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December 19, 2012

Sobsequy

The Strange Sights of the Winter Meetings Trade Show

by Adam Sobsey

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In the spirit of the Winter Meetings Trade Show, which took place in a huge room right below the media workroom in the Gaylord Opryland, here is some quantity over quality, a partial list of things for sale or rent or perusal:

Foul pole banners, fence mesh, outfield signage, “oversized backlits”: things you don’t see but which are performing vital functions both promotional and utilitarian. What you come away with is the suddenly strong sense that much of the baseball experience is dictated by objects and phenomena that you don’t even notice.

Trash cans, benches, stadium seating: things you would think teams would just order from big industrial suppliers but which in fact are specially designed, painted, and logoed for the particular aesthetics and needs of individual ballparks.

Radar guns, pitching cages with radar guns, batting cages: things originally designed for ballplayer use that have crossed over into fan fun. Attendees of the Winter Meetings Trade Show could be seen in shirt and tie, taking turns throwing pitches in the cage, averaging around 70 mph. Usually with a beer in the non-throwing hand.

Scoreboards, video boards, video graphics: an eye-opening reminder that these are perhaps the most prominent things at ballparks—other than all that grass. (In poorly attended ballparks, it’s empty seats as well, and you can buy those, too, as noted above.) One of the companies represented was called Click Effects, and I was hoping that they were offering some sort of ingenious marriage of PITCHf/x and the research of former BP author James Click, who is now with the Tampa Bay Rays. But no: “Click Effects is a highly regarded line of powerful, yet extremely dependable, cost-effective, operator-friendly, digital content delivery systems, designed to meet the stringent demands of the live sports and broadcast presentation environments. Regardless of your needs, from video playback, to replay, to data delivery, to graphic generation, to audio and more, there is a reliable Click Effects system specifically engineered to satisfy your requirements and to meet your high expectations for quality and value!” Seems to be working, judging from the client list.

A baseball “renewing” machine: this appeared to be Ben Lindbergh’s favorite. You take a dirty ball, throw it in the machine—presto!—out comes a shiny white ball. Call me when they make one with a jaw-shaped mold that I can put my teeth in. On second thought, don’t: as my pal Jim asked, with that mischievous smile of his, when I told him about it, “How much less does the ball weigh when it comes out of the machine?”

Scooby-Doo Appearances: “turn-key, single-character appearances, $2,500, including costume, talent, escort & freight.” I’d like to know more about the escort.

scooby.jpg

A life-sized Harold Baines base-race character costume in full White Sox uniform, with the absolutely necessary beard. I think maybe they reuse the bearded face with a Steelers uniform for a Franco Harris character.

Acrobats, a man on stilts: let us not forget that baseball, and not just minor-league baseball, is turning into the circus (Marlins!). The acrobats are called the “Russian Bar Trio,” but not the kind of bar you’re probably thinking of—

we interrupt this story, speaking of bars, to note that the Trade Show’s opening night featured FREE BEER FOR THREE HOURS, so please bear with any mistakes herein. It was quite common, during the two days that followed, during which the free beer was replaced by a cash bar, to see vendors sucking up suds throughout the day, starting in the morning.

—and the Russian Bar Trio is in fact based in Quebec, where they are known as “Barre Russe.” Their web site was last updated July 15, 2011: “We Would like to welcome Genevieve Tougas in Russian Bar Team. She is from Canadian Acrobatic Skiing National Team. She also compede [sic] for many year on Trampoline”—oh, maybe they really are Russian. The site includes a technical “Ryder” [sic] where they tell you that equipment shipping (on Air Canada) comprises “3 peaces [sic] (volumétric weight: 141.5Kg).” The Russian Bar Trio performed at Durham Bulls Athletic Park last season and were pretty killer, I have to tell you. I just want to hang out with them—Boris, Pyotr, and Ekaterina (I decided on those names)—and have them read Chekhov’s “The Lady with The Little Dog” to me while performing their act. My wife can translate.

The Utilityman (“the do-it-all entertainer”): he’s kind of the house entertainment for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, but the former sports broadcaster performs all over and I’ll let his web site elaborate except to add that he was mysteriously equipped at the Trade Show with goat milk. He explained to me why this was but I can’t remember (was it something to do with the nearby-to-Allentown Amish?). His act includes agreeing, if you like, to drink a whole pint of Texas Pete brand hot sauce between innings, and he will complete the stunt even if you sneakily replace it with (OUCH) Dave’s Ghost Pepper Sauce. He wears orange because he went to Syracuse, where he was Otto the Orange (yep, mascot). Nice guy. On stilts, though you can’t tell unless you look down.

