Getting away from Boston in mid-December sounds like a great idea, and past winter meetings have taken me to Orlando, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Anaheim, all of which were at least comfortable at this time of year. So this year's site isn't exactly getting rave reviews from MLB front office types, like the one who asked me, "Who the heck wants to go to Indianapolis in December? Or ever?"
The answer: The minor leagues.
MLB's winter meetings are actually not MLB's affair, at least not in name. Minor League Baseball sets them up and uses them to hold meetings but also to attract vendors and hold a large job fair. The major leagues have just piggybacked on the minors' meetings for most of the last few decades, and since MLB still lets the minors take the lead, they get a few decidedly minor-league destinations mixed in with the good ones.
"There's not a ton of options in cities that can accommodate all of these rooms and conference space, probably 3-4 ideal sites," according to Tim Brunswick, Executive Director, Baseball Operations for Minor League Baseball.
So why not rotate among those 3-4? "We're trying something new" in Indianapolis, according to Brunswick. "If Indianapolis works with the number of rooms, number of hotels, that setup, maybe it'll open up the door for two or three other cities."
There are a few stalwarts in steady rotation, including Orlando (at the Swan and Dolphin resort in Disneyworld, a great location for everyone except the West Coast contingent, since it's cheap to fly to Orlando and the weather is good) and Dallas, both of which come up in the next two years, with Orlando taking 2010 and Dallas the year after. There is, however, one place to which the meetings are drawn every five years like flies to compost: Nashville.
Why Nashville and its Opryland Hotel complex? "Everything is under one roof, every hotel room, exhibit space, all under one roof," says Brunswick. "I think it's more appealing now than it was 10 years ago."
I spoke to several front office executives about the winter meetings and the site selection, and they all agreed on one thing: The winter meetings should never, ever return to the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, which three of them referred to as the "worst hotel ever" for the confab. One GM said that "it's difficult to prove" that the Opryland makes it harder to accomplish anything, "but it's certainly not conducive because you can't find anybody." Another called it "the biodome" and said "people get sick by the time they're done because you never breathe fresh air." A third said, "I wouldn't care where they are as long as it's not there." Yet another executive was kinder, saying "it's a beautiful hotel, but completely out of place for working baseball meetings; I spent a week in it and had no idea how to get anywhere." I have attended two winter meetings there myself, one with the Blue Jays and another as a member of the media, and I agree with all of the above sentiments and more (I even ranted about it after the 2007 meetings).
Nashville's not an easy or inexpensive place to fly to, and the Opryland soaks guests and non-guests at every opportunity, yet Minor League Baseball is committed to returning there every few years, including a repeat in 2012. There's really no reason why MLB has to tag along in '12 to a location that member clubs seem to so widely despise, especially when the location itself interferes with the work that many teams hope to get done at the event.
Beyond the shared loathing of Nashville, there wasn't much unanimity among the executives I polled. One GM called the winter meetings "antiquated," since everyone now has cell phones and blackberries, so getting all 30 GMs in one place for a few days is no longer the only way to facilitate conversations. While he said the shorter, more agenda-driven GM meetings (held in early November) were more productive, another viewed the two sets of meetings in the opposite light, suggesting that the GM meetings be replaced with a conference call for the rules questions and lamenting the fact that frivolous agenda items crowded out questions that were worth discussing.
Indianapolis and other third-tier locations present another pair of problems. Cold-weather locations like Indy or Boston (which experienced a bad cold snap for the 2001 meetings) create the potential for weather disasters; the '05 meetings in Dallas saw an ice storm come through on the last night that, had it happened 12 hours later, would have stranded a few hundred baseball types in Texas for a day or two. And avoiding touristy destinations like Orlando or Las Vegas means fewer flight options and higher hotel prices when the meeting is in an off city like Indy or Nashville.
Letting Minor League Baseball dictate where the meetings are held is, itself, an antiquated idea. "It's the tail wagging the dog," according to one GM. Another said, "The minor leagues are dependent on the major leagues to give it some buzz." MLB does have some say in the matter -- Brunswick said that his group takes the lead, figures out what cities are available and have the enormous amount of space required to handle the event, and presents the options to MLB -- but it's time for MLB to assert itself more and ensure that these meetings are kept out of the Indianapolises and Nashvilles of the world. One GM suggested splitting the majors and minors into different hotels, as they did in Las Vegas last year, an excellent solution that allows the two sides to meet up for the annual affiliates dinner each club holds in a hotel conference room but kept the media/agent-driven major-league scene separate from the larger minor league crowd.
My personal bias would be for a rotation among four or five southern, touristy cities, like Orlando, Las Vegas, New Orleans (where the meetings were in 2003), and Anaheim or somewhere else in southern California, keeping a good east-west geographic balance, avoiding cold-weather sites and holding travel costs down for participants. All four of those sites have hosted meetings before in hotels that were easy to navigate and made it simple for team executives to find and meet up with their counterparts from other teams. If MLB wants its meetings to be productive, they should sever the tie to Nashville and other inappropriate locations, and if they don't care if the meetings are productive, they shouldn't spend all this money to attend them in the first place.