BEHIND THE SCENES WITH GEORGE AND FAY
A week after baseball commissioner Fay Vincent's action against New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner (SCORECARD, Aug. 6), many questions, some of them troubling, remain:
What did Steinbrenner do that was so bad?
He sought to dig up—and perhaps create—dirt on then Yankee Dave Winfield. He privately investigated Winfield without telling either Winfield or baseball and in January paid former gambler Howard Spira $40,000, apparently for damaging information on Winfield. Steinbrenner didn't inform Vincent of his involvement with Spira, even though Spira had told Steinbrenner's investigators he had ties to organized crime.
So Steinbrenner should be punished?
Absolutely. Baseball rule 21(f) forbids activities "not in the best interests of [the game]." By consorting with a gambler and trying to besmirch one of his players, Steinbrenner broke that rule.
What is Spira's supposed mob link?
Spira told Steinbrenner's investigators in 1986 and '87 that Joseph Caridi, a reputed associate of the Colombo crime family, had lent him $57,000 to bet on the 1981 World Series. When asked about Spira by SI's Martin F. Dardis, Caridi, now serving five to 15 years in an upstate New York prison for robbery, assault, coercion and criminal usury, said that Spira was "a degenerate gambler" who "hung around" the Long Island restaurant Caridi used to own. A source told SI that Spira claims to currently owe mob bookies $2 million.
Didn't Winfield know Spira, too?
Yes—but Vincent seems to have blinders on with regard to Winfield. The commissioner, saying his probe was confined to Steinbrenner, chose not to interview witnesses who Steinbrenner claimed could provide information about improprieties involving Winfield.
Is that to say that Winfield should also be investigated?
Like Steinbrenner, Winfield gave money to Spira. Though he first denied it, Winfield has admitted lending Spira $15,000 in 1981, when Spira was working for Top Hat, a promotional company founded by Winfield's former agent, Al Frohman, who died in 1987. Winfield says he didn't know Spira was a gambler and says he made the $15,000 loan to Spira at Frohman's request without knowing what the money was for.
Is there evidence suggesting otherwise?
When asked by SI about the $15,000, Frohman's widow, Barbara, said her husband told her Winfield lent Spira the money after Spira went to Winfield and her husband "crying, hysterical, on bended-down knees" for help in covering huge debts he apparently owed to mob bookies. Albert Whitton, a chauffeur for Top Hat from 1981 to '83 who drove Frohman and, at times, Winfield, told SI that both men were aware that Spira gambled and also knew that he, Whitton, had spent time in prison (eight months) for bookmaking. As for the $15,000, Whitton said Frohman told him "the money was to pay off [Spira's] gambling debts."
A third source close to Winfield in the early '80s told SI that Winfield knew Spira was a gambler and lent Spira large sums on more than one occasion.
So Winfield, like Steinbrenner, may have known he was giving money to a gambler linked to the mob?
He may have. What's more, two sources have told SI that although they did not witness Winfield placing a bet, they did overhear him discussing his own apparent involvement in sports gambling. One of the sources, free-lance writer Allen Barra, a regular contributor to the New York City weekly The Village Voice who is writing a book with Marvin Miller, the former head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, told SI that early in 1985 he spent a few days with Winfield in Minneapolis while preparing a story for Sports Fitness magazine. While there, Barra said, he heard Winfield talk about sports wagers in which he had apparently been involved and heard him make phone calls to get odds on sports events.
"He said he never bet on baseball," Barra told SI. "I heard him say only idiots bet on baseball. He said football you could pick a team, and load up on the Super Bowl usually because you could figure out which of those teams would be better. But baseball, well, the difference between the best and the worst team in any given game is tough to call."
Another source who was close to Winfield in the 1980s told SI of having heard Winfield as recently as 1987 discuss bets he apparently had placed on boxing and college sports, including the Sugar Bowl. "[Winfield and Frohman] sent Howie to place bets," said the source. "I sat and listened to David and Al talk about gambling. David would talk about who he wanted to win because he had money on that team."
How does Winfield respond?
He denies the accusations against him, calling them "all fabrication." Winfield told SI that he hasn't and doesn't bet on sports events and doesn't even know how he would go about doing so. He says he didn't know that Whitton was a convicted bookmaker or that Spira might be linked to organized crime, and says that he doesn't specifically remember Barra, though he doesn't dispute that Barra went to Minneapolis and talked to him for a story. Winfield adds that with Al Frohman dead, it's easy for people to invent tales supposedly told to them by Frohman.
