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Behind the Backstop: Inside the Winter Meetings

Tory Hernandez

Tory's experience in the baseball industry includes a four-year stint as the Manager of Baseball Operations for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, where his responsibilities were comprised of contract negotiation, advance scouting, and the development and implementation of the organization's statistical research methods and use of analytics. Most recently, Tory served as the Director of Pro Scouting & Recruiting for Boras Corporation.

For most people, when the calendar shifts from November to December it signals that Christmas is fast approaching. For a Baseball Operations official of a major league baseball club, it means something entirely different. Thanksgiving has come and gone and after a short break from the fast paced business of baseball, the calendar flipping to December initiates a joyful cheer for a club official. While most of the world begins to prepare for opening gifts in 25 days, the baseball fraternity is exercising the final touches on their prep work for the annual Winter Meetings held the second week of December.

For me, I have spent 14 consecutive years at the annual event. My first two years were back when I was that ambitious and starry eyed college student (devoid of a suit and tie though like todayís faction). Back then, my days were spent trolling the lobby and trying to follow up with baseball executives who said they might have a few minutes to meet with me. Those days were spent in elevators with Jim Beattie, former head of baseball operations of the Orioles. Usually, you only have enough time for an unvarnished ďelevator pitchĒ when you get in front of the gatekeepers. Those days were spent attempting to determine if the broad shouldered, distinguished gentleman with the white streaks in his hair was former Padres general manager Kevin Towers. With the shake of the hand and quick introduction, sometimes those days found me clasping hands with someone NOT named Kevin Towers. You live and learn and you network your tail off.

Every five seconds with a club executive is a huge victory for the 21-year-old job seeker. Looking back, those days were the foundation for what was to come. Who knew back then that a pickup basketball game with future executives Jon Daniels, A.J. Preller, Mike Daly and Jeff Bridich would be the kind of networking that would lead to a job working in baseball? A job that someday with a little twist of fate would place you shaking hands with a young college student who thinks you are Thad Levine of the Rangers. Oh the irony. You know youíve made it when years later you are mistaken for a club executive. At that moment, I was proud to correct the young man and let him know that although I wasnít Mr. Levine, I was in fact a guy on the inside.

For the club official, the Winter Meetings are a chance to mingle with the best and brightest in the industry. Itís an opportunity to connect with old friends and a chance to meet new ones. For some, itís a reminder that all the hard work youíve put in and all the late nights and travel have paid off. Strolling into the lobby of the Winter Meetings hotel with your suitcase adorning your team logo, there is a feeling of dignity and honor that envelopes you. You glance over and see Peter Gammons giving an interview, no doubt disseminating the latest rumors. You check-in and get your key, zig-zag through the mob in the lobby, shake some hands, nod a few times, dodge a couple of beat writers and head to the elevator. Letís get to the suite, it's go time!

The two or three days leading up to the Winter Meetings are enduring. There is a lot of prep work that transpires and a lot of collaboration. For me, as the Manager of Baseball Operations, a lot of my work was collecting information, looking up medicals, reviewing scouting reports, analyzing statistics, speaking with our scouts and preparing documents and bundles of information for my GM.

Typically, you are travelling east towards Dallas or Orlando. So, you walk away from the printer long after the clock has struck midnight, piece together your final intelligence briefs and head home to pack for a flight that departs in just a few hours. The party is about to begin!

You awake to the captain announcing that it is safe to move about the cabin and use your electronic devices. Every year, there is always an episode that officially begins the Winter Meetings. Some years, itís simply your arrival to the hotel, or sharing a cab with Jack Zduriencik on the way to the hotel and sitting in the backseat with your GM (Tony Reagins at the time) and striking up conversation about what you hope to accomplish this week. In 2011, for me the Winter Meetings officially began on my flight to Dallas. Waking up to the captain informing me that itís okay to use my electronics is like my father announcing to me on Christmas morning that we can commence the opening of presents. So, on goes the computer and as Iím surrounded by club execs and scouts I look and see that Jayson Werth has signed a seven-year deal with the Washington Nationals. This canít be? Werth, seven years, over a $100 million commitment!? Unreal, Boras did it again! I turn to my right just across the row and share the intel with the Twins people (their pro director at the time lived in California). The games are officially underway! Does this plane go any faster!!??

