ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Major League Baseball had never seen the likes of this: a sitting commissioner with 15 months left in his term being asked to leave the office by owners of 18 of the 28 clubs who pay him an annual salary of $650,000 to rule their game.
They didn't beat around the bush, those 18 owners. They told him, in no uncertain terms, that baseball "needs a strong leader" in these troubled times and that he wasn't it. They said they would not vote in favor of his re-election when his term expires. And so they asked him "to resign, effective immediately."
It was a request that seemed hard to refuse. As the Chicago
White Sox's Jerry Reinsdorf, a leader of the Fay-Must-Go majority, put it, "If I were the commissioner or president or chairman of the board of a company and two-thirds said they didn't want me to serve, I would say, 'A pox on your house,' and go on to something else."
A reasonable attitude, to be sure. But Jerry Reinsdorf isn't the commissioner; Fay Vincent is. Two weeks ago, in a letter to the owners, he threatened to fight to retain his job to the bitter end "until the highest court in the land tells me otherwise." And yesterday, after being notified of the owners' stand by the league presidents, Vincent gave no sign of backing down.
It seemed incomprehensible that a commissioner who relied so strongly on his right to act in "the best interests of baseball" would take actions so obviously divisive and potentially destructive to the game. Was Fay Vincent really concerned with the best interests of baseball? Or was his top priority the best interests of Fay Vincent?
That seemed a fair question to those who recall what occurred on Sept. 13, 1989, the day baseball's executive council decided give Vincent the job less than two full weeks after Bart Giamatti's death.
Their haste in picking Giamatti's deputy as his full-fledged successor worried at least a couple of the council members. As Reinsdorf and the Philadelphia Phillies' Bill Giles recalled, Kansas City's Ewing Kauffman voiced that concern.
What if it turned out they picked the wrong man? Under the terms of the Major League Agreement, the owners aren't allowed to fire a commissioner. Reinsdorf went to Vincent's room to express that concern and clarify the issue. He went alone; there were no witnesses.
"If I don't have the support of the owners, if it comes to the point they don't want me, I'll step aside," Reinsdorf says Vincent assured him.
That's the message the White Sox chairman carried back to the executive council, which promptly gave Vincent the job.
Vincent now denies he ever made such a statement, but the evidence indicates overwhelmingly that he did. In a September 1990 question-and-answer session with New York's Newsday, he spoke of his great love for the job and his good fortune in being financially independent.
"... If it becomes obvious that somebody can do this better, I'll go to Cape Cod and do something else for a while," he said. "I'm willing to take direction and criticism. But when push comes to shove, everybody knows I'm doing it because I want to do it, and if the day comes when I don't want to do it or somebody persuades me that I should no longer do it, I will be a very easy fellow to deal with."
That "very easy fellow" apparently has developed a very stubborn streak to go along with a very short memory. Yesterday, he reiterated his determination not to step down.
It would be foolish to suggest that Fay Vincent is responsible for all of baseball's current problems. The owners have made more than their fair share of mistakes, too -- including their hasty decision to give the job to a man they really didn't know.
But now they know him, and the great majority of them don't like him for some very compelling reasons.
Again and again last night I asked owners who were killing time in the lobby of the airport hotel here to express their biggest complaint about Fay Vincent.
L Repeatedly, the same answer came back: "We don't trust him."
They don't trust a man who would tell the manager and general manager of the New York Yankees that they jeopardized their careers by testifying -- and telling the truth -- in the Steve Howe grievance hearings.
They don't trust a man who ignores the National League constitution (on the realignment issue) when it suits him, yet uses baseball law to protect himself against those who would force him out.
They don't trust a man who promised the owners he wouldn't interfere with future labor negotiations, then went out and told the media that he intended to do what he had to do "in the best interests of baseball."
The sad part of all this is that the office of commissioner is certain to be weakened as a result of Vincent's disastrous tenure.
Baseball needs a strong commissioner, not a yes man for a group of owners who have yet to prove they know how to run their game.
But a strong commissioner has to know how to use those powers with the good of the game in mind. He mustn't be arbitrary and vindictive. He mustn't say one thing to one side and another thing to the other side. He mustn't play "best friend" to the union leaders on one hand, and undermine a league president on the other, as he did in his dealings with the head of the umpires' union.
Reinsdorf put it bluntly. Yesterday's unprecedented action, he said, "was about job performance."
If Fay Vincent really has the best interests of baseball at heart, he will quit.