Baseball's going to Disney World

Winter Meetings return to Sunshine State for first time since '90s

(Robert Wilson/Jowdy Photography)

By Lisa Winston / MLB.com | December 1, 2006 5:00 AM

We're going to Disney World!

But Mickey and his friends are not at the top of the agenda for the contingent, expected to be close to 2,000 strong, that will gather next week at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel for the Baseball Winter Meetings.

The meetings return to the Sunshine State for the first time since the early 1990s, and that return is certainly welcome after recent years that featured ice storms in Dallas, fog in Nashville and blizzards in Boston.

The irony, though, is that few of the participants will be taking much advantage of the warmth of the sun or lure of the Magic Kingdom. They'll be there for four days and nights packed with pretty much nothing but baseball.

Sure, most of the newspaper stories and sports reports with that Orlando dateline will be telling you about blockbuster trades and free agent signings. But the deal-making, negotiating and general schmoozing is just a part of the overall picture of the Baseball Winter Meetings, especially when it comes to Minor League Baseball.

From Dec. 4-7, folks from all walks of the Minor Leagues will be on hand for meetings, roundtable discussions, the annual Rule 5 Draft (on Thursday morning), awards banquets, and other festivities.

After officially kicking off Monday morning with the annual Opening Session speech by MiLB president Mike Moore, the days will be filled by meetings covering all manners of topics. These range from individual league business, all-star games, public relations, marketing, licensing, travel and Baseball Chapel.

General managers, public relations directors, marketing and sales staffers and more get the rare opportunity to trade ideas, share their successes and learn from one another, all with the shared goal of making the 2007 Minor League season a winning one, not just on the field but off of it.

"I think the one thing unique about our industry is that even though we have all this competition on the field, there is no competition off the field," said Scott Jeffer, assistant general manager of the Toledo Mud Hens, the two-time defending International League champions. "So a lot of this is about sharing ideas with each other. If it works at Louisville and Indianapolis, it might work in Toledo."

One of the unique aspects of the Winter Meetings is that it is one of the rare opportunities during the year for people working in Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball to come together.

As a result, not surprisingly, it's an especially hectic event for members of Major League Baseball's Minor League Operations department, such as senior manager Sylvia Lind.

"It's probably the most hectic five days of the year for us," said Lind. "We deal with so many different groups of people throughout the year that we try to take this opportunity to spend time with people that we usually only talk to on the phone, to try to continue to build on our relationships with them."

One of the marquee official events of the Meetings is the annual Trade Show, a three-day bonanza. It began modestly in 1965, when a few key baseball-related companies such as Louisville Slugger had the bright idea to rent suites at the host hotel to show their wares.

Now, 41 years later, the Trade Show has expanded to more than 300 exhibitors. And one of the key requirements of a host city is a site, such as a convention center, that is massive enough to house the event.

Participating companies hawk everything from apparel to souvenirs to the newest ballpark technology and everything in between. Looking for a new mascot design? Count on a handful of companies that will vie to meet your needs. Have a few empty dates to fill with off-field fun? Let the Zooperstars check their 2007 schedule and see what fits.

While the 300-plus booths line the aisles of the event, hundreds of team executives stroll those aisles looking to fill their souvenir store shelves, calendars and clubhouses.

"There might be five different companies just trying to be a vendor for ticket sales," said Jeffer, who rarely could walk the aisles undisturbed thanks to representing perhaps the single most famous Minor League team in history. "It got to the point where sometimes I'd have to cover where it said 'Toledo Mud Hens' on my badge because everyone is trying to sell something and if they see Mud Hens, they're all over you. Everyone has good products but it can get a little overwhelming."

Each year, there is a full menu of social events built around the meetings, ranging from Monday's Minor League awards luncheon to Wednesday night's gala at Friday's Front Row, a popular Orlando sports bar, to Thursday night's final banquet that features local entertainment and the crowning of the "King of Baseball," which traditionally honors someone in the game for lifetime achievement.

And in between, there is always the lobby. Or maybe that should be "The Lobby."

There are those who will tell you that it's all about the lobby. With the possible exception of the famous (or infamous, depending on your take) Opryland Hotel in Nashville, which is part of the regular Winter Meetings locale rotation, most host hotels share a spacious lobby area, replete with spacious lobby bar, where you can go at any hour and find baseball executives, agents, reporters and other meetings participants.

Some of the biggest blockbuster deals are forged on lobby couches or barstools. And even if you're not one of the dealmakers, it's always the best place for people-watching.

"One of the things that's most fun is midnight in the lobby," said Lind, who is attending her 10th Winter Meetings. "For somebody who grew up as a baseball fan, always hearing about the mysterious Winter Meetings where all these announcements were made, it's intriguing to sit in the lobby and know the people who are making the deals."

Along with the top echelons of Major League Baseball front offices, you'll also see a fair share of fresh-faced young job-seekers who attend the Winter Meetings every year through the PBEO (Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities) Job Fair, hoping to secure a job somewhere in the Minor Leagues.

It's not unlike the Trade Show, in that you have two groups of people looking to find that perfect match. But instead of buying and selling tie-dyed T-shirts and monogrammed plastic cupholders, Job Fair participants are selling themselves -- their baseball knowledge and passion and desire to work, usually, long hours for low salaries to get that first foothold in the world of professional baseball.

Teams from around the country post their job openings, ranging from assistant groundskeeper to office manager to interns of every shape and size. And participants, for a small one-size-fits-all fee, can submit resumes for as many of these jobs as they want.

After this year's Disney World debut, the meetings return to Nashville and Opryland in 2007, followed by Las Vegas (also a Winter Meetings first) in 2008 and Indianapolis in '09 (again, a first-time Winter Meetings site).

Sites have to be chosen several years in advance to accommodate a group of more than 3,000 conventioneers, and the planners try to mix up the locales among the two coasts and the heartland as well other criteria.

By the time the last folks straggle out of the hotel on Friday morning, you can be sure that plans for next year's meetings already will be well underway.

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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