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Winter Meetings 2013: The sold ball game

Exciting advancements in dirt technology, an ontological examination of hot dogs, an encounter with Jake the Diamond Dog, and other lessons from the Baseball Trade Show.

In the TV series Connections, the science historian James Burke argues that the increasing randomization and rapidity of technological change in the world has permanently alienated us from an understanding of the everyday objects that not only shape but can end our lives. And it was first broadcast in 1978. Imagine the incomprehensibility of change now. In fact, you don't have to. You can just watch the series on YouTube on a hand-held computer with billions of times more computing power than the databanks on the Voyager probes.

And to all that, you might say, "Great! But what has that got to do with me? And, for that matter, baseball?" And here is where, if I were James Burke, I would lean sideways at the waist, peer at the camera and say, "Well... practically everything."

Star-divide

Even the hardiest cynics amongst us can succumb to the vision of baseball as a pastoral thing

Even the hardiest cynics amongst us can succumb to the vision of baseball as a pastoral thing. There's grass involved, for one -- the smell of it as you walk into the stadium, the way it transports you back to that first trip to the ballpark. But beneath the nostalgia for games past and the drama of games present, there is the game's implacable reduction to the whimsies and ruthlessness of capitalism. Apart from attendance figures, salaries and TV deals, what you probably don't realize about baseball is what you probably don't realize about virtually everything else in your life: it has been commodified down to the ground. Literally.

Nothing emphasizes this quite like the Baseball Trade Show, held annually at the MLB Winter Meetings. Stretching the length and breadth of a football field and then some across two cavernous convention-center-style conference rooms, the Trade Show is home to just about every product in baseball there is to sell, including some things you didn't know were on sale. For instance, much of the stadium itself.

Perhaps because we experience baseball from such an early age -- and so with an uncynical and wholly accepting attitude of things as essentially themselves -- we have a tendency to think of it and its stadiums as things that are designed (yes), planned (of course) and assembled (naturally) but that also sort of come as one piece. This is not so. This is very much not so.

Take the fence, for example. The jury's still out on fencing, apparently. There's not one company called Baseball Fence Ltd. that does everything, nor a sort of league of fencers that each specialize in one different type. Instead, there are a group of companies all competing for a vanishingly small but lucrative market. Call them Big Fence.

Each one offers some or all of: chain link, padded, faux brick, wood, etc., each with different top ornamentation. Even the padding remains an unsettled issue. It's a lot like boys in middle school who are just getting serious about sports putting on Nike Airs, ASICS Gels and Reebok Pumps and trying to figure out which one makes a squishier shoe. Evidently fence padding comes filled with Glycerine VibrofoamTM, Building Jumper AbsorptoTM and other proprietary goos and stuffing that stop an idiot running full-tilt into a solid object from committing self-murder. I tried to take a picture of the giant display and schematics of fencing and padding, but at no point during the course of five hours was the thing not swarmed by round-bellied men in khakis pawing at everything like they'd been dosed with MDMA.

What the Baseball Trade Show teaches, almost in an instant, is what you used to think was just a big, contiguous thing -- a stadium -- is in reality a collection of thousands of products. It's just a commodified bowl. More to the point, everything around you is not just "part of the stadium" but a product in itself. And that product has an entire market, complete with its own Wal-Mart, its mom-and-pops and its creepy vulture-capitalist startups. Some company is the U.S. Steel of Plastic Decals Of A Slugger Striking Out that can be temporarily put on the outfield wall, and not only are there crappy-plastic-decal idealists looking to take that company down, but there are the bankrupted corpses of the crappy-plastic-decal idealists who came before strewn in his wake.

All of it is enough to overload your mind, especially as you walk through the Trade Show, lights flickering and colors electrically leering at you until everything fuzzes and pops like a liquid kaleidoscope. You drift somewhere between inert and amiable, trying not to get sucked into the profound gravitational well of a sales pitch, all the while overhearing various niche products' version of, "Oh, you're gonna want that TruCoat."

So I just started taking pictures.

This was one of the first displays you saw on entering the Trade Show. You would think that the market for stadium chairs was mostly settled by now, if only for the fact that all of them are at best uncomfortable and at worst chiropractic. Evidently no market is ever so stable that you can afford to take your foot off the promotional gas. What I didn't expect was that baseball had branched into the field of furniture advocacy.

You may see it differently, but this POW/MIA seat felt gross, if for no other reason than that there is already an abundance of troop acknowledgement in most aspects of public life. It's least necessary at the major league level, with color guards for the national anthem and a mid-inning salute to servicemen and, frequently, a separate section of discounted seats for veterans. In the minor leagues -- which, remember is the target audience for the Trade Show and indeed the bulk of the Winter Meetings -- limited budgets might call for something like this, which comes in portable-folding and permanent-anchored varieties.

