Vacation is over. The Winter Meetings ended; everyone returned to real life. An IT Coordinator from the midwest is buying the $6.66 bottled Budweiser now, and the major league prostitutes left with the major leaguers. The Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort's main lobby no longer echoes with people shouting about WHIP.
And yet the broad business of baseball grinds on as ever. Scouts are going over player profiles. Buyers are completing orders from the Trade Show and getting on with the business of decorating, commodifying and family-friendlying minor league parks across the nation.
The kids have gone home, too; in the absence of a yearbook, they can text, "C-ya next winter." At the end of the meetings, over 500 Job Seekers were loosed again on the world. The Winter Meetings are over, but somewhere, everywhere across the United States, are hundreds of kids who are, to some extent, baseball's future. It will be years before we know if they are the right ones.
Two things occur to me on walking into the Swan and Dolphin Resorts for the first time and seeing hundreds of early-twentysomethings walking that serpentine byproduct walk that comes from constant, anxious rubbernecking.
One, in case you ever wondered where all the blue and black suits from a Jos. A. Bank two-for-one sale disappear to, they are here now. Two, I feel an irrepressible urge to sing "Welcome, job seekers!" like the woman from a recurring sketch on the series The League of Gentlemen, wherein a careers advisor puts working class northern Englishmen through exasperating bureaucratic steps that bear little resemblance to employment.
For roughly $200 paid to Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities (PBEO), those roughly 500 college- and post-college-aged students have been given lanyards designating them as Job Seekers. (Winter Meetings are the Black Friday of lanyards. It is the year-end event that guarantees America's great lanyard orchards haven't been harvested at a loss.) For four days, they get to apply for jobs in baseball, wait, maybe interview, then wait again.
On Sunday night, Job Seekers are given instruction in properly negotiating the PBEO Jobs Fair process. On Monday morning, that process seems self-evident to the uninitiated. At the south end of the Swan Resort's long corridor of conference rooms, I poke my head in a door and see a carpeted, warehouse-sized room subdivided by temporary walls and black fabric partitions double the height of the average cubicle. On the left of one entrance stands an office where someone answers stupid questions. Next is the Job Posting room, where PBEO periodically lists jobs from "Minor League Box Office Manager," to "Minor League Announcing" to "Assistant to the General Manager," sending Job Seekers in a flurry back to a Work Room whenever notices go up.
The Work Room takes up a third of the enormous conference vault. Some Job Seekers stare at walls, reciting what are supposed to sound like conversational versions of their biographies and memorizing elevator pitches. Most sit in folding chairs at round, black-tableclothed tables, either telling stories or flirting in that Debate Tournament/Model UN sort of way. There are placards everywhere encouraging Job Seekers to tweet and share everything they see, except for the signs telling them to tweet and share things, which everyone is barred from photographing. Okay.
All these are mere preface to the Interview Room, where Job Seekers are summoned for scheduled interviews that end seemingly in the span of heartbeats as teams churn through the applicant pool, leaving them, for the vast majority of four days, waiting again.
With so much free time, the Job Seekers mingle and network, which is something else that someone at Sunday's meeting feels compelled to tell them to do, perhaps because the Job Fair structure and assembled star power on the premises overrides any lessons in glad-handing passed down during intro business courses.
"You've got 400 people looking for jobs, and most of them are waiting for a guy in a white polo saying JOB FAIR to come out and post an interview schedule, and if their names aren't on it, they go back to their tables and wait," says Matt Melchior, a 21-year-old Job Seeker who is a junior in marketing at Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he covers sports and manages ads for the school paper. "Then you see people meet John Kruk and Joe Maddon and get all ditzy asking for autographs instead of passing out business cards and keeping it professional. And then you have a select few people waiting for GMs to come out of meetings, shaking hands and passing out business cards."