Ballpark food: Dippin’ Dots, Mini Melts, pretzels, hot dogs, beef jerky, garlic fries, more. If you got hungry at the Trade Show or needed something to soak up all that beer you were drinking, there were plenty of free samples (though oddly no popcorn, and certainly no Cracker Jack). In addition, many vendors had bowls of Halloween-sized wrapped candy sitting out to attract buyers. One vendor had trays full of cupcakes. There’s an old saw that you can always get people to come to your event if you give them something free to eat or wear, and the Trade Show proved it. I was gone by the last hour of the final day of the Trade Show, but apparently that’s when all the shoppers wheedle free samples—mostly t-shirts and hats—out of the vendors to bring home to the family. Oh, and there were also frozen cocktails (“alcohol inside!”) that came in squishy squeeze bottles and are recommended as “on-the-go” drinks. (Hey, as long as your car isn’t a stick-shift!) Didn’t try those. I HAVE A JOB TO DO HERE.

Hampton Farms Peanuts: Another “on-the-go” product, as per the marketing language. Hampton Farms gets mention apart from the above foods because Hampton Farms supplies peanuts to, among others, the Durham Bulls, and I have heard their radio ad hundreds of times and I chuckle appreciatively (retire this phrase) at it every single time. It’s partially because of the way the guy pronounces it “fahrms” as if he’s Iowan or something, even though Hampton Farms (“the #1 brand of In-Shell peanuts in the country! “) is based right here in North Carolina. But it’s more that I love how they push their unshelled peanuts “for all you Bulls fans on the go.” One snack I for-sure can never picture myself eating “on the go” is in-shell peanuts, as the process requires two hands and a place to drop the shells. You can do that in a ballpark, where it’s common practice, but otherwise this is known as littering. And if you’re using a phone while walking, driving a car, shopping, or doing just about anything else that is “on-the-go,” eating Hampton Fahrms or any other kind of in-shell peanut is basically impossible. It’s precisely when one is not on the go—say, watching a ballgame—that one can eat in-shell peanuts. I took two bags home.

Bidness: Accounting services, POS systems, credit card payment systems, ticketing services, fan-finder phone-texting systems. MICROS was here, the company that provides a lot of restaurants with food ordering software. Right: a baseball park is in many ways just a really big restaurant with an interesting dining room, kind of like dinner theater. I’m thinking of hiring myself out as a sommelier next season. (“I’m getting a little Scott Rolen on the nose, a two-seam mid-palate, a walk-off finish…”)

Infield top dressing (aka dirt), “turf services” (aka grass), and indeed: six companies that will design your entire ballpark for you and probably throw in the dirt and turf for free (ohnotheywon’twhothehellarewekidding).

But surprisingly, from what I could tell, no rosin bags or pitching rubbers, although there was “Tomplates LLC: The Last Plate You Will Ever Have to Buy.” I thought maybe there was going to be a Last-Supper thing inside the brochure, but actually: “The material is made of [sic] a Styrofoam inside covered in a polyurethane rubber coating.” And maybe Tomplates, which is actually based in Nashville and could thus drive to the Trade Show, does indeed offer pitching rubbers, if “Our pitching plates are made from a solid piece of foam. So it want [sic] bow” means what you’d guess “pitching plates” means. (My italics.) Typo aside, what I love about that is the image it conjures: that every single one of the “pitching plates” (??) Tomplates has ever made has been cut from one, giant, almost infinite piece of foam. I did learn something useful from Tomplates that I had never really thought about: a base measures 15 inches, no matter what league you’re in (MLB, Little League), but the height is not uniform. Tomplates makes two-inch, two-and-a-half-inch, and three-inch bases. A web site I found suggested that bases are between three and five inches tall. I would imagine that there is some competitive advantage to be gained from tweaking the height of the bases—lower for a speedy, first-to-third type of team?—but mostly I was surprised that this measurement isn’t subject to strict regulation.

Nutrition powder: I decided to go ahead and ask the two reps at Bluebonnet Nutrition—both youngish women, not musclemen as I might have guessed (but then, on the other hand…)—how they stay ahead of the banned-substances false-positive test danger. Oh, why did I do this? I don’t even care about HGH, let alone whey powder. They assured me that they get a constantly updated list of no-no ingredients from MLB, but that they stay ahead of it anyway and are completely natural in any case so no worries. To be honest, I was a little surprised that there appeared to be only one nutrition supplement product at the entire show. Lots of coaches and trainers come here, which brings me to…

Gear: Bats, gloves, batting gloves, catching gear, uniforms, eyeblack (insert your Yunel Escobar joke here; the eyeblack company’s web site’s current bit of wit is a discount promotion called “EYEBLACKFRIDAY”). The Trade Show is kind of two different trade shows. You have on one side things like foam fingers, inflatable toys, magnets, bobbleheads, and an airbrushing “tattoo” machine rigged with minor-league team logos that you can get temporarily emblazoned on the body part of your choice. (I know where I’d put the Lake Elsinore Storm logo! Also: The London Rippers name and logo: good idea? Well, Craig Calcaterra doesn’t have a problem with it, if that helps.) In other words, there are copious frivolities that entertain casual fans and/or nonfans who are only at the ballpark because, well, why not? And on the other hand, there are very technical products intended for the people playing the game.

