Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Commissioner Swings Away

Fay Vincent deftly handled a few high, hard ones last week and strengthened his grip on his job

The National League player of the week was Chicago Cub reliever Jim Bullinger, who saved four games last week and hit a home run in his first big league at bat. The American League Player of the Week was Toronto Blue Jay outfielder Joe Carter, who went 14 for 29 with four homers. But the player of the week in all of baseball was commissioner Fay Vincent, who went 3 for 3:

•Vincent dealt swiftly and fairly with New York Yankee reliever Steve Howe—for whom there are not enough violins in this world—by handing Howe his seventh drug-related suspension, this one for an indefinite period, following his guilty plea to a charge of attempting to possess cocaine.

•Vincent worked behind the scenes with the major leagues' ownership committee to get the owners to approve the purchase of the Seattle Mariners by a group largely financed by Japanese capital. The sale will keep the Mariners in Seattle for years to come and out of that architect-forsaken Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg, Fla.

•Finally, and most important, Vincent reasserted himself in the role of commissioner. It was revealed that the Player Relations Committee (PRC), the owners' labor-negotiations team, had asked Vincent the week before to relinquish his option to participate in labor relations. The plot to remove him from such matters was hatched by Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, Chicago White Sox mogul Jerry Reinsdorf and PRC president Richard Ravitch, who apparently isn't satisfied that he makes $100,000 more annually than Vincent ($750,000 to $650,000). The PRC vote to ask Fay to fade was 7-2 in favor, with Ravitch, Selig, Reinsdorf, Fred Kuhlmann of the St. Louis Cardinals, Carl Pohlad of the Minnesota Twins, National League president Bill White and American League president Bobby Brown on one side, and Fred Wilpon of the New York Mets and John McMullen of the Houston Astros on the other. But because the commissioner has the right to refuse such a request, the score was actually 1-0.

That nasty little business had the owners at each other's throats during the three-day owners' meeting last week in New York City. Fortunately, Vincent smoothed things over with a talk to all owners on Thursday, "an excellent speech," according to the Philadelphia Phillies' Bill Giles. Vincent assured the owners that he would not interfere with the work of the PRC, but at the same time, he said he had no intention of signing away the powers that permit him to act in the "best interests of baseball."

The attempt to usurp Vincent's authority wasn't merely inept intrigue; it was a callous betrayal of the public trust. The PRC, or at least seven members of it, was saying, "Screw the fan," as much as it was saying, "Screw Vincent." The PRC obviously wants to pick a fight with the Major League Baseball Players Association, and it doesn't want anyone with a sense of fairness in the way of reopening the Basic Agreement and/or locking out the players next spring. Selig, Reinsdorf et al. think Vincent is soft on the players' union, and they blame him for what they consider the undue generosity of the 1990 accord, which came after a mercifully short spring training delay. (By the way, Vincent entered those talks with Selig's approval.)

The hard-line owners obviously would prefer a doormat commissioner like Bowie Kuhn, who sat idly by for most of the 50-day players' strike in 1981. They may even be intrigued that hapless NHL president John Ziegler will soon be available. Vincent, however, can take comfort in the knowledge that Reinsdorf, who also owns the Chicago Bulls, is not a fan of the man who handed him the NBA championship trophy on Sunday night, commissioner David Stern.

One year ago Valentin Pavlov and Gennadi Yanayev, the Selig and Reinsdorf of the Soviet Union, tried to get Mikhail Gorbachev to relinquish his power, and the result was the fall of Communism. Comparing the Soviet Union with Major League Baseball might be overly glib, but maybe this failed coup by the PRC will lead to the end of the game's feudalism. Instead of lord (owner) versus vassal (player), large domain (Los Angeles) versus small domain (Arlington, Texas), superstation (TBS in Atlanta) versus ministation (KSTW in Seattle), baseball could be united for the common good under one strong and popular leader (commissioner). How many times does baseball have to be told this? Be like the NBA!

The Summer Game is looking a little pale right now. Ten teams have FOR SALE signs out, with no buyers in sight. Attendance is down for 16 clubs, including the once-thriving Mets and Chicago Cubs. Last week the Detroit Tigers had to take out a loan to meet their payroll. The Tigers said it was just a little bookkeeping quirk, but, says one baseball executive, "The mess in Detroit is a definite sign of the times."

The players' union is not baseball's biggest headache. It ranks somewhere below the owners' foolish spending, self-aggrandizement and irrational hatred of the union. The game clearly needs a Yeltsin, or better yet, a Stern.

Maybe Vincent is the man, after all. He is strongly advising the Cubs to go West in a plan to realign the National League. He is encouraging the superstations to share some of their wealth with the smaller TV markets. Any day now he will announce the conditions under which Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who had agreed in 1990 to a lifetime ban from the game for having associated with a known gambler, can return to an active role with the team. In other words, he has made it clear to the Boss—and to baseball—who's the boss.