Skip to main content
Original Issue

'Take Care of The Game'

As commissioner of baseball, Fay Vincent has heard those words time and again. But it's been easier said than done

For fay Vincent, it seems, the ground has never stopped moving. The first time we noticed him, he was dignifying baseball with some highly sensible and sensitive behavior at the 1989 World Series, a series remembered less for the baseball than for the earthquake that disrupted it. Now, when we look in on the baseball commissioner, we find the continental plates of fractious owners shifting and grinding beneath his feet. He still brings what dignity he can to his beloved game. But he surely is an unlucky commissioner if this latest upheaval—along a Pacific fault line running from Japan through Seattle—is no more his doing than the first.

The seismic shocks have been considerable; perhaps their cumulative force will be enough to ultimately topple this commissioner. As one owner says, "He may be acting in the best interests of baseball, but he is not acting in the best interests of being reelected." While it is the game itself that is on shaky ground, the one who wobbles now is Vincent.

The proposed purchase of the Seattle Mariners by a group that may or may not be considered foreign is the latest crisis. The Seattle offer centered on investment by the Nintendo Co. Ltd. of Japan; when Vincent articulated baseball's long-considered objection to foreign ownership, he was singled out for, among other things, decidedly limited vision, Japan bashing, racism, even xenophobia, which no baseball writer had ever had cause to spell before. Certainly those complaints were legitimate when applied strictly to baseball: What's so world about a World Series that can't accommodate baseball-crazy Japan? But when Vincent issued his statement, he believed he was functioning as the baseball owners' mouthpiece, not as an arbiter of geopolitics. "What could you expect me to say?" he says.

But wouldn't you have expected somebody else to say it too? Not one of his constituents—the owners—jumped in to lend support, and Vincent and his office were left to fend off" a nation of editorial writers, all of whom knew very well how to spell xenophobia. Now, what do you make of that?

Perhaps the commish is being hung out to dry, is one thing to make of it. After all, other curious things have been happening. What do you make of this? The owners replace management's chief negotiator, Charles O'Connor, with Richard Ravitch to bargain with the players' union for a new basic agreement (the current labor contract ends after the '93 season); they bestow upon Ravitch, a high-powered labor expert, the new title of president and chief executive officer of the Player Relations Committee and then leak word that they are paying him a salary that is $100,000 greater than Vincent's. And what do you make of the fact that Vincent travels to Washington to address a congressional delegation on the Seattle issue and others matters of owners' policy, and is joined by not a single owner?

Out of such details perhaps only Oliver Stone might make a compelling and convincing drama. In real life it might not add up to a sinister plot. Yet try to remember that no men love a good conspiracy more than baseball owners, and few are more practiced at enacting one. No longer allowed to collude over player salaries, the owners may have turned instead to a different kind of clandestine operation, one that, in the end, might systematically remove power and meaning from the commissioner's office. Says one baseball official, "The owners have taken very significant steps to render this commissioner a total and complete figurehead, and they have largely succeeded. It reinforces the notion that the person who occupies that office is not nearly as important as his constituency."

Occupying that office has not been nearly as enjoyable as Vincent once envisioned. Beginning with the earthquake, he has dealt with one crisis after another. There was Pete Rose. Bart Giamatti made the decision on Rose; but Giamatti died nine days after that decision, just five months into his commissioner-ship, and his deputy and friend, Vincent, was thrust into the position of having to defend baseball's most celebrated disciplinary action since 1919. And then there was the investigation and eventual banishment of George Steinbrenner—a messy matter that still generates new headlines every week in Vincent's morning papers. And, of course, there was the spring lockout of 1990. A tumultuous time, all in all.

The thing is, Vincent only came aboard for the fun of it. In a career marked by a certain serendipity, Vincent, a lawyer by training, had been president of Columbia Pictures and then executive vice-president of Coca-Cola, where he'd amassed a personal stake worth at least $20 million. When Vincent realized he got no kick out of marketing Sprite in Spain, he quietly left corporate life to pursue an interesting semiretirement—writing, teaching, a little law. But Giamatti, a good friend with whom he would share an Italian meal once or twice a week at Toscana's in mid-town Manhattan, had an idea whereby the two of them might have a little fun.