I was hanging around the Durham Bulls front office people while they bought uniforms for 2013, a complicated procedure and negotiation that involved honoring the players’ preference for mesh jerseys. A set of dark blue mesh jerseys had been the team’s batting practice apparel until midway through the 2012 season, when the players started sneakily wearing them in games, too, because mesh is more comfortable in 95-degree summer weather than the poreless polyester knit of their home whites—which they are required by league rules to wear in at least 51 percent of their home games. So the Bulls looked for a white mesh jersey so as to a) give the players more comfort and b) comply with league rules. But one of the mesh models seemed cheap-looking to them, another cost too much money, and in any case the Bulls are going to redo their logo in 2014—teams in their league are permitted to do so every three years—so they were really just interested in a stopgap for 2013. It’s surprising, once you get up close to these garments and touch them, how unfriendly and flimsy most of the material feels. These aren’t high-tech, moisture-wicking, well-fitted pieces, from what I could tell. The inexpensive stuff I wear while I’m jogging feels more comfortable. The jerseys just seem to be there to cover the serious athletic wear underneath. They are, in that sense, just more branding, like bobbleheads.

Meanwhile, some handsome-looking bats were for sale from a company called D-BAT. I’d have walked right past their modest booth had I not recognized one of the two guys manning it: Joe Dillon, who played for the Bulls in 2009 and 2010, the last two seasons of his long, mostly minor-league career. If it’s true that athletes die twice, then it’s their second life that generates a deeper interest—it’s what separates them from all the other guys they played with. Dillon swung D-BAT bats (the company has an impressive list of clients) for most of his career—an A-ball teammate of his started the company—and so he probably knows the bats better than anyone else. He gave me (a complete novice) an impressive tutorial in the different models, woods, designs, and so on. (I knew about ash and maple but not much about birch.) It’s kind of easy to forget that a player’s main “hit tool,” to borrow a scouting phrase and redefine it under strict terms, is his bat, and that bats, like bases, aren’t the same. Not at all.

School: There was the MLB.com Academy, which has a groovy service which allows you (“you” are presumably a little leaguer) to overlay your swing onto that of a major-league player and get a report card from evaluators. The academy was founded by former Yankee farmhand Tyson Hanish, and you can, uh, see why. It happens to have just relocated to Raleigh, NC. It also doesn’t seem to officially exist yet. Also, there was the Lynn University Sports Management Program. I would have walked right by this table had it not been for a) the free candy and b) Kyle Holloway, a Lynn grad. Holloway became the beneficiary of one of those late-season minor-league domino effects in 2010. Just a few weeks after the Rays signed him as an undrafted free agent and sent him to rookie ball, he found himself reassigned to Triple-A Durham because everybody was either injured or called up after rosters expanded. In no time, the 22-year-old was catching 41-year-old Brian Shouse and banging a double off of Todd Redmond. After one game, he was mercilessly needled in the clubhouse by an “elder” teammate (okay, it was Justin Ruggiano) for wearing clothes with both horizontal and vertical stripes. “It’s all I had,” said the kid, who had just thrown some of his stuff in a bag and driven down from Princeton, Virginia. He wound up striking out eight times in 14 Triple-A plate appearances. Two years later, he was out of baseball.

Beer taps that pour from underneath the cup—with a special puncturing mechanism—to reduce foam and wasted brew; stuffed animals called woo-hoos and squirts: the empty comedy in these things aside, there was really quite a lot of melancholy at the Trade Show. It trailed as Holloway’s ghost after the Lynn University Sports Management Program. It was in the stilts of mascots, and in the blank spaces on t-shirts made by hopeful, anxious companies who needed team logos to complete those shirts. It was in the Adam Greenberg action figure on display at OYO/Sports images, as you might guess. (More melancholy still: Greenberg himself was at the Winter Meetings, looking to get signed.) It was in the wateriness of the free beer on the first night. It was in Ferguson Jenkins repping a sports memorabilia auction company and Tommy John sitting at the ALS Association table. It was in the knowledge that, all this trade in all this space aside, the only trading with real weight was happening in team hotel suites, where some millions of dollars were devoured and the remainder left to get cold like so much room service. Down in the bowels of the Winter Meetings, the masses fed.

Adam Sobsey is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Adam's other articles. You can contact Adam by clicking here

Related Content:  Winter Meetings,  Trade Show

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