A brochure explained the chair more fully, but it was in my collectible Trade Show bag that vanished from the press room under mysterious circumstances. Suffice to say, the idea is that a chair such as this can be placed in every baseball stadium and kept permanently empty so that we always remember those undead who never made it home. It's a noble enough sentiment. But two thoughts spring instantly to mind. The first is a vision of a Miller-fueled tailgater liquidly festooning it with a memorial of his afternoon. Two, this seat kind of suggests you try to remember these people with your ass.

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Do you like college football? If yes, the man on the stool, Mac Yates of Inflatable Images, wants you to know that these are coming by the truckload next season for halftime shows, pregame promotion and moneymaking game areas outside the stadium. Yates was one of the least sales-pitchy of the people I spoke to, in part because he was one of the few people at the Trade Show who knew his particular market's battle had already been won. The best part of these inflatable cornhole boards is that the first schools to order them tried to get them up to 20 yards long until engineers had to patiently explain things like "weight" and "transportability."

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Team harmonicas! Finally, that long sought-after way to show the colors in America's expanding prison-industrial complex.

5

Do you like Jostens? Of course you do. They sponsored the tickets for Hullabalooza, and they made that high school ring you stopped wearing before graduation and that now lives in your (or your wife's) jewelry case, alongside the vaguely mucousoid dead-fish-eyed pearl that that aunt who collected "interesting nails" told you would make a wonderful engagement stone.

I don't know who this man is, and I don't care, because almost all the vendors for major companies like this were hired guns -- distributors for local marketing companies who memorized the company patter for this particular event and started seizing, shutting down or becoming actively peevish if you tried to get them to deviate from the script. Jostens makes Super Bowl rings, so they don't really need to sweat being unable to answer a few questions and losing some sucker's business. For instance:

ME: I don't mean to be rude, but why are you guys here? Are you guys really in danger of losing out on the ring market? You're Jostens.
JOSTMAN: I'm not at liberty to say, sir.
ME: I mean, where else is anyone gonna go? Big Football Ring Hut?
JOSTMAN: I'm not at liberty to say, sir.
ME: Hey, so the "S" part of the "NHS" on the top of the onyx stone on my class ring flaked off after a month, do you know who I'd talk to about fixing that?
JOSTMAN: I really don't know, sir. (handing me brochure) There might be a customer service number in there you can call.
ME: Because I'm pretty sure it was still under warranty and on your nickel. I mean, this was like 18 years ago, but I documented when it happened and everything. My mom took a photo of the ring right next to the front page of that day's newspaper. Like a proof of life.
JOSTMAN: (testily) I'm sorry, I don't know.

Change the circumstances to remove the specifics about my defective class ring, and this was the basic conversation I had with every big-name vendor. The guy from Louisville Slugger actually looked angry at me when I asked if his bosses were afraid some of the craft-bat makers were going to discover a new type of wood.

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As you might guess, the smaller vendors were far more outgoing and happy to chat. They can't sit back and expect the mountains to move to Muhammad. This is Kerri Tooley, the sales manager for Waver Costumes, a small company from New Jersey. Waver primarily makes outfits for restaurant promotions; one guesses for those poor souls dressed like chicken drumsticks, waving at roadside. Tooley's a huge baseball fan, so one day she told her bosses, "You know, you can sell these to minor league parks." Not only because they want to promote pizza slices, too, but because they don't have the budgets for MLB mascot costumes, which run the gamut from $3,000-$15,000 and become prohibitively expensive if you want to have a fifth-inning race amongst various food items.

Waver's costumes clock in at about $250, which is why they're now selling to a dozen minor league parks and getting contracts for more. It's also why people can have fun with them. She didn't put it in such terms -- she instead spoke about people in costumes jumping in pools or sliding into bases -- but the nice thing about a $250 costume is that you can destroy it doing cool shit.

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I don't know what these men are talking about, but, given the money involved, I'm certain it's not that the fishing net is technology that is over 10,000 years old.

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This is Jack Brock of ProZone Lockers, and you can guess what he makes. I'm including him here for two reasons. One, he was a nice dude. Two, this illustrates how bizarrely and kind of needlessly specialized the baseball-products market is. ProZone essentially makes cabinets, which you may recognize as the things in your home from which you can get a plate before saying, "Fuck it," and eating pizza straight out of the box, which you perch on your naked, filthy stomach. I mean to throw no shade on ProZone's lockers; they looked great. But sports are like any other insular culture in that, once they try to keep the outside out, they start spending money in strange ways to reinforce that exclusivity -- namely, needing pro-sport cabinet makers as opposed to, well, any other. And this attitude extends even to sports coverage.