Mingling is serious business. The Swan and Dolphin together form a massive compound of rectangular buildings. Outside, they're topped with extruded green pyramids and decorated with a painted-wave crud-mural, massive rubber-ducky Swan figurines and a dolphin that looks like Blinky from The Simpsons doing a face-plant. Inside, they're lined with corridors of conference rooms that all run back to large lobbies, restaurants and shops. From the Dolphin, one walks down a 100-yard axis between two manufactured ponds, to the Swan. Architecturally, the effect is like being stuck in an aquamarine reboot of The Prisoner.
Socially, the effect on the Job Seekers is to induce constant subdued panic. Everything is spread out and located in so many rooms that their "Hey, the kid stays in the picture!" moment could be lurking anywhere. Job Seekers can't stay in the Swan's work room, because Red Sox GM Ben Cherington might be walking around the Dolphin. They can't hang around the Dolphin, because new jobs might be getting posted at the Swan. Something amazing may be happening somewhere else right now. Simply standing still between the resorts for half an hour is enough to see the same people walk back and forth between them.
Everyone's eyes rove constantly, looking for GMs, an MLB manager, an ESPN personality. People's glances roll down your chest looking for what kind of designation you have on your lanyard. The absence of a lanyard makes things worse.
"The thing I realized," says Melchior, whose grasp of business schmoozing seems far more confident than his peers', "is if you see anyone wearing a nicer suit than you, they're probably important. And if they're dressed way less professionally than you, they're probably important."
The suspected luminary status of anyone in give-no-fuck attire explains the frequent hungry glares I get while walking around in a shirt and khakis, looking demonstrably non-panicky about being somewhere. Eyes dart to my belly in search of a lanyard and then back up to my face. Do I know who you are? SHOULD I know who you are?
Knowing your audience is important in any networking event, and its primacy in the mind of attendees makes it almost impossible not to ask them leading questions. Most of the Job Seekers have some sort of college background in business, management or marketing, and as such they have all had one class where they were told, "Find out what the other person wants and give it to him." Combine that with the over-eagerness of a four-day job interview, and it's difficult even to finish questions before a Job Seeker leaps to answer them according to where he thinks they're going.
One person who lets me finish questions is Max Thomas, 22, a business and public policy major from Indiana University, who I find standing at a tall bar table outside the Job Posting room -- like everyone else, waiting.
After spending enough time on the Internet arguing baseball, it's easy to assume that most people here won their college's roto league, maybe contributed to a blog and definitely took some statistics or management courses; they expect to ride a wonk rocket to J.P. Ricciardi levels. "I'm meeting with people I made contact with before coming down here. I want to walk out of here with a Baseball Operations internship with a major league club," Thomas says, and I want to just nod and humor him. Then he goes on:
"I've been the manager of the IU baseball team for four years now, and two summers ago I studied abroad in the Dominican about how baseball down there has grown. Then I used that experience to get an internship in the Commissioner's office in International Baseball Operations. So that's my calling card. I have experience with the college game, with domestic amateurs, with the international side of it and what goes into scouting international players."
Thomas listens with a level and engaged gaze, pauses before answering and speaks concisely. Unlike people walking past itching at their second skins, he looks at home in a suit. I can imagine him running a conference room. After hearing what he's done by 22, it seems odd that he doesn't already.
Here is Thomas' problem: When I walk away to talk to the next guy, or girl, or the next one after that, I'm struck by how many broadly impressive resumes are here. They often have wildly divergent credentials, but all sound perfectly reasonable -- insistent, almost -- as qualification for any baseball job. Worse, their end goal of running a baseball team means that they are all trying to fast-track to one of only 30 such jobs in the world. To put this in perspective: There are three times as many available United States Senate positions, and the qualifications for them are vastly lower.
Finding the flop-sweating antithesis of Max Thomas isn't hard. If Brian Cashman were to pop out from behind a ficus and say, "You guys look like you're looking for some jobs," probably half the people in earshot would leap into the ceiling and knock themselves out. Jerky, high-pitched, uncertain and too-energetic conversations meet you at every turn, like walking through a Robert Altman movie about a seventh-grade dance. Together, they make up something like dialogue:
One guy, almost finger-wagging at a shorter guy, like Principal Vernon from The Breakfast Club, nodding over to a girl down the hall: "Think about why we're here. You should be able to get that number."
