12/11/08 4:56 PM EST
Cultures collide in glitzy Vegas
Clubs emerge from pricey surroundings with plenty left for offseason
"Well, I spend all night with the dealer
"Tryin' to get ahead.
"Spend all day at the Holiday Inn
"Tryin' to get out of bed."
The late, great Gram Parsons wrote that, in the song "Ooh Las Vegas." And it had to be "Ooh Las Vegas" because "Oh Las Vegas" wouldn't have been enough. In this particular verse, Parsons captured the obsession that feeds this place, as well as a touch of the desperation.
This is the capital of American glitz. The extreme, pervasive exterior lighting on all the pleasure palaces gives you a sense of 24-hour daylight. And that's the desired effect, because the longer you stay awake, the more time and money you will spend at the tables, the slots, etc.
In the case of the Winter Meetings, the rule of thumb is that you never really leave the hotel, anyway, because you do not want to be out of touch when the biggest trade or the biggest free-agent signing of all time occurs. Fortunately, the Bellagio Hotel & Casino, host of the 2008 Winter Meetings, is such a sprawling facility that claustrophobia cannot possibly take hold.
Into this setting for four days and three nights came baseball, a sport that is at the other end of the American cultural spectrum from Vegas. The game is traditional in its sensibilities and 19th century in its pace. It does not necessarily equate to showgirls in scanty costumes. It has taken an anti-gambling stand so rigorous that its all-time leader in hits is banned from the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Were the Winter Meetings altered because they were held in this venue? Was it easier for the Yankees to spend a record $161 million on one pitching contract because the whole local economy depends on people throwing money around, and because one walk through the casino gives you the distinct impression that this is what must be done here?
It is easier to spend money, even money you don't necessarily have, when everybody else is doing it. But the argument that this environment influenced clubs to spend more might have worked better if it had been the Pittsburgh Pirates spending $161 million on CC Sabathia. Maybe the Washington Nationals' eight-year, $160 million offer to Mark Teixeira was subtly influenced by spendthrift surroundings. But the Yankees were going to spend their money whether the Meetings were in Nevada or North Dakota or Nome.
The Bellagio is obviously a fine hotel, and everyone appreciated the hospitality and the accommodations. I was especially fond of opening and closing the drapes in the room with a push-button apparatus, although I do not believe I will have this system installed in my home.
Everybody involved in the Winter Meetings was here on somebody else's dime, but still it seemed a tad, you know, pricey. There was a report that, because the recession was cutting down on the amount of tourism, some Vegas hotels were dropping their rates as low as $30 per night.
"Gee, I spent that for a coffee today," said Gord Ash, assistant general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. That was hilarious, but like all successful humor, had at least a hint of truth to it.
These are, to put it mildly, troubled economic times. Walking through the casino very early in the morning, seeing the crowds at the tables and the slots, does nothing whatsoever to diminish your overall fiscal uneasiness. This would seem like the worst time in which to be gambling, although maybe the same circumstances translate for some into the most logical time to be gambling.
At least most of us never wrote something like "The Yankees took a big gamble on CC Sabathia" or "The Indians rolled the dice on Kerry Wood." The temptation was everywhere; not to gamble, but to use gambling analogies to describe baseball transactions.
Some of the baseball scribes are staying on here after the Meetings end. They say they are staying "to relax" or "to unwind," but actually they are staying "to gamble." This will be good for the local economy, and with any luck will not result in further home mortgage foreclosures.
Next year, this gathering will be in another place that is not a typical Winter Meetings venue, Indianapolis. Some people are already complaining that it will be too cold. Tough. Indy is a fine Middle-American city. You don't go to the Winter Meetings to work on your tanning skills. You generally don't go to Winter Meetings wondering whether you should bet on 16, either, but that happened this year. Big money was spent by baseball teams here, so that was typical Vegas. But there is still big money left to be spent, so baseball had the Vegas experience and apparently survived.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.