Why would it matter if Winfield did wager on sports, as long as it wasn't baseball?
Betting on most sports is illegal in all states except Nevada, and baseball rules bar players from either illicit gambling or associating with gamblers.
What does baseball say about its approach to Winfield?
Vincent's special counsel, John Dowd, told SI that in two interviews with baseball, one under oath, Winfield denied gambling or associating with gamblers. Dowd said baseball asked Steinbrenner for substantiation of gambling allegations the Yankee owner made against Winfield, and Steinbrenner provided none.
Did Steinbrenner really negotiate himself a harsher sanction than Vincent had planned to give him?
As bizarre as it sounds, yes. Steinbrenner went to Vincent's office at 9 a.m. on July 30 and was told he was being suspended for two years. "I handed him the [50-page decision]," Vincent told SI. "I thought that would be the end of it."
But the session took a strange turn. Vincent said Steinbrenner was upset by the word suspension, because "he thought that would kill him on the [U.S.] Olympic Committee [of which Steinbrenner is a vice-president]." Asked for an alternative, Vincent drew up a proposal in which Steinbrenner would resign as the Yankees' managing partner, remove himself from all day-to-day operations of the team and agree not to sue baseball. Steinbrenner seemed not to fully grasp what was happening. At one point he asked Vincent when the revised penalty would end. When told it was permanent, Steinbrenner seemed shocked.
After hours of fine-tuning the agreement, Steinbrenner's side was unsure whether to sign it. Vincent was losing patience. At about 8 p.m. he told Steinbrenner, "It's over. I'm going to release my original opinion." Steinbrenner's reply: "We'll just take our shot in court."
Vincent got in the elevator to leave, but at the last instant Stephen Kaufman, one of Steinbrenner's lawyers, thrust his arm between the closing doors, causing them to automatically reopen. "He'll sign," said Kaufman. The two sides consummated the agreement in front of the elevator, and at 8:22 p.m. Vincent officially announced Steinbrenner's punishment. As one baseball official told SI in amazement afterward, "George negotiated himself a life sentence."
What about Steinbrenner's USOC job?
It's unclear why Steinbrenner felt he would have a better chance of retaining his vice-presidency with the deal he settled for. "The important thing is what he did, not the nuances of the penalty by the commissioner," USOC president Robert Helmick told SI's Robert Sullivan. Helmick said baseball's findings are "of grave concern"—as they should be—to the USOC executive committee, which will vote Aug. 22 on whether to remove Steinbrenner from office.
Has there been other fallout?
Lawyers defending Spira against federal charges that he tried to extort money from Steinbrenner contend that Steinbrenner used his Tampa connections to engineer their client's indictment. A source familiar with Justice Department operations in Tampa told SI that Steinbrenner entertained personnel from the FBI's Tampa office in the Yankee owner's luxury box at Tampa Bay Bucs games and otherwise curried favor with them. In April the prosecutor in the case, Gregory Kehoe, an assistant U.S. attorney from Tampa, twice asked Dowd to have baseball postpone its Steinbrenner probe. Steinbrenner called Vincent to make the same unsuccessful request. Dowd says Kehoe told him he was concerned baseball would develop information helpful to Spira. Kehoe says he merely wanted to ensure that his investigation wasn't compromised by any parallel probe. "The request was preposterous," says Vincent. "The government should look into how it was initiated and why it was initiated."
What happens if Steinbrenner succeeds in his attempt to make his son Hank the Yankees' new managing partner?
That move, which requires approval by baseball owners, would create a policing nightmare for Vincent, who is said to be ready to monitor phone records and sound out sources in the Yankee organization to make sure Steinbrenner doesn't meddle. Even if Vincent bugged the Steinbrenners' Thanksgiving turkey he could never be certain George wasn't passing baseball advice on to his son. And the seldom-reticent elder Steinbrenner could always voice his opinions on trades and managerial moves to the New York media—opinions his son could scarcely avoid hearing.
Steinbrenner spurned a two-year ban by Vincent (below) and wound up with life.
[See caption above.]
Baseball has been slow to look into charges hurled at Winfield.