After a 2020 COVID shutdown and a 2021 realignment, the 2021 MiLB Winter Meetings were held in Disney World last week. The mood coming out of the Dolphin Resort: guarded optimism.
Technically, the MLB Winter Meetings had been scrapped after the Dec. 2 lockout was called by Major League Baseball, but in many ways it didn’t really matter. Even before that there was minimal contact expected between MLB team reps and MiLB owners–no affiliate receptions had been scheduled (though a few were held under the radar, we’re told), and only a few meetings featuring MLB officials were on the agenda–so when the MLB meetings at the Hilton Bonnet Creek were scrapped, the MiLB agenda at the Dolphin Resort in Disney World wasn’t hugely impacted. (And, honestly, MLB participation in the Winter Meetings these days is largely ceremonial: the real work of running Major League Baseball is done at separate owners and GMs meetings held earlier in the fall.)
So, with no MLB presence, no PBEO job fair, no trade show, and only 120 teams in the fold, it made for a trimmed-down Winter Meetings. Teams were asked to send only four employees; it wasn’t unusual to hear that many teams sent one rep or skipped the proceedings completely (the meetings were broadcast via Zoom as well), making for a scene dominated by decision-makers.
Normally the lobby scene at the Winter Meetings is where much of the action is, but in recent years the lobby has become more a place for hangers-on and wannabes than the core of the baseball community; no more Rollie Hemonds wheeling and dealing, no more the place to be seen. This year the Dolphin lobby was a considerably more relaxed environment; owners and GMs could hang out and chat with friends new and old. In many ways this was the best Winter Meeting in years, a place for old friends to gather two years after the last Winter Meetings. True, there have been lots of Zoom calls and meetings in the meantime, but there’s nothing like real-life interaction.
So what was the mood of this year’s Winter Meetings? Of course, we don’t want to speak for the entire industry, and of course a wide range of opinions was offered. But, to reduce the mood to a single emotion, we’d have to say many expressed a guarded optimism about the future of Minor League Baseball, Yes, there were some owners still irritated that MLB’s takeover of MiLB basically wiped out much in the way of franchise values, and yes, there were owners who didn’t mind seeing the old St. Pete leadership removed in favor of the new MLB approach. But in general there were plenty of owners optimistic about where things are headed. MLB reps came into the MiLB takeover with the rep of being dictatorial in nature, tearing up the old MiLB playbook without having a suitable replacement strategy and not understanding exactly how the old MiLB playbook came to be. But in recent months there were signs that the new MLB overlords were listening more to MiLB owners and adjusting practices and procedures based on solid feedback. True, there’s still some irritation about the facility standards and some vague specs–as it turns out, for example, the height of the batting cages in the specs means the height of the netting needs to be 12 feet high, not the actual batting-cage enclosure–but those details seem to be addressed.
We also heard some guarded optimism from leaders of the partner leagues, who didn’t see as much interaction with MLB as anticipated. They took that as a good thing. Again, there’s some friction at this level as well–the cost of player transfers was a continual topic of discussion–but again it’s nothing that can’t be solved. And there’s still some optimism about MLB teams sending players to the partner leagues in the future.
There were assorted smaller revelations as well. As far as team sales: yes, the purchase of nine teams by Endeavor was a continual topic of discussion, with some other upcoming team sales to be announced in coming weeks (no, Endeavor won’t be involved with them). Also on the horizon: plans for new ballparks and extensively renovated facilities, some of which will be unveiled as soon as this week. Next year will see a full return of MiLB events, with the Innovators Summit replaced by a broader baseball-ops meeting and trade show in Chicago (fall date to be determined), and the 2022 Winter Meetings scheduled for San Diego in December.
But in the end, what many will probably remember most from the 2022 was reconnecting with old friends. One of the most special things about the baseball community is the sense of camaraderie reinforced by these gatherings, and the fact that the MiLB Winter Meetings took place at all is a most welcome step back toward normalcy in a much-changed industry.
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