Q & A session with the commissioner Battles with owners test his patience

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent sat in his New York office last week, surrounded by photographs of friends and heroes, including George Bush, Whitey Ford and his father.

AHe wore a summer suit and a floral print necktie. He occasionally reached for an ashtray with a large cigar parked inside. For about 50 minutes, he spoke directly and indirectly about his troubles with baseball's most demanding, most fickle audience -- the 28 major-league baseball owners.

Vincent has had plenty of trouble. In the past year alone, owners have objected to his role in labor talks with players, complained about his handling of National League expansion and challenged in federal court his decision to switch four NL teams to new divisions.

Owners appoint commissioners, but cannot fire them. Still several team owners have called on Vincent to quit before his term expires in March 1994.

Meeting with reporters yesterday in Toronto, Vincent hinted he would not seek a second term as baseball commissioner. In a more extensive interview last week with The Sun, the commissioner emphatically stated he intends to serve out his current term.

"Fay Vincent is not going to go," he said. "I think it would be bad for baseball, bad for the institution. And, actually, I think it would be bad for the owners trying to do it. . . ."

On other topics, Vincent said he believes he made the right decision in banning pitcher Steve Howe for life for violating baseball's drug rules, and he defended his decision to order NL realignment, saying, "The only real issue was whether I had the authority to do it. Constitutionally, I think I did, or I wouldn't have done it."

A few subjects were off limits. Vincent, 54, a former government lawyer and motion-picture studio head, didn't want to talk about his life after baseball. "I think it's premature," he said.

Q: As commissioner, you can't be fired. How do you know if you're doing well?

A: You don't. I don't know if you know in any job. The only way I've approached that is I'm going to work as hard as I can, do the best job I think I can, try the hardest. I have limitations. I can't exceed my own capacity. If I feel I've tried as hard as I can and, given it a decent effort, it's the best I can do.

Q: Have you reflected on your job performance here?

A: To some extent, although it is harder when you are doing it. It's easier when it's over. It's hard to be analytic when you're in the process. It's kind of like Yogi's line, "You can't hit and think at the same time."

Q: In what areas were you least equipped when you started as commissioner?

A: One of the most difficult problems here is, there is a committee of 28 owners, which basically you have to work for. The owners really don't say, here are the priorities, here are the things this year that you as commissioner should be working on. There is no year-by-year review, if you will, of what the commissioner does. There isn't any sort of systematic structure for a relationship between owners and commissioners.

Q: Why not?

A: There just isn't. Because owners haven't thought that way. A number of them are not from the universe where that is common. They are entrepreneurs.

Q: What is the consequence?

A: There's no formal give and take between owners and commissioners except in the unfortunate negative way of owners in the press saying the commissioner is not doing a good job here or there, usually without their names attached. Once in a while, names get attached; it's rare.

Sometimes, owners will come in to talk to me about issues. [Soon after becoming commissioner,] I met with most owners one on one, said what did you think I should be doing? I tried to get it going. I got some helpful feedback, but it's not systematic.

Q: Recently, one of your most vocal critics, Angels owner Jackie Autry, indirectly called for your resignation. Your reaction?

A: One of the difficulties is that a number of owners come to me and say, "Look, we think you're doing a terrific job, don't give in. We don't want a group of owners to be able to push a commissioner out. That's a very bad precedent."

I think about my successor. Suppose my successor is sitting out there, and a group of owners comes to him or her and says, "Look, we just pushed Fay out. We really want you to be commissioner." And he says, "Well, you just pushed Fay out, how do I know you won't push me out?" I wonder, says my successor, about the process.

[Former commissioner] Bowie Kuhn did not go, for some reason. Fay Vincent is not going to go. I think it would be bad for baseball, bad for the institution. And, actually, I think it would be bad for the owners trying to do it because I don't believe they've thought through the consequence of hiring a successor and trying to explain to him why this won't happen again.

Q: Is there pressure for you to resign?

A: Nobody has ever approached me and asked me to leave. It just hasn't happened. I know there are people out there who are unhappy with me. But I know some of the same people are saying it's inevitable, we always have a number of owners who are unhappy with commissioners.