Another guy, to an acquaintance, folder at his side and head cocked down, looking up from under his brows querulously: "How will I know if I crushed it?"
Yet another guy, hands on someone else's shoulders: "You are clutch."
Still another guy, with a shapeless build and shapeless pants, leaning on both his elbows on one of those bar tables outside the Posting Room, forehead resting against the heel of his right palm, left hand holding the phone to his ear, plaintively and probably to mom: "No. I BROUGHT my three pairs of pants."
National journalists are keenly aware of the energy around them and seem to take care not to travel singly. At least once a day, I watch Ken Rosenthal walk into a lobby area and stop, check his phone, then glance up with an unfocused expression, then seem to become instinctually aware that he has stood still for too long. He furrows his brow, looks down at his phone and strides purposefully off, as if he hopes momentum will bowl over anyone with a valise full of resumes.
Other journalists rely on pack behavior, almost as a rebuke to anyone who wants to join this show full time. At 2:15 on Monday afternoon, the awards luncheon lets out, discharging an ambling column of media members who all seem to fall along a spectrum ranging from preoccupied to bored, to exhausted, to post-prandially comatose. Like Thomas, they are an antithesis to the rabbiting alertness of underemployed youth nearby, a distracted formicating line totally uninterested in the fact that Joe Maddon walks by them loudly joking. Perhaps they've seen him too many times for it to matter anymore, but heads don't turn. Instead, they loll over smartphones until lurching crowd-progress reaches a fork in the road. Suddenly, options are forced on them, no longer able to rely on the left-right buttock rise of the person in front for traffic guidance. Some peel off left, down the corridor; others go right, down the escalator to the main lobby -- to the MLB Tonight stage, the 40-foot Christmas tree, the half-tented rotunda ceiling that looks like "birth canal via Christo" -- borne obliviously into the presence of dozens of eager youngsters who are mostly too intimidated even to speak to them except on the gushingest fan level.
Almost every Job Seeker admits to having a baseball job version of a safety school, but most are frank about wanting to be Andrew Friedman. Those who don't are refreshing.
"I'd start anywhere. Box office sales." This is Mike Guinane, a 24-year-old Chicago native naming his dream job with the White Sox. Guinane pitched four years of college ball, and looks like the kind of affable guy who could spend a few years in a bullpen, taking it easy before coming into a game to toss low-90s heat without meaning anything personal about it or anything. Guinane went on to a three-month stint with the Roswell Invaders that was cut short by a tear at the back of his rotator cuff. Now he just wants to stay in a sport he loves by getting a foot into any door.
"I have a business management degree and played the game, so I know about it," he says. "I just want to get into the business side of it and take it from there and see where I can go."
Guinane's attitude is practical under the circumstances. "There were 400 postings on the first day, and I want to say 50 to 100 more [Monday]," he says. "A lot of ticket sales, a few GMs and Assistant to GMs, a lot of internships. Only some paid -- it's tough." Which is to say, there are practically as many jobs as Job Seekers; most of them just start at a low rung.
"There were a few people who want to work in baseball -- of course they don't want to start at the bottom; nobody wants to start scrubbing toilets or making cold calls," says Jillian Ward, a 23-year-old from NC State who by the last day already has her ideal internship in Event Operations. "They would see those postings and say, 'I'm not applying to that,' and I'm thinking, 'You didn't even get any other interviews.'"
While she has her future lined up, she can see where she made a mistake in not applying for positions related to her chosen field, which is coordinating community events between baseball and local charities and foundations. Not only are multiple interviews in the Job Fair's rapid-fire clip good practice, she says, but "interviewers can always refer you to somebody else, and everyone is always connected. If you interviewed with one person and they go talk to another team, they might say, 'Oh, I know that person.'"
