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The pulse of the winter meetings has slowed over the years. General managers used to meet in hotel lobbies, have drinks and make trades they would regret in the morning. In 1974, late at night, Philadelphia Phillies G.M. Paul Owens traded catcher Bob Boone to Detroit for three players. In the morning, though, he pulled out of the deal on the concrete legal claim that he had probably had a few too many when he agreed to the deal. "How do you unshake a handshake?" Detroit general manager Jim Campbell asked angrily. But that's how it was—everybody sort of made the rules as they went along.
Now, it's different. General managers mostly stay in their swanky Bellagio suites alongside trusted scouts, sundry statisticians, a fridge filled with bottles of water, and a bank of computers. They look out over the Vegas skyline; they communicate by texting; and they run every trade and free-agent possibility through simulators and accountants. They talk around deals, refuse to be pinned down and exchange lists of players to choose from. Stinking lists.*
*The late Syd Thrift, a longtime scout and G.M. for the Pirates, Orioles and five other teams, used to hate when other general managers gave him lists—"Lists are for grocery stores," he'd say. "Make me an offer."
And it has all grown so complicated, so distant, so jittery. Most executives seem afraid to make a bad trade, afraid to face the instant wrath of the newspapers and talk-radio hosts and bloggers. There are no pigeons left in baseball. It's safer to stay indoors.
"You know what Pat Gillick told me?" said Allard Baird, the onetime Royals G.M. and now an assistant to Theo Epstein in Boston. "I asked him why he got out [in November], after he won the championship in Philadelphia. He said, 'Allard, nobody trades anymore. And that was the whole fun of it.'"
THERE'S ANOTHER rule that Art Stewart picked up in his half century plus in this crazy game: Never leave before the last pitch is thrown. He learned that 50 years ago in Chicago Heights, Ill., on a day when scouts went to check out a young pitcher named Jerry Colangelo—the same Jerry Colangelo who would one day own the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Phoenix Suns. Colangelo got knocked out in the second inning, and all the other scouts headed for another school to look at another prospect.
A new kid came in, one whom everybody called Warm Up because he never got to pitch. Well, Art thought the kid threw pretty well. He stayed—and later signed him. The kid was Jim Bouton, who won 21 games for the Yankees in 1963.
It's 1 a.m. Vegas time, and Art's standing on the carpet, and he's welcoming people like he's in a wedding receiving line.
"We've got to get this deal done," Cubs manager Lou Piniella shouts as he wraps his arms around Stewart's neck.
"Well, if you change a couple of names on your end, we can get it done," Art says.