner Dan Topping, who married six times himself.
* New Orleans, 1974: The Phillies party could not get in the Roosevelt Hotel headquarters. So they booked in a second-string joint down toward the river. Paul Owens had a suite that featured red velvet wallpaper, mirrored ceilings and an enormous bear rug in the living room. All it needed was a madam. That was where a well-lubricated Pope traded catcher Bob Boone, righthander Larry Christenson and a prospect to Tigers GM Jim Campbell for over-the-hill catcher Bill Freehan, aging outfielder Jim Northrup and a minor leaguer. When owner Ruly Carpenter returned from an owners' party up the river, Hugh Alexander informed him of the "trade." Ruly went ballistic. At a news conference the next morning, Campbell asked, "I want to know, how the hell can the Phillies unshake a handshake?"
* Hollywood, Fla., 1975: Frustrated by the lack of trade action, new White Sox owner Bill Veeck ordered GM Roland Hemond to set up a trading desk in the lobby of the Diplomat Resort the final day of the meetings. By the midnight deadline, Veeck, scheduling meetings every 15 minutes, had acquired eight players, including Braves star Ralph Garr.
I arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the next day to do a piece on Jim Bunning, who was managing a winter league team. While I was collecting my luggage, Orlando Cepeda was collecting his in another terminal, a suitcase from Venezuela containing enough marijuana to land him in federal prison.
* Dallas, 1980: World champions at last, Phils GM Paul Owens hosted dinner at a Mexican restaurant in the fabulous Loews Anatole Hotel (The Hilton Anatole is this year's headquarters). "Yo, Jose," the Pope greeted our waiter, "take good care of us, comprende? We're Numero One-O . . . "
* Dallas, 1980: 3 a.m. Phone jangles. Phils PR Veep Larry Shenk says. "Come right up. We just traded for Sutter. Can't tell you who for. Just come up." I still had 2 hours to deadline. Owens, some scouts, Hugh Alexander and manager Dallas Green had already started the celebration. Writers came trickling in. Shenk began, "Gentlemen, the Phillies have acquired righthanded pitcher (long pause) William Burke Suter. That's S-u-t-e-r with one 'T.' " Not Hall of Fame relief pitcher Bruce Sutter. Great gotcha . . .
* Dallas, 1980: The annual Wednesday managers luncheon was about to begin. Each skipper headed a table hosting the media covering his team. One manager was conspicuously absent. On his way to the function room, Giants skipper Dave Bristol was told by a PR type to go immediately to owner Bob Lurie's suite. Where Dave was fired. Bon appetit . . .
* Dallas, 1980: Phillies' lowlight of those tempestuous meetings came in the first formal event - the Rule 5 draft of eligible players not on a major league 40-man roster. The Pope tried to slip "injured" Class A outfield prospect George Bell through so they could protect some obscure pitcher. Pat Gillick, top scout Al Lamacchia and the Blue Jays didn't buy the injury deception. When Gillick called Bell's name, a string of F-bombs went off at the Phillies' table that could have sunk a battleship. Bell went on to become an American League MVP.
* Honolulu, 1982: MLB was back at the Sheraton Waikiki for the third time. Phillies Minister of Trade Hugh Alexander took rookie owner Bill Giles by the hand and walked him through the art of the deal while orchestrating the famed five-for-one deal that brought Indians outfielder Von Hayes to the Phils for a package led by All-Star Manny Trillo, hotshot shortstop prospect Julio Franco and three minor leaguers. The Bopper must have been a slow study. A couple of months later, he traded Larry Bowa and Ryne Sandberg to the Cubs for Ivan DeJesus.
* Miami Beach, 1991: My all-time best gambit. The famed Joe's Stone Crabs does not take reservations. When ABC and ESPN star Dick Schaap heard I was going to the meetings, he told me he was pals with Joe's owner and would set me up. I called the maitre d' and was told to walk directly to his station. So, with three fellow scribes in tow, I breezed past a line of baseball's best and brightest stretching halfway down the block. "Bill Conlin, party of four" boomed over the speaker. We were led to a ringside table and seated amid baleful glares that could have cooked those succulent stone crabs.