Still, she allowed, the process' structure was baffling, opaque and inefficient. And of course, there was the waiting, sometimes for jobs advertised and applied-for that then essentially disappeared without any ostensible candidate evaluation process.
"There was so much sitting around. We knew that new jobs were going to be posted every half an hour, but some jobs that you applied for were never posted on the interview boards. So if you didn't post interviews, what was the point?"
It is difficult to overestimate the degree of waiting that defines the Winter Meetings. Journalists wait on a big trade or signing. None comes. In the meantime, hoping to pad out that day's "nothing doing in Orlando" story, they wait to hear from GMs, who are in turn waiting to hear from each other. Vendors wait for buyers. The totality of waiting goes straight to the top and plunges back to the bottom, engulfing everyone indiscriminately.
In between interviews on Monday, in a hallway at the Swan, a blinking catches my eye, with the squareness of an EAT AT JOE'S billboard someone mistakenly discarded. It's a series of bright lights limning the border of a cardboard placard that has a Baseball Tonight baseball on it and the words, "JOHN KRUK'S FREE JOB ADVICE."
There are many things wrong with this billboard, and only one thing right. On the former, obviously "become a major league All-Star infielder" ranks among the all time most useless employment tips. "Fulfill the checkbox-demographic needs of lazy programming directors by loudly and pigheadedly adhering to a delegitimized set of atavistic beliefs" would be another, although that's something of a growth industry. Lastly, there's the fallacious implication that Kruk represents even the most talented of the sort of people who fall into the two preceding categories. The only thing they got right is that the John Kruk sign only has one ball on it.
From the doorway of a small conference room, one can see Kruk with his back to the far wall, behind a small pressboard table with a white cloth on it. Kruk leans forward with his arms sort of chicken-winged out at his sides. It's a tired and frustrated pose, somewhere between those prayerful folded-armed naps you'd inadvertently take at your desk in high school and a self-applied Heimlich via the table's edge.
By 11:30, Kruk has been here for two hours, the last 30 minutes of which he has sat in this position, granting audience to no one. Job Seekers queue up in groups of as many as a dozen, until they peel off in twos or threes, giving up in frustration. More Job Seekers appear to take their place, just as yet more fall away. The attrition rate in the face of John Kruk's implacable, indifferent silence is heartrending.
I watch for half an hour before finally approaching a group of stragglers. "He's just sitting there," one says. No one dares cross the threshold and approach him. This is a job fair, and job fairs are serious business. Failing to wait for an audience would indicate a fundamental disrespect for the solemn purpose of having a job fair. Instead the Job Seekers just look at him, thirty feet away.
"It looks like he's ready to go to lunch," another says, too loudly. Noises carry in empty rooms. I can't tell if he means to describe the intensity of Kruk's desire to leave or merely to describe what ESPN's pre-game promo packages take pains to describe as the normative state of Krukness.
Finally, a woman tasked with the job of Kruk Wrangling arranges for a boom mic and camera setup and motions for the Job Seekers to gather round the table. The room fills quickly.
"Whaddayou wanna do in baseball?" Kruk asks, pointing at the first four guys arrayed around him. The fourth wants to be a GM. "You just wanna run everything!" Kruk says. The aspiring GM tries to explain: "I was a catcher. I'm used to being in control, running the field." Kruk laughs; he likes the guy sticking up for himself. "Well, if you can deal with pitchers," he says, "you can deal with anyone."
It doesn't take long for the wisdom to run out. Kruk starts talking about how to mow the outfield grass different ways. Some exasperated, overstressed paid-attendee at this Job Fair may snap and start beating him with a legal pad full of resumes and scream, "TELL. ME. THE. JOB. SECRETS."
Finally, Tim Kurkjian walks in quickly, makes his way to the front of the audience, and the point of this portion of the Job Fair reveals itself. "Where should I eat in Orlando?" he asks Kruk. "I figured you would know."
"Five Guys," Kruk says. "I dunno. I don't live here. I like salt. I've been watching a lot of Food Network. I love seasoning."
