La Velle Neal III, now established as the senior baseball writer for the Star Tribune, will be covering the winter meetings next week in Las Vegas. By coincidence, several of us refer to La Velle as UNLV, as in the Universe of Neal, La Velle and he is a man not unfamiliar with the bright lights of Las Vegas.
Still, this is a work assignment, and turning loose the 24-Hour Man in the ultimate 24-Hour Town … I fear for my protégé’s well-being as he tries to squeeze in both news gathering and taking advantage with ball-writing friends the endless joys of Vegas.
The not-as-young-as-he-used-to-be La Velle could find himself so exhausted that he wouldn’t be ready to fulfill his duties as the Crown Prince of Fort Myers when spring training arrives earlier than ever in February.
With this in mind, I decided to bring back a cautionary column written late in 2003, before La Velle headed out to cover the winter meetings in New Orleans – American’s second-ranking temptress as a city, trailing only Vegas:
DECEMBER 11, 2003.
Dear La Velle:
This letter should be waiting at the hotel when you arrive in New Orleans this afternoon to start covering baseball's winter meetings for the Star Tribune. It is beyond a coincidence that the role model you have come to call "Uncle Pat" was a guest at the same hotel when covering the 1974 winter meetings for the St. Paul newspapers.
I have to think a Higher Power is at work here; that I was steered to spending a week on an expense account in New Orleans, so that some day I could counsel a ball writer of a new generation on the pitfalls that await in that decadent city.
The obstacles ahead are even greater than those faced by the ball writers of my era, La Velle, since New Orleans has added casino gambling, meaning it now has all the important vices covered.
Then again, there were disadvantages Uncle Pat faced in 1974 that will not be duplicated during your week in this den of debauchery. Among them:
*The winter meetings were held during the first week of December back then. The major social event for anyone with a Twins' connection was the Dec. 1 birthday party for owner Calvin Griffith. There were always a couple of seats at the far end of the large table for Twin Cities ball writers.
Calvin had a grand appreciation for food and drink. The birthday celebration was held at the finest of restaurants. All in all, it was a woozy, belly-busting start for Uncle Pat vs. New Orleans.
*There were no assistant sports editors and no cell phones in 1974, meaning there was no one assigned to harass you every 15 minutes to see what story you were working on, and there was no way to find you even if the boss had such an urge.
This lack of supervision was a dangerous thing for the ball writers of the '70s because, frankly La Velle, we couldn't be trusted to keep our noses to the grindstone.
This was a working day in New Orleans: Gather in the press room, collaborate on a trade rumor worth a few paragraphs, reward ourselves with a few pops at the hotel bar, continue to mix those procedures as needed, then visit Calvin's suite during cocktail hour for his explanation of the Twins' inactivity, Xerox in the daily report and head for the French Quarter.
*Uncle Pat realizes there will be bad influences among your peers covering these meetings, La Velle, although none to compare with my running mate in December '74 - Frankie Hyland of the Atlanta Journal.
Frankie and I had worked together earlier at the St. Cloud Times. He went on to a great Atlanta career, being choked by Falcons coach Norm van Brocklin, having a carton of strawberries pushed in his face by the Braves' Henry Aaron, and reading in a national magazine that the Hawks' Pete Maravich would like to shoot him.
There was a moment that week in New Orleans when I could see Maravich's point. It went like this:
Hyland decided it was necessary for us to visit another New Orleans bar area called "Fat City." On arrival there, he decided that tamales purchased from a street-cart vendor would solve our dinner needs.
Three days later, I came across an item in a New Orleans newspaper stating that several Fat City street vendors selling tamales had been busted for using cat meat as their main ingredient.
We know you are a big cat, La Velle - a tiger when it comes to Twins news, but Uncle Pat must make you understand that never will you face as many distractions as those encountered during a week of winter meetings in New Orleans.
On the final night of my stay, covering the Twins through a trade-less week, I was traveling by foot (and perhaps knee) on Canal Street. It was less than a half-mile to the hotel, although it seemed like a leg of the Tour de France, inching past Dauphine Street, Bourbon, Royal, Chartres and then, praise be, the Marriott, the elevator, the assigned room.
"Ma'am, I need a 7:30 a.m. wakeup call," I said to the operator.
"I'm sorry, sir, it's a quarter to 8," came the reply.
Listen, La Velle: A Twin Cities ball writer will not have made his post-dawn weave along Canal in vain all those years ago, if the lessons learned help get you through what will be the most challenging week of your ball-writing career.
All the best,