Youíre finally there and checked-in. Youíve sped to your room, dropped your bags and you head to your general manager's suite. From the top floors you can hear the amazing roar and bustle of the lobby below. Itís a monotonous and unrivaled sound that is like an instant adrenaline shot. You arrive to the suite and are met with bro hugs and huge smiles. Mike Scioscia is there, Tony Reagins, Bill Stoneman, and Eddie Bane. Your top scouts, Gary Sutherland, Jeff Schugel and Brad Sloan are on their way up.

Every club is different in how they conduct business at the Winter Meetings, but every club has a suite where the brain trust congregates. For the Angels, our initial meetings were meant to exchange pleasantries, inform each other of any new information they had learned in the last 24-48 hours and assign teams. Assigning teams meant splitting up the other 29 clubs between the usual 10 of us that were there. Each guy would be appointed about three clubs and it would be each of our jobs to harvest intel and report back to the general manager. This was the discovery phase of the meetings. I usually had the Rangers, Dodgers and Diamondbacks. I had worked for these clubs in the past and I knew a lot of their people, so it played in my favor and enabled me to procure solid information.

Generally, the lobby is where this reconnaissance would take place. We really were just trying to share with others our goals, needs, wants, etc. and learn the same from others. We kept a schedule where we would go down to the lobby, grab some info and reconvene back in the suite. Occasionally, your phone would buzz and itís the GM asking you to return to the suite earlier than scheduled. This generally meant that something was brewing. For us, that could have meant that the Rockies were discussing a deal with us involving Todd Helton. Or, Carl Crawfordís camp at CAA was ready to sit down and talk money. So, back to the suite we would go and hear the latest from the GM. From there, we would talk out our strategy and next step. Then, the waiting game began. The GM might simply be on the speaker phone talking names, or we could be playing the text and wait game. Many times, our GM would leave with his top advisors and head down the hallway to another clubís suite. The rule of thumb though was practicing patience. A lot of the time spent at the Winter Meetings was simply waiting for our next orders or preparing for our next strategy session.

Itís not all fun and games though. Business is being done and the media had their time slots throughout the day when they could gather in the suite and hold mini-press conferences.
Between the waiting, the press, and the long hours on your feet in the lobby to the late hours in the night, the four days at the meetings are a long and tiresome period. There are those moments when you have something brewing and you turn to your smart phone and see a rumor about a trade you and the staff just examined. Who leaked it? How is this out there? There are other times when you see your GM walk back into the suite and he appears encouraged only to turn to the TV a few moments later and see that Miguel Cabrera wonít be an Angel and instead will be donning Tigers blue. The Winter Meetings are not all thinking up trade scenarios and negotiating deals. Usually, the second night is dress up night when we break for dinner and meet in a conference room with all of our minor league affiliates. Itís a reminder to them how much they mean to us and how much we care for their support. Itís a chance to talk prospects and discuss with them some of the better players that will be playing for them in the upcoming season.

There are a lot of meetings to attend. Normally, MLB has a new computer program they want to share with you or the Labor Relations Department of the Commissionerís Office wants to talk about rules changes and new developments on their end. There are a lot of highs and lows, a lot of frustrations and a lot of time waiting. Itís in those moments that I liked to meet with some of the prospective job seekers. It reminded me what a privileged position I was in and brought me back to my younger days when I was energized to become a part of the baseball fraternity.

Every year I was an Angel, Mike Scioscia demanded that we put on a big dinner. The man likes his food and this was always one of my favorite parts of the meetings. We would dine, usually about two dozen of us, talk baseball, judge our lineup, adjust our strategy and EAT. This dinner usually broke up the monotony of sitting in the suite or standing in the lobby. It was a re-energizing of the minds and motivated us to head back to the suite and get a deal done.

Unfortunately for us, we didnít accomplish a lot at the actual meetings in my eight years with the Halos. We did most of our business outside of these forums, but nonetheless this is how it goes for most clubs. If nothing else, you leave with more information and a better understanding of the landscape. The meetings always conclude with the Rule 5 Draft and we would huddle the night before to talk about any players we were looking to draft. Most years, because our prospect depth when I was working with the Angels was quite heavy, we locked up all of our 40-man roster spots. Plus, we picked towards the end of the first round so the Rule 5 wasn't normally an area of procurement. For a lot of clubs though, the last few hours of the final night is set for some roster tinkering and looking for that hidden gem.

Once the last "pass" has been announced at the Draft, the crowd disperses like the running of the bulls in Spain. Everyone canít wait to get out of there and grab their bags so they can head home. Itís another year in the books and a few more hours on an airplane. Back to the office tomorrow and time to continue to build for a championship. Iím exhausted, but I already canít wait for next yearís meetings!