FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The search for a baseball commissioner was expected to take a major step forward during the three-day major-league meeting that ended yesterday at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort, but a group of 11 owners pulled the plug on the search committee before it could make a recommendation.
Search committee chairman Bill Bartholomay announced yesterday afternoon that he had been passed a letter during a late-night Executive Council session Tuesday in which representatives of 11 teams advised him that they would block the election of a commissioner until a new collective bargaining agreement is forged with the players union.
Since 21 of 28 votes are required to approve a commissioner, the move forced the owners to do what many thought they would do all along -- ask Executive Council chairman Bud Selig to remain as acting commissioner until a new Basic Agreement can be put into place.
"Many clubs notified me that they would not vote for a new commissioner until the labor situation is resolved," said Bartholomay, reading from a prepared statement. "Additional clubs have since expressed support for that position.
"We believe that Major League Baseball, its fans and the game, as well as those we have considered for the job of commissioner -- all outstanding choices -- are best served at the present time by continuity. The tasks for a new commissioner would be great under normal conditions, nearly impossible during these times. . . . It is for that reason that we have prevailed upon Bud Selig to continue as chairman of the Executive Council, the titular head of Major League Baseball, fully charged to make the leadership decisions the game needs."
None of this came as a great surprise. The search committee was expected to recommend Northwestern University president
Arnold Weber or U.S. Olympic Committee executive director Harvey Schiller, but there was room to wonder if either would come close to the support necessary to win election.
Weber was perceived by some to be too closely aligned with ChicagoWhite Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Schiller was considered to be too close to New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. In the end, no decision was the easiest decision for owners who had taken part in three grueling days of meetings.
The owners probably would have been willing to hand the job to Selig permanently, but he has resisted attempts to persuade him to accept the job. He restated his opposition to the concept yesterday, but could not predict how long he will have to remain in the interim role.
"Today, many clubs took a step many felt would assure stability," said Selig, the Milwaukee Brewers president. "It became clear that a large number of owners were not ready to elect a commissioner at this time. I have -- somewhat reluctantly -- agreed to remain as chairman of the Executive Council, but in no way, shape or form do I want to be commissioner."
Selig tried to explain how the owners could come to this meeting with the intention of listening to the search committee and then ++ move to block any recommendation before it was presented.
"It is obvious that there are a lot of issues that are bothering the owners of baseball," he said, "and people have the right to change their minds, especially as events unfold. The search was done with an enormous amount of work. The committee was very faithful . . . but there are many issues that are being dealt with. There was a reluctance to introduce someone new into the equation."
The owners have been under pressure from some members of Congress to expedite the commissioner search or face another review of baseball's treasured antitrust exemption, but Selig seemed confident that they had done enough to convince anyone that they were getting their affairs in order.
"I would make the same speech to them that I am making to you," Selig said. "They will have to look at what has transpired here and look at the record. I think they'll see that there have been no transgressions."
The three-day session didn't produce a commissioner, but it was far from a wasted trip for the owners, who broke their stalemate on revenue sharing and finalized realignment by coming to terms with the players on the distribution of new playoff revenues.
There also were some important administrative and procedural changes. The owners agreed on a restructuring plan that redefines the role of the next commissioner and approved a resolution introduced by Player Relations Committee president Richard Ravitch that will require a 75 percent majority to approve a new labor agreement.
The decision to require a super majority to rule on labor issues apparently is intended to solidify Ravitch's authority as he heads toward a collective bargaining showdown with the Major League Baseball Players Association. He explained it away as a move that would enable him to be flexible with the new revenue-sharing agreement during labor negotiations.
It makes sense for both reasons. If the owners are required to build a 75 percent majority to approve a labor agreement, Ravitch will be less vulnerable to the whims of smaller ownership factions during the negotiations. But the rule also protects the rights of the 75 percent majority that agreed to revenue sharing, since it will take the same vote to approve any alterations that Ravitch might need to make during collective bargaining to convince the union to accept a salary cap.
"I don't really know what's behind it," said players association director Don Fehr. "I think it will make it much more difficult to come to an agreement. Maybe that's what some of them want, but I can't say."
The owners also voted to disband the Player Relations Committee, but that appeared to be nothing more than a paper move to further streamline the decision-making process during labor negotiations.
Ravitch would retain his sweeping authority to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement and the ownership representatives of the PRC would remain in place until a new Basic Agreement is forged.
Ravitch explained that little would change in the short term, but indicated that control over the labor relationship would be part of the next commissioner's job description under the terms of the new restructuring agreement. Still, it wasn't clear how the changing qualifications might affect the search for a new commissioner.
The owners announced a variety of administrative and committee appointments -- the most notable, perhaps, the appointment of Reinsdorf to the Executive Council in place of departed Orioles owner Eli Jacobs. But the three days of meetings turned into a launching pad for the owners' labor agenda.
Ravitch hopes to begin scheduling labor negotiations as early as today, but Fehr still is voicing skepticism that the owners will be able to convince the players of the necessity of a salary cap.
"The bottom line is that the players have to be satisfied that there are problems and that a salary cap is the best way to solve that for both the players and the owners," Fehr said. "It's going to be tough to make that case."
There were a number of committee appointments and personnel decisions