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Bill Conlin: Gotcha! moments at baseball's winter meetings

THE PHONE RANG around 3 a.m. Groggy and ill with flu, I rolled over and rasped, "Yeah?" "Bill, the Baron here," Phillies media relations director Larry Shenk said. "Come to the Pope's suite as soon as you can. We've got a trade to announce."

THE PHONE RANG around 3 a.m. Groggy and ill with flu, I rolled over and rasped, "Yeah?"

"Bill, the Baron here," Phillies media relations director Larry Shenk said. "Come to the Pope's suite as soon as you can. We've got a trade to announce."

A trade? If it couldn't wait until daylight, it had to be a big one.

"What kind of trade?"

"A big one," Shenk said. "We got Sutter . . . That's all I can say. The Pope will fill you in."

This was 1979 and baseball's winter meetings were in Toronto. I hadn't been out of the hotel since checking in Saturday with some kind of bug. Now, I was weak and feverish and would have to tackle a blockbuster trade story at 3 a.m. The Daily News was still an afternoon newspaper in '79, so it would have to be pounded out on deadline.

Owens was in his suite with minister of trade Hugh Alexander, manager Dallas Green, several scouts. They obviously had been celebrating the acquisition of baseball's premier reliever, Bruce Sutter, for some time. But what stars or future stars did it take to pry the 26-year-old master of the splitter away from the Cubs? Maybe Greg Luzinski, Ron Reed and Keith Moreland and a minor league throw-in or two?

"I called you guys up here because we have traded for Sutter," the GM began, then paused for effect. "Burke Suter. That's spelled S-u-t-e-r. Same pronunciation as Bruce Sutter."

A half-dozen ballpoints froze in midstroke. It was a great "Gotcha" and we folded our notepads and joined in the laughter. William Burke Suter was a 26-year-old righthander obtained from the Red Sox in a very minor transaction. He never got past Triple A.

Stuff like that happens when the baseball meetings are held in a cold town in the grip of hockey season where the Blue Jays had not yet caught on.

I checked my Weatherbug program and at 3:30 p.m. yesterday, as the cocktail-hour lobby vigils were getting under way, it was 26 degrees in Indianapolis, snow was flurrying and there was a wind advisory for gusts up to 50 mph. The trade winds were blowing at a much lower velocity on the next-to-last day of what used to be a wonderful assembly of baseball men before free agency turned it into a convention for megastar agents and elderly ballplayers looking for one final payday.

I guess MLB picked Indianapolis because the Kabul Marriott was already booked. The Phillies have never fared well in cold winter-meetings towns. So it would be no surprise if Ruben Amaro and his Swap Team check out today after the Rule 5 draft and head home to equally gelid Philly without bullpen reinforcements. There are going to be about a jillion players without major league contracts when pitchers and catchers report in just a little more than 2 months. Many will have their significant others prodding them to become re-employed - and fast.

Florida and Arizona will feature a huge scrap heap of the spare parts Charlie Manuel will need to play the favorite's role to win a fourth straight NL East title. I'm not getting knocked off my feet by any of the names being bandied about as sturdy pillars capable of buttressing the middle of a bullpen still reeling from last season's run of injuries. And Ruben badly needs to buy more time so he can assess the rehab progress of surgically repaired closer Brad Lidge, healing specialists J.C. Romero and free agent Scott Eyre. Plus the willingness of Chan Ho Park to keep doing what he does best.

I like the heat thrown by free-agent lefty reliever Mike Gonzalez. But when you add the names Tommy John and Scott Boras to the sentence, it translates to "Stay away." Ross Gload seems like a solid sign, if it goes through - quick stick, slick mitt. But Ruben collects lefthanded hitters the way Tiger collects pancake-house waitresses. The imbalance of lefthanded hitters on Charlie's bench makes it imperative for righthanded outfielders John Mayberry or Michael Taylor to step up in spring training.

Speaking of the Rule 5 draft, the Phillies were still celebrating their first World Series trophy at the 1980 meetings in Dallas. But they were asleep at the switch.

Pat Gillick's Blue Jays selected George Bell, a gifted Dominican outfielder the Phillies tried to squirrel away in a morning league for players rehabbing from injuries. The Jays' sharp scouts saw through the sandbags. A similar tactic cost the Dodgers Roberto Clemente when a hawkeyed Pirates scout named Howie Haak watched the mercurial Puerto Rican leg out a triple and make a throw that trailed sparks.

Blue Jays scout Al LaMacchia was at one of those morning games and Bell, a future AL MVP left unprotected by the Phillies, put on a show.

The sound of a half-dozen Phillies' front-office jaws dropping resembled a musket volley. And stuff like that is what the once-great baseball winter meetings, a Coney Island roller coaster in December, used to be all about.

So help me Burke Suter . . .

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