Fay Vincent's return to his desk at the baseball commissioner's office last week after an 81-day absence came just in time for him to address some pressing questions that have been piling up.
For instance, is he permanently confined to bed?
Reading some reports, you would have guessed so. The issue o TC Vincent's health has been raised in such prestigious forums as Liz Smith's gossip column in the New York Daily News, and has caused some with even closer ties to baseball to wonder about his fitness.
Vincent, it turned out, wasn't bedridden. As of last Monday, he wasn't even sick. He has made a full recovery from surgery last month to remove an infected spleen and expects to be as healthy in the future as before his recent medical calamity.
"I spent 10 years at Columbia," Vincent said of his tenure as a executive with the movie studio. "I don't think I missed five days in 10 years."
And there were other questions, which, like the ones dealin with Vincent's health, seemed to cast doubts over his future as commissioner.
George Steinbrenner not only hasn't gone away, but durin Vincent's recuperation, the New York Yankees owner who was stripped of his authority to run the team by Vincent last August, also has launched a campaign to discredit the commissioner's handling of the case.
Steinbrenner's complaints might be dismissed as the rantings o a desperate man who admitted to dealings with gambler Howard Spira, signed an agreement relinquishing his control of the Yankees -- and now can't accept his punishment. But Steinbrenner apparently isn't the only one with a gripe.
Vincent's judgment occasionally has been questioned by a fe owners who always are anonymous and always stop well short of calling on him to resign.
The Steinbrenner issue is most topical now. But Vincent's role in last year's labor negotiations, in which he helped end the lockout by persuading the owners to withdraw their controversial revenue-sharing proposal, also eliminated him as a candidate for owners' Man of the Year.
Despite a few defections, however, Vincent's support appear widespread.
On the Steinbrenner front, he has the staunch backing o baseball's executive council, a 10-member panel whose members are the two league presidents and eight owners (including Baltimore Orioles principal owner Eli S. Jacobs).
In October, Steinbrenner sent the committee a 500-page report that alleges improprieties in the investigation that led to his being barred from running the Yankees. The council rejected the arguments. This month, the report was conveniently leaked to a New York newspaper, prompting the council to go public with its support of Vincent.
Red Sox owner Haywood Sullivan said, "I think it's time tha some of us stand up and be counted. . . . I think it's time for some of us who are involved in it to say that we think [the Steinbrenner investigation] was handled in the correct way."
Jacobs praised Vincent as "a very good lawyer" whose handlin of the Steinbrenner case was unquestionably fair.
Vincent also appears to have built up strong loyalties amon many of the 26 owners, including Jacobs. The Orioles owner does not speak often or freely with reporters about issues remotely related to baseball. He is more than willing to share his high regard for Vincent.
Jacobs, speaking from his New York office, said he talks with Vincent "frequently," but declined to explain further. He emphasized that, despite Vincent's recent ailments, the commissioner has been and will continue to be baseball's No. 1 man.
"The basic issue is that Fay has been in control the whole period of his commissionership, except the brief period he was in the operating room," the Orioles owner said.
What does Vincent say?
Last week, he surveyed the hubbub created by the Steinbrenne controversy, by the misinformation about his health and by suggestions that he might not complete his term, which ends in 1994. He seemed amused that much of it had been taken so seriously.
"In terms of [owners] being unhappy, how can it be otherwise? Vincent said. "Whatever one does here, there always will be someone who takes issue. But the fact that an owner is contentious on an issue does not lead me to believe they will not ultimately be supportive."
Vincent offered an example -- Houston Astros owner Joh McMullen.
"John and I are great friends. He has supported me. But we hav not agreed on anything since I've been in baseball," said Vincent, who then explained one of those differences.
"John has said to me: 'I think George [Steinbrenner] got screwed. But he signed the agreement, so I don't have anything to complain about.' At least what he says, John says to me and he says openly."
Vincent showed no inclination to step down as commissioner, fo health reasons or any other. He walks with a cane pressed in his right hand, the result of assorted back and leg ailments. But he considers that more an issue of form than substance. "I am never going to be a model of eloquence in motion," he said referring to his deliberate walking style.
Leave office before his time is up? Vincent said anyone wh suggests that he could be removed by a cadre of disgruntled owners "doesn't understand the way [baseball's] constitution work."
"Unless someone has a technique I am unaware of, the decision whether I stay or go is strictly mine," he said resolutely.
As for Steinbrenner, Vincent appears determined not to be pu on the defensive or to allow the Yankees owner to win the propaganda battle, which heated up considerably last week. Unwittingly, the baseball commissioner made tabloid headlines when reflecting on Steinbrenner's protests, he said, "I couldn't think of anyone other than Saddam Hussein that I'd rather hear making these complaints."
A moment before, Vincent had made a point that didn't appea in any headlines.
He'd asserted his honesty.
"I'm not going to sit down and try to prove to people that I treated George fairly, that I wasn't biased, that I didn't fabricate evidence," he said. "I stand on my record."