THE STEINBRENNER PROBE
Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent is expected to announce next week what action, if any, he will take against New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who has been under investigation by the commissioner's office for possibly violating baseball rules through conduct "not in the best interests" of the sport. Vincent could fine or suspend Steinbrenner, or even order him to sell the Yankees—though speculation among insiders last week was that Steinbrenner may be headed for a two-year ban.
Baseball launched its investigation in March, after Steinbrenner admitted he had paid $40,000 two months earlier to Howard Spira, 31, a self-described former gambler from the Bronx. Spira says Steinbrenner gave him the money in exchange for damaging information about former Yankee outfielder Dave Winfield, with whom Steinbrenner has long feuded. Spira claims he had dirt on Winfield—who was traded to the California Angels in May—because he had once worked for the David M. Winfield Foundation, a charitable organization founded by Winfield. If Spira and Steinbrenner did engage in such an unseemly quid pro quo, that alone may be grounds for Steinbrenner to be suspended.
Steinbrenner has offered several explanations for paying Spira. He initially said he was just trying to help Spira out. He later said he gave Spira money so he wouldn't go public with embarrassing information about former Yankee employees. Spira claims to have damaging information about Winfield and Steinbrenner, and may yet air some of that in U.S. District Court in New York City. He is awaiting trial there on charges that he tried to extort money from Steinbrenner and threatened to harm Winfield and Steinbrenner. Spira has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The Spira payment is not the only issue in the Steinbrenner case. Baseball has looked into Steinbrenner's other efforts—some alleged, some well established—to disparage and discredit Winfield. Almost from the moment Winfield signed a 10-year contract with the Yankees in December 1980, he and Steinbrenner have butted heads. Some say Steinbrenner has harbored a grudge because he vastly underestimated the value of Winfield's contract, which constantly escalated because of a cost-of-living clause. The deal, which barred the Yankees from trading Winfield without his permission, is said to have ultimately cost Steinbrenner $23 million.
During the 1980s Winfield sued Steinbrenner three times to force him to make contractually required payments to the Winfield Foundation. Last year Steinbrenner answered with counterclaims that the foundation was mismanaged and that Winfield hadn't contributed as much as he was contractually obliged to, either. In a settlement last September, Winfield admitted that certain moneys had been "inappropriately expended" and also paid $229,667 in delinquent contributions.
Sources close to the commissioner's office and the Yankees have told SI that Steinbrenner went to extremes to try to diminish Winfield's reputation, even being so petty as to keep Winfield's photo off the cover of programs and year-books. "Winfield is no angel," said one source close to the commissioner's office, "but the kind of stuff Steinbrenner was doing to this kid was most insidious." Another source close to the commissioner's office says that for years Steinbrenner called the commissioner regularly to level a "barrage" of broad, sometimes "bizarre" charges against Winfield and the Winfield Foundation, none of which baseball could substantiate. "I can't understand the bitterness of the man," the source said of Steinbrenner. "The man is incessantly bitter."
Steinbrenner even lodged allegations against Winfield and the foundation with investigative authorities. Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau told SI that in 1987 the Yankees notified his office of possible tax improprieties involving the foundation. Morgenthau looked into the matter, but closed the case without filing any criminal charges.
Baseball sources told SI that Steinbrenner has also suggested to the commissioner's office that Winfield has consorted with gamblers and perhaps bet on baseball. Winfield denies betting on his sport or consorting with gamblers; one of the baseball sources told SI that the commissioner's office looked into gambling allegations against Winfield and found nothing. Winfield admits lending Spira $15,000 in 1981; Spira has said he needed the money to pay off gambling debts, including baseball-betting debts, and that Winfield knew that. Winfield says that at the time he had no knowledge that Spira was a gambler.
In an echo of the Pete Rose case, Steinbrenner's side reportedly plans to sue baseball if Steinbrenner is suspended. The grounds for such a suit may have been heard in grumblings last week by sources close to Steinbrenner that their man isn't getting a fair shake from Vincent and his special counsel, John Dowd, who directed both the Steinbrenner and Rose probes. But Steinbrenner seems to have received ample opportunity to defend himself. When Dowd presented a summary of his findings to Vincent last month, he gave Steinbrenner's side all the documents, including phone records, letters, memos and transcripts of interviews, from which the report was prepared.