It's fair to say that the sorts of people seeking the chance to work up from an internship to become a VP of Operations in Major League Baseball don't really expect to learn a lot from John Kruk. At least not a lot of things that would be terribly helpful or even really a cousin to scientific reality. That said, it feels brutal to snooker a bunch of overanxious kids into waiting to hear from an ESPN Solon and then have it turn out to be the Krukie-Kurkjian Vaudeville Yuk-Yuk Hour.
Kurkjian is throwing soft-toss here. "How do you feel about Sabermetrics, John?"
"I hate Sabermetrics and what you people stand for."
"Tell them about how the journalism landscape has changed."
"Everyone is recording everything now!" Kruk says. "You can't just say anything." Then he tells the story of a Canadian journalist approaching him during the Phillies-Jays World Series hype and referring to an extra innings game by asking him how he felt about it "going to overtime." Kruk relates a snotty reply using more hockey terms, which is I guess proof of the "gotcha!" victimization of 24-hour blog culture? It doesn't make sense to me either, but in deference to his point, I am writing this down.
Kurkjian turns to walk out, and Krukie asks the Kruk Wrangler to take his mic off so he can "tell a dirty joke." A kid who looks a biscuit over booze-legal buttonholes Kurkjian and asks how to get into broadcasting, which requires an answer that Kurkjian graciously gives over a 250-foot and three-minute walk, culminating in, "Keep me posted with what you're doing."
Nothing is accomplished, but everyone still in the room seems to be laughing. Kruk's Falstaffian earthiness was always meant to play to a bro audience, and there's a decidedly bro vibe to hundreds and hundreds of business and management majors wandering around waiting to crush an interview. Kruk won't help them any in that regard, but at least they might wind up on a promo for Baseball Tonight.
Most of them don't have jobs in baseball yet, but already they have discovered the ways and lengths to which their time and patience will be tested. It is never too early to become part of the machine.
Are the non-affluent the new market inefficiency?
Consider: registration for Job Seekers is around $200. Three thousand people fill surrounding hotels to the point that $100 per night is a reasonable price. And because the Swan and Dolphin charge $15 to park not per day but per visit, Job Seekers are at the mercy of miserable $15 hotel meals at least twice per day. At three nights and three days, plus (let us say) $250 for airfare, each job seeker spends a minimum of $850 to wait in lobbies.
All that before any worries about suits, shirts, ties, shoes, and fine stationery for business cards and resumes. And let's not forget the last of those -- where four years of college is practically mandatory, saddling each applicant with anywhere from $50,000 to a quarter of a million dollars' worth of debt.
Finally, after taking most of a week off from work or whatever other responsibilities they might have in order to go on a nearly $1,000 work-vacation, the rewards of that venture are just as meager as any other job market out there today. The principle that supports it is called "psychic compensation" -- the idea that doing the job you love, or giving back to the community or seeing your byline in the Huffington Post already compensates you so much inwardly that the outward trappings of compensation, like actual money, are hardly necessary.
Take Jillian Ward, who gets her dream internship, which pays her, "a $1,450 per month stipend. It's pretty much the highest paid internship that was posted." That's $17,400 per year -- which can seem like a fortune while still living with mom and dad but doesn't go very far when you have to move to Idaho, which she does.
That litany of expenses above isn't meant to suggest that expense itself is always bad but it should suggest that baseball's institutional structure for finding and training its next generation effectively weeds out a lot of people before a resume is sent, much less seen. It's a painful reminder that our feelgood buzz about the "victory" of Moneyball elides the fact that it's a book about arbitrage -- rich-guy capital allocation methodologies applied to the hobbies of 30 super-rich guys. There's a ruthless heart to the game that we'll never be fully rid of. Maybe part of it is, "If you don't have the money, we don't care to have you, an optimal next generation of thinkers be damned."
Yet psychic compensation works. Everyone I speak to defends the PBEO Job Fair, despite having nearly a thousand very good reasons to feel impatient with it.
