Need and greed fuel Vincent's hopes and fears for baseball's future

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The future of baseball is at once endangered and ensured. For those apparently contradictory notions, we have the assurances of the same expert, commissioner Fay Vincent.

"Baseball is poised for a catastrophe. And it might not be far off." -- Fay Vincent

"You couldn't kill baseball with a stick. Neither can the owners, and neither can the union. One thing we know: 100 years from now baseball will be around." -- Fay Vincent

The man does not speak out of both sides of his mouth. Instead, the words come from different sides of his brain. While greed threatens the structure of the major leagues, need guarantees the survival of America's pastime. While salaries spiral through the roof, the game thrives at the grass roots.

Vincent, 52, oversees all from the Manhattan headquarters of baseball, where the din of horns and sirens cannot be escaped in his 17th-floor office. The decidedly unbaseball-like atmosphere seems perfect, for its tension provides a constant reminder that the sport is big business.

From his perch, Vincent can see no grass, let alone diamonds. But this serves as a constant reminder of baseball's importance. He is worried about participation in the inner city because he recognizes that, unlike conventional spectator sports, baseball grips those who have played it.

"There's only one Harlem Little League field. Ridiculous. I'm working on that," Vincent said.

Less than two years after succeeding his late friend, Bart Giamatti, Vincent already has made enemies on the job. It is a sure sign of success amid the egomaniacal ravings of the George Steinbrenners, who believe sports were invented for their private self-aggrandizement. It was Vincent who helped prepare the book Giamatti threw at Pete Rose, whose sleazy association with gambling forever tarnished the way he honored the game with his play on the field.

Although millions of baseball fans couldn't care less about the details of Steinbrenner's payoffs to gambler Howard Spira, the same fans find comfort in the expectation that a commissioner's main function is to preserve the integrity of the sport. It is often a tough job, but somebody's got to do it. To Vincent, it is one of his easier tasks, although it is usually one of the most visible. Reprimanding impropriety is simple compared to recognizing and reconciling all the economic complications that threaten teams in smaller markets.

Vincent draws on all his experience as a lawyer with the Securities and Exchange Commission, a businessman with Coca-Cola and an entertainment leader with Columbia Pictures Industries to guide baseball. At Coke, he watched the monumental blunder of replacing the original formula and having to reintroduce Classic Coke. And he said he learned a lesson for baseball.

"In their research, the one question they wouldn't ask people was, 'If we bring out a new Coke and take away the old one, what would your reaction be?' They never said 'take away the old one' because they didn't have the guts to ask it. Massive screw-up," Vincent said.

"People complained who didn't even drink Coke. They were not consumers, but it bothered them because we were tinkering around with America. So I think that's the lesson for baseball. If you don't understand exactly what you're dealing with -- and I don't see how anybody can tell me the nature of the tie between American culture and baseball -- you tinker with baseball at your peril. You just don't do it because you never know when you're getting close to the aorta. It is not a game to be tinkered with."

Vincent doesn't like the designated hitter and wouldn't begin to think about aluminum bats. To the contrary, because he started the videocassette business at Columbia, Vincent is more interested in developing a market for old baseball videos to preserve memories before fake grass and domed stadiums.

The perspective Vincent brings to baseball as an outsider is in keeping with the tradition of the job. Somehow, baseball men manage to protect themselves and their sport by hiring commissioners from all walks of society -- Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Gov. and Sen. A.B. "Happy" Chandler, sportswriter and sportscaster Ford Frick, Army Gen. William Eckert, attorney Bowie Kuhn, travel agent Peter Ueberroth, Yale president and English scholar Giamatti.

"The 'best interests of baseball' clause represents one of the most unique grants of authority by ownership to a figure, to a bureaucrat if you will, in American history," Vincent said.

When Sports Illustrated suggested in October that Vincent and his office were doing a "bad job" in pursuing the Steinbrenner affair, Vincent was defensive. As late as two weeks ago, he called the article "a piece of trash. Bad work, badly written, boring, almost unfinishable and muddle-headed."

"There are some things I know very little about," Vincent said. "There are some things I know a lot about. One of them is trouble. I've spent almost my entire life dealing with trouble. If there are facts, I will deal with them. But to suggest that a wisp of smoke is a fact. . . . I'm not running a prosecutorial or investigation service here. I'm not in the business of investigating every tip or lead that comes to us. Anything serious we would investigate."

The impending "catastrophe" to which Vincent alludes involves the ability of small-market teams to compete. Baseball teams do not equally share local television revenue. The Yankees make $50 million a year in local television revenue. When the total revenue of teams in Seattle or Milwaukee starts lagging behind the payroll of teams in Oakland or Boston, "then you have a serious problem," Vincent says. "The major-market clubs have to recognize some form of sharing. The union has to recognize it with some structure."

In Vincent's view, baseball's strong union will have to change its posture for the game to remain truly national in scope.

"Up until now, the union's position has been that all baseball problems are your [the leagues'] problems, and their job is to get all the money they can," Vincent said. "That's 1970s labor mechanics and not sophisticated."

Vincent set up an economic study commission to "force baseball people to confront economic realities." In a year or so, Vincent hopes it will establish a common language based on mutually acceptable data.

"It came out of my conviction in talking to these union people that there was no common data. I would say, 'Do you agree that such and such team is in trouble?' No, they would not accept it. They have a view that anything the owners say is almost surely a lie or there is some explanation for it, such as bad management or too many relatives on the payroll," Vincent said.

The Houston Astros, for example, are for sale, and owner John McMullen says, "Our whole point here is that baseball will go out of business the way salaries are going."

But the union looks at the $100 million price tag and notices that McMullen paid only $19 million for the team in 1979. That appears to be good business.

"Don Fehr [union chief] will say to me, 'Look, if a club gets in trouble, move them. Or change management. Or get somebody rich to buy it and subsidize it,' " Vincent said. "That's a fairly nihilist view. I don't accept that."

The National League will expand by two teams, and Vincent was forced to decide how the $190 million in expansion fees would be shared by American League teams.

"Expansion from a financial point of view is a mistake," Vincent said. "It is not a mistake from a political, public fiduciary point of view. If I were a fan in a part of the country where baseball didn't exist, I would be passionate to the point of being strident about getting baseball. A commitment [to expand] was made a long time ago, but I say there will be no more expansion at least for a long period of time."

Baseball becomes an Olympic sport in Barcelona next year, but Vincent does not see a globalization of the major leagues.

"It is not our intention to have franchises in Barcelona and Frankfurt. Baseball, unlike football, is a participation game. Football is a spectator game. And we are going to build baseball at the amateur level and support Olympic teams around the world to build a fan base the same way we did here, by playing it and teaching it," Vincent said.

Vincent played American Legion baseball as a teen-ager but gravitated toward football until all sports activity ended for him when he fell out of a Williams College dormitory window his freshman year. Vertebrae in his back were broken, and he still walks with a cane.

"I'd been a jock up to then," he said. "From then on I really focused much more on academics. I got into the life of the mind. I've thought many times it may have been a blessing in one sense, although it's probably a rationalization. I would have loved to have played. Forget playing competitively; it would have been so nice to be able to play softball."

The accident also prevented Vincent from pursuing an interest in becoming a Jesuit priest.

"They turned me down because I wouldn't have been able to say mass publicly with my bad legs," he said "It wouldn't be true

today. Now they tell me, 'Don't be upset; the Jesuits turned down Cardinal Cushing.' "

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