MIDNIGHT AT THE Bellagio, and the slot machines are ringing, the Big Six wheel clicks, blackjack dealers are dispensing 13s, and Lou Piniella poses for a photograph with a Chicago family in town to catch the Vegas Christmas spirit. A cocktail waitress looks for the man who ordered the 7 & 7, and she can't find him, so several baseball men nobly raise their hands and chips to save the fair maiden and her orphaned drink. Dice tumble, ice clinks, cards pop, scouts argue about a player who has been out of the game for 20 years, baseball writers stalk the scene like Depression Era hoboes pressing their noses against a restaurant window. Smoke chokes the air, and three women who look to be just off the set of The Real Housewives of Orange County wander through the scene wearing "dresses" (quotation marks necessary), stopping traffic, but only for a moment, because then talk of a three-team trade heats up. The voice of Sinatra croons Let's Face the Music and Dance over the casino sound system, and Tommy Lasorda asks if anyone's heard any more about the Jake Peavy deal. More than anything, however, my feet are killing me, absolutely killing me, because I didn't take to heart the advice of the king.
The king of this year's baseball winter meetings in Las Vegas is an 81-year-old scout for the Kansas City Royals named Art Stewart. He is barely 5'7", and he never played at a level higher than semipro in Chicago, but he's the Sinatra of the baseball bat pack, the chairman of the hoard, the guy behind the guy behind the guy. He has been coming to the winter meetings for 45 years, going back to his scouting days with the New York Yankees, back when he signed the outfielder Norm Siebern by throwing in a working stove for Norm's mother. Art knows everybody, and everybody knows Art, and he will admit that the game has changed, the money has changed, even the baseball people have changed. But there's one thing that hasn't changed, one rule that never changes, and it is this: The secret to the winter meetings is to stand on your own piece of carpet.
"Don't stand on the bare floor," he says. "You have to protect your feet."
You laugh? Don't laugh. See, it's midnight at the Bellagio, and what's happening? All those people who did not find their place on the carpet, all of those eager baseball men who have spent the last five or six hours downing drinks and recalling ballplayers who haven't played in 20 years and proposing deals and standing on the marble floors, well, now their feet hurt. Look at them shifting back and forth. "They're dropping like flies," is how Art puts it, and he adds that over his many years, he's seen countless good guys make bad baseball trades simply because their feet hurt.
"There are tricks to the trade," Art says. "You bet. Tricks to the trade."
LAS VEGAS is not a baseball town, of course. Vegas is a boxing town. Vegas is an event town. Vegas is a tuxedo town, a chandelier town, a Cher town, a magician's town, a dirty-joke town. Vegas is an on-the-rocks, Siegfried-and-Roy, white-tiger, Danke-Schoen, cigar-smoking, Ocean's-Eleven, roller-coaster-through-the-lobby, Eiffel-Tower-replica town. Vegas is the kind of place, as Boston Red Sox senior adviser and baseball oracle Bill James says, where it costs more to get an Internet connection in your room than to have an escort sent up. When you say World Series here, people think poker.
Maybe that's why there isn't a single sign in the lobby of the Bellagio hotel and casino indicating that the winter meetings are happening here. Baseball people have gathered almost every winter since 1904—it may even go back a few years before that—and the meetings have been a point of major interest in New York City* and Chicago and New Orleans and everywhere else.
*The origin of the winter meetings, like the origin of baseball (and the origin of Las Vegas, for that matter), is hazy. But you can probably say the official winter meetings began on Dec. 15, 1911. That was the day that cranky Chicago Cubs owner Charles Murphy became convinced that St. Louis Cardinals manager Roger Bresnahan was trying to steal his first baseman Victor Saier. And so, in the lobby of the Waldorf Hotel in New York City, in full public view, Murphy spent a very long time screaming at Bresnahan, calling him a liar and a thief and promising to run him out of the game. It was quite a scandal. And everyone looked forward to the winter meetings in 1912.
Point is, you get all these baseball executives together, and the drinks start flowing, the talk gets animated, money starts changing hands, human beings get traded, and it is quite a show—the winter meetings have always been the biggest rodeo in town.
Only in Vegas this week, there is a bigger rodeo, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, and everywhere you turn, leathery men in cowboy hats and Volkswagen-sized belt buckles argue on cellphones about whether to go see Donny and Marie at the Flamingo or the showgirls at the Luxor's Fantasy revue. It is the cowboys' town this week. Baseball is an afterthought.