When you look at Vincent's career, it does seem a case of knowing the right person at the right time. He was a $47,000-a-year man with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1978 when he was tapped to head a giant movie studio. An odd move, but Herbert A. Allen, a major shareholder in Columbia, thought his old Williams College schoolmate a perfect choice to clean up the studio still reeling from the David Begelman check-forging scandal.

Vincent's equally surprising move from Coca-Cola (which had bought Columbia) to baseball was another result of the old-boy network. Certainly he wouldn't have gotten involved if soul mate Giamatti, the former Yale president gone on to caretake the national pastime, hadn't brought him on board. Of course, as Vincent tells you, they had long intended a partnership. Had Vincent found the right job for Giamatti at Columbia Studios—and he tried—the name Fay Vincent might never have landed in the sports pages.

To these two men, neither of them a professional "baseball man," running the game was really a kind of lark. "It seemed like it would be a great thing to do," Vincent says. "We had no grand design, Bart and I. It seemed like it would be fun for a while, and we very much wanted to be together." They were basically two fans who'd landed dream jobs; they would never have to sit behind a pole again. But, says Vincent, "I don't think anybody comes to baseball for any other reason than baseball. And you shouldn't. Nobody should be here who doesn't love it. It's the only reason to be here."

And, really, that was all Giamatti and Vincent had, a love of the game. Did they intend to work some bold scheme on baseball? Not really. "We developed a strategy," he says, "but our affection for baseball was so large that everything else was beneath it." Baseball owners thought it could all work: two men with highly specialized institutional experiences given the mandate to bring the game into the 21st century, while protecting it and nurturing it all the way.

When Giamatti died, the duo had barely shaped their plans for baseball. They recognized several things that needed attention, namely what Vincent calls the "parlous status" of relations between owners and players. "Nobody thought we were going to rewrite history or erase the consequences of 20 years of labor trouble," he says, "but the feeling was we could make some improvement, perhaps by 30 percent over time."

The two also wanted to build international baseball, by which they meant licensing and broadcasting the game abroad, not necessarily selling distressed teams to Nintendo heirs. And they wanted to improve minority hiring, player education (both for the players' lives in baseball and beyond) and what they called ambience. That meant being able to take your eight-year-old daughter to the game without worrying whether some lunatic would spill beer down her back. Had any of these been the most pressing issues of their tenure, they would have been blessed men indeed. But baseball was troubled way beyond these ailments, beyond even the odd scandals that would materialize on their desks. After Vincent inherited the office, he came to realize he was presiding over some troubles that would take more than suspensions and fines to correct.

The game, it turned out, was absolutely antique. The idea of two separate leagues, each with its own offices, strike zone and other assorted rules may seem charming; there is a part of America that seems to appreciate these mild forms of anarchy and confusion. But there were other aspects of this ancient institution that cried for modernization, any kind of forward thinking. Was Vincent the man to grapple with dwindling revenues, rising payrolls, failing franchises on one hand and wildly prosperous ones on the other?

His experience in law, entertainment and marketing suggested he was just that man. But three years into the job, the role of visionary has so far eluded him. Sometimes he seeks refuge in history, noting that every new crisis is simply an old one revisited. The history of baseball is comforting. It tells us, he says, that "even if we set out to kill baseball, we couldn't do it." Sometimes he finds refuge in his role of caretaker. "If I hear one thing, it's 'Commissioner, take care of the game. We love it, take care of it, take care of it.' " It's not that he doesn't know what the problems are; they just may be beyond his powers to solve.

The issue in Seattle, for example, is not really whether baseball will give in to foreign ownership; the issue is national economics, national geography. A Seattle team, try as it might, can't make the same money as a New York team. And yet, because of the miracle of salary arbitration, which ensures a player's income regardless of his employer's ability to pay, the Mariners must spend every bit as much as the Yankees to contend. And if they choose not to? "You will clearly produce [a league of] haves and have-nots," Vincent says. Or a lot of moving around from city to city until a franchise finds its economic equilibrium.