"I think the people who really want it are all here, although obviously some can't afford it," says Ward. "But the ones who got here already have an advantage, because they want to be here. Because they know how expensive it was. Looking back at all the networking we did, we can all see it was worth it."
Melchior agrees. "You've really got to want it. You've got to be able to spend money to make money... If you have talent, I think you're gonna get noticed."
Of course, it's easy to believe that equality of opportunity exists when you've got all the opportunities, although both find other inefficiencies within the larger one that comprises their ecosystem. But it's difficult, too, not to keep coming back to what they get most out of the Winter Meetings experience. Which, if you've been arguing about baseball online for the last decade, seems like the wrong lesson entirely.
As I walk around the Winter Meetings Trade Show, looking for ever more bizarre or arcane products, I come across a vendor booth that startles me. It's virtually unadorned, a desk with two people sitting behind it, a banner above them. It reads, "SABR," for the Society for American Baseball Research, the granddaddy of them all, the one from which we get "Sabermetrics."
Selling SABR at the Winter Meetings in this day and age seems like sending coals to Newcastle, and I can't help but strike up a conversation with the people behind the desk: Troy Perlowitz, 24, an intern and research assistant to the president of SABR from New York, and Tiana Chavez, 23, an intern at SABR and broadcast major from Phoenix. I figure they might have an unconventional take on the Job Fair.
"It just didn't seem worth it, being here all day waiting for someone to call me back for an interview when all those jobs are posted at TeamworkOnline.com," says Chavez. "I could apply for one that way. We are looking for jobs, but we don't want to have to pay $200 and fly all the way across the country."
Perlowitz sounds more dubious. "I was a business major as an undergrad, so I understand the concept of, 'Hey, I'm a business, I'm trying to make money. I have a competitive job market, and that's my product essentially,'" he says. "You're going to have people bidding for your product, because there's a demand just in being here. But if you argue that's going to keep qualified people out, I couldn't agree more."
Chavez adds: "I have a ton of baseball experience, but would I want to pay that money to see if I can go work for them? No. So they could be missing out on me and people like me, and they would never know. But of course, it's always who you know and people getting hired off recommendations."
Melchior and Ward, too, come back to the "who you know" concept repeatedly of their own volition. Melchior talks about networking as "making it your job from 8am until 1am, when the GMs are out drinking -- you've got to be aggressive about it." On the first day, he realized he needed business cards, designed one in Word, then went to the business services desk at the hotel and printed out 100. Meanwhile, Ward worked the late-night lobby crowd, eventually spending an hour talking to Sig Mejdal and a journalist, being introduced to any scouts and writers passing by.
As a hiring practice we've witnessed before, networking makes sense simply as a thing that we've come to acknowledge as a reality. But given baseball's dedication to growing ever more metrically rational, networking seems almost perverse. Hiring based on schmoozing or who you know sounds like predicting that a right fielder will succeed because he's friendly with the man who plays third base.
Networking, then, becomes that thing divorced from the facts of a resume and objective experience that comforts and reinforces impressions we want to have. Networking is the thrill of a Derek Jeter jump-throw to first when UZR says he sucks. It's the Winter Meetings Job Fair's "intangibles," and Melchior and Ward's encomia about how you've "really got to want it" sound a lot like that familiar ballpark anthem about heart and hustle.
Which is not to say that the latter two can't make a difference, or that Melchior and Ward won't. In fact, both seem deservingly on the way to bright futures. It's simply that, however we might perceive its on-field product via an endlessly more ratiocinating Internet, the future of baseball behind the scenes probably remains desperately, willfully irrational.
For instance, Perlowitz and Chavez are representing SABR at the Trade Show to drum up young blood and register old members whose memberships have lapsed. They're facing the attrition of old members' deaths and youth disinterest. Why, I ask, don't they just take out ads on Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus and dozens of other popular sports websites? Why isn't the history of this institution enough to persuade with rational appeals? Why are they even here?
"To provide a face," Perlowitz says.