Q: Orioles owner Eli Jacobs has been one of your staunch supporters. Why?

A: You'd have to ask him. You're asking me why he has a view. I don't know. Happily, he is not alone. I think there are a handsome number of others who agree with him. He has said to me he thinks I am doing the job well. He doesn't agree with everything I do, but that's hardly the test.

Q: On issues such as urging owners to hire more minority workers to front office jobs, the commissioner's chief tool is that of friendly persuasion. After so many battles with so many owners, haven't your powers to persuade been eroded?

A: I'm sure they're diminished. Logically, that has to be the case. The people who are not supportive are not going to take encouragement from me. On the other hand, I have talked to a number of people who are not terrifically supportive on a number of important issues. And they understand when I'm right, I'm right. And they are supportive of what I am doing.

Q: Do you hear directly from owners that they're upset with you?

A: No, mostly anonymously through the press. Very seldom do owners criticize me by name. Jackie Autry at least had the courtesy to put her name behind the criticism. You had to admire her for that. She says what she thinks. I admire people for that.

Q: Turning to controversial decisions you've made of late: Why should Steve Howe, the former Yankees pitcher suspended for drug use, not be permitted to work in baseball?

A: You are asking whether there should be a concept of permanent suspension from baseball for repeated drug violations; I think there should. And I think Steve Howe agrees with that, interestingly. Steve Howe made it very clear in talking to me in 1990 that there should be a program in which people in baseball know if they violate the drug policy a number of times, they should be permanently banned from baseball.

Should it be three times? Steve Howe, we are dealing with seven times. I don't find, dealing with baseball people, very much doubt that the decision to expel Steve Howe is correct.

Q: In your recent decision to realign the National League divisions, you said you were invoking the commissioner's broad powers to act in the best interests of baseball? What does "best interests" mean?

A: "Best interests" has to be interpreted in the light of the present time. We know it's in the best interest of baseball xTC generally, not the best interest of a few teams. I think it should be applied very sparingly, as a major weapon used only when other alternatives are not more attractive and more functional.

Q: Was realignment a clear-cut case for use of your "best interests" powers?

A: The merits were clear cut. Realignment, it seems to me, was very clear cut because the overwhelming number of National League teams wanted realignment to go through. Indeed, only one on the merits was against it -- the Cubs. The merits of me

getting involved were much less clear. The only real issue was whether I had the authority to do it. Constitutionally, I think I did, or I wouldn't have done it.

Vincent's major decisions

1989

October -- Decides the World Series should be delayed and then completed following the San Francisco earthquake.

1990

March 18 -- Participates with the Player Relations Committee in negotiations that lead a four-year collective bargaining agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association.

July 30 -- Signs an agreement with George Steinbrenner under which the New York Yankees principal owner resigns as managing general partner on Aug. 20 because of his dealings with and $40,000 payment to gambler Howard Spira.

1991

April 8 -- Assists on negotiations with the Major League Umpires Association on a new four-year contract, ending the union's two-day walkout.

June 7 -- Rules that the American League will receive $42 million of the $190 million the National League will get from expansion. Also rules that teams from both leagues will supply players equally for the expansion draft and that any future expansion money will be divided equally among all clubs.

Sept. 4 -- As chairman of an eight-member committee for statistical accuracy, petitions and joins in the unanimous vote for the removal of the asterisk next to Roger Maris' entry as the all-time single-season home run leader. The committee also deletes 50 no-hitters that did not last nine innings.

1992

June 4 -- Refuses a request by the Player Relations Committee to relinquish his authority over labor relations.

June 11 -- After working behind the scenes for several months, engineers a 25-1 vote of approval for the sale of the Seattle Mariners to a group headed by Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of Nintendo Co. Ltd. of Kyoto, Japan.

June 24 -- Permanently bans New York Yankees pitcher Steve Howe after he entered a guilty plea in U.S. District Court to a misdemeanor charge of attempting to buy a gram of cocaine.

July 6 -- Orders realignment on the National League, forcing the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals to the West Division in 1993, and the Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds to the East.

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