A failed network TV contract—failed from CBS's point of view—looms. Baseball can expect to earn less from TV rights fees in the future (the next TV contracts will be negotiated before the 1994 season), which sort of goes against the trend of payrolls that match the inflation rate of Argentina. "You can look at our own ball club," says Toronto Blue Jays president Paul Beeston. "This year we've taken our salaries from $26 million to over $40 million." These kinds of figures imperil more teams than just Seattle. Perhaps half are at risk. Says San Diego Padres owner Tom Werner, "At some point there has to be a new way, to protect the game and the fans."

Vincent knows what the way is: It's "some form of partnership" between players and owners. "Clearly it's the answer in sports, and it's going to have to happen. Without it, the business will produce some very bad results. The owners will get hurt and the players will get hurt." Vincent calls it "revenue participation," but essentially it's the same kind of scheme that saved the NBA from self-destruction—a salary-cap system wherein the players take a percentage of the gross, no more, no less. This scheme vaulted NBA commissioner David Stern into genius country and has certified his league as a 21st-century enterprise.

But when the owners tried to ram a revenue-sharing system through the last negotiating sessions in the spring of 1990, Vincent recognized that the poorly constructed and ill-timed plan would be roundly rejected by the players, still embittered by collusion, and serve only to end the '90 season before it began. He lobbied certain owners, successfully, to have the plan dropped. The contract that ultimately resulted pleased few owners, and Vincent may have become the fall guy for that contract, even though he says, "I wasn't acting alone." A strike was averted, but little was done to safeguard owners from their own overspending. "We could hardly be pleased with that contract," says one owner. "The machinery was not put into place to protect us from ourselves."

But Vincent is adamant now that such machinery is necessary. "You look at the numbers, you know there's a serious problem coming," he says. When pressed for a specific plan to promote the solution, though, he backs off. "It's got to be bargained," he says. "There wouldn't be anything I could do. Jurisdiction of labor is not part of my responsibility."

But is that a limitation on his responsibility or an abdication of it? Certainly the owners have determined that that job now falls to Ravitch, whom they put into place soon after the last contract was signed.

For all that, Vincent presses on. This latest episode, in which he was allowed to come off as a Japan basher, was obviously hurtful to him. He brags about how thick-skinned he is, how his friend Bart wasn't. But "racist"—that he can't deal with. "Many, many people accused me of racism," he says, shaking his head. His intimation is clear: It wasn't his policy.

Vincent's contract runs through the 1993 season, and the question might not be whether he has time to right this ship, but whether he'll be allowed to stand at the wheel. The fact that he was never really chosen for this job—he was approved by the owners to fulfill Giamatti's five-year term—means he has no political constituency among the owners, the men he works for yet should be directing. On March 4, Vincent will join them in Chicago for the quarterly owners meeting, where they will discuss Nintendo and the other issues of the day, and where Vincent will be left to wonder once again if he's their man. "There may be some that are not delighted with me," is all he'll say of his status among them. And some owners suggest that he isn't the kind of political animal who can rally further support. After all, says one, "It's tough to get owners together on anything."

But spring camps are open, a time in the baseball year when it's possible to believe anything. Vincent, who gets to every park during a season, has an ambitious spring agenda. "The tough part of this job is winter," he says, "when you only deal with business. It's like looking at the sun: You can only look at the business of baseball briefly, and then you have to turn away. The genius of baseball is that the off-season is short, and the minute we get to spring training, we can talk about the game again."

Vincent's faith in the game is documented. He believed—and so, now, do we all—that resuming the World Series amid Bay Area rubble would be a curative exercise. "The game is absolutely magical," he says. "A spiritual event that people cannot get ahold of. It defies all of us. It's historic, ageless, beautiful, and, by and large, it's outdoors in the summertime. It's luxurious."

Baseball is all of that, of course. But it is also facing the harsh realities of bottom-line business, difficulties that another chorus of Take Me Out to the Ball Game just won't cure.








[See caption above.]






[See caption above.]




It's not that the commissioner doesn't know what the problems are; they just may be beyond his powers to solve.

"It's like looking at the sun," he says. "You can only look at the business of baseball briefly, then you have to turn away."