Then, on July 5 and 6, Vincent held a hearing in New York at which he questioned Steinbrenner for 11 hours. Before leaving for his vacation home on Cape Cod, where he will deliberate Steinbrenner's fate, Vincent said that Steinbrenner's answers at that hearing constitute, in Vincent's mind, "the critical testimony" in the case.
If you've been testing some of the bizarre golf gadgets described by Rick Reilly in his article two weeks ago (SI, July 9), here's one more to try: the irradiated golf ball. Golf-minded scientists at the Whiteshell Nuclear Research Establishment in Pinawa, Manitoba, have found that a golf ball exposed to a 50-kilogray dose of radiation—roughly the amount used to sterilize chickens for longer shelf life—travels an average of 3% to 8% farther than a nonirradiated one and also bounces higher.
The Whiteshell scientists now sell irradiated balls embossed with the words ATOMIC GOLF BALL for $28 a dozen and zap balls gratis for anyone who sends them both the balls and return postage. By the way, the scientists warn that while the balls they irradiate in their linear accelerator are not a health hazard, you should not attempt to do the job at home in a microwave—your golf balls will burn to a crisp.
OF WHEAT, CHAFF AND BOXING
It came as no breathtaking revelation last week when boxing promoter Don King testified in U.S. District Court in New York City that in the course of his promotional work he often lies to reporters. "They can separate the wheat from the chaff," said King blithely.
It hasn't been easy for anyone—journalists, the six district court jurors, boxing fans—to separate the grains of wheat from the mountain of chaff in King's $24 million-to-$27 million lawsuit against heavyweight champion Buster Douglas, Douglas's manager, John Johnson, Steve Wynn and the Wynn-owned Mirage hotel and casino in Las Vegas. On Monday a report surfaced that the two sides had worked out a settlement under which King, in exchange for a large payment from Douglas, would stop claiming the right to promote Douglas's first title defense. But both sides denied having settled, and the two-week-old trial seemed destined to run for another week.
King filed his suit after Douglas, who became the champ with a stunning 10th-round knockout of Mike Tyson in Tokyo in February, signed a $32.1 million deal to have Wynn promote his first title defense, against Evander Holyfield at the Mirage. King wants to promote Douglas's next fight himself—and strongly prefers that it be a rematch with Tyson, to whom King is a friend and adviser. King points out that Douglas has an exclusive promotional contract with him; Douglas claims King legally breached this contract when, immediately after the Douglas-Tyson fight, King howled that Douglas had been saved by a long count in the eighth round and should not be recognized as champion.
Testimony in the case has at times been almost comical. Although King admitted on the witness stand that he didn't want Douglas to get up from that eighth-round knockdown in Tokyo, he has tried to downplay his postfight comments, explaining that he was just fueling interest in a rematch. Bob Arum, King's archrival, testified for King on this subject, telling the jurors, "That's how we fight our battles in boxing—through hyperbole. Hyperbole is not lying. Hyperbole is exaggerating. In the heat of battle we all say crazy things that we are not accountable for."
Sadly, no matter who wins the case, Douglas's title belt won't come out of mothballs anytime soon. Even if Douglas's side prevails in court, the Holyfield fight, now set for Sept. 21, probably won't come off until at least late October. Should King win and try to stage a Douglas—Tyson rematch, Holyfield, long the No. 1 contender, could sue on grounds that he deserves the first shot at Douglas. In a slap at King, Douglas has said he might never agree to fight Tyson; he might fight Holyfield and George Foreman and then retire. It remains to be seen, of course, whether those words were wheat or chaff.
Steinbrenner may have gone too far in toying to discredit Winfield.
Arum (left) stood up for his old rival King in federal court.
THEY SAID IT
•Ben Bennett, quarterback for the Dallas Texans of the Arena Football League, on the frenetic pace of Arenaball: "The game looks like your VCR is stuck on search."
•Frank Coppenbarger, Philadelphia Phillie clubhouse manager, as a load of dirt was delivered to groundskeepers at Veterans Stadium: "All of the old dirt was on Lenny Dykstra's uniform."