Brock's co-salesman, Chris Caruso, pointed out that ESPN had commissioned ProZone to make five or six football lockers for Jon Gruden's annual QB Camp, for the scenes where he's interviewing quarterbacks. That's it. ESPN commissioned a professional sports locker maker to make half a dozen professional sports lockers for just one segment of a show better titled, I WANNA KNOW IF YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BE THAT GUY, WITH YOUR HOST LEMME TELL YA JON GRUDEN. There is no reason in this universe. Come on, people. Come with me. Let's go to Lowe's. Let's build something together.

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I do not know what you are. I did not ask. But you look like a marital aid.

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There were numerous bat vendors at the Trade Show, and the easy question to ask all of them was, "Don't you think that as a species we might have reached the limits of 'turning wood into cylinders' technology?" I liked the answer of the guys at MDS Bats, because theirs was the only one that didn't feature patronizing synonyms meant to obscure that the appeal of a given bat was that it was boutique, arcanely crafted and more expensive.

MDS makes wooden bats designed to mimic the shape and profile of metal bats -- the idea being that it makes college batting practices safer and also spares college hitters from needing to make a transition to an entirely new bat shape and feel when they go pro. I have no idea if it really works, but I liked the fact that the company's owner, Bradley Lightfoot, is both polite and also a structural engineer, which means he didn't stand there talking about a big wood wham-stick with the vacuous reverence of a half-in-the-bag craft-beer snob telling you about some goddamn hop breed.

The man in the picture is not Lightfoot but rather his friend, Jerry Laria, who excitedly told me that his future son-in-law is a Double-A player who uses MDS bats. (This is part of MDS' strategy: get college and minor league players used to them, so they will bring them into the majors and increase MDS' market.) I suggested that maybe the young man had chosen that brand because, evidently, his future father-in-law was a man with access to LOTS AND LOTS OF BASEBALL BATS.

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Unsurprisingly for an event filled with journalists, minor league baseball personnel and traveling salesman, the free hot dog kiosk was probably the most popular. However, there were several substantial problems with Kayem's display.

1. The gentleman running the display announced that putting ketchup on a hot dog is criminal (CORRECT), despite putting ketchup right there to enable such behavior, and then pardoning it upon witnessing it.

2. The gentleman running the display had zero thoughts on whether a hot dog is a sandwich. (IT IS.) I mean, I don't wanna tell Kayem their business here, but if they're going to send someone around the country to pimp hot dogs, I would prefer that person to have some pretty substantial philosophical thoughts about the nature of the product he's selling. I don't even need that much. All I ask is that you think about the hot dog ontologically. What is the nature of the "hot dog + bun" pairing? What does it even say to you? Are you even alive inside?

Then this happened:

GOD BLESS YOU, SANDWICH MAN.

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These were the nicest people I met. Jon Terry's SRO Productions provide mid-game entertainment for minor league stadiums. He manages "Myron Noodleman, The Clown Prince of Baseball" and once managed Morgana the Kissing Bandit when a promoter called him up and asked how much Terry could get her to appear for. (Apparently, until then, nobody had thought of charging for a huge-breasted exotic dancer to run, bouncing perilously all the while, across a diamond and make out with a ballplayer.)

To Terry's left is Jake the Diamond Dog, a performer who runs the bases and barks on command to count out balls and strikes. He was on a table so people in wheelchairs could pet him. He didn't bristle or start at constant loud noises and handsy jerks who just walked up and started patting him hard and talking loudly. I asked him a question, and his handler had him bark out a reply, although I couldn't understand what it was. My point is, dogs are the best people.

Star-divide

An hour after I exited the Baseball Trade Show, I wound up talking to an MLB executive, telling him how startling it is to see every facet of baseball broken down into constituent products and product markets. He laughed. "That's nothing."

As he travels round the country and overseas, meeting other baseball officials at stadiums up and down the prestige spectrum, he frequently finds himself in conversations that start, "So, what kinda dirt do you use?"

There are, in fact, multiple companies who travel to stadiums around the country selling multiple kinds of dirt. God only knows what dirt. Speed dirt? Infielder dirt? Action dirt? Dirrrt Xtreme? Pause a moment and think about an environment in which a dirt other than potting soil or loam -- you know, just dirt, something we synonymize with filth -- is a product. Think about the exciting advancements people in the industry are making in dirt, and the margins on which they are fighting for market leverage in the field of dirt.

Then think back to the poetics of baseball nostalgics, who think of the game and its fields as hallowed ground. Given their ardor for the game, they've probably been to one of these Trade Shows. You'd think they might have noticed that the most sacred thing -- the ground -- is also a product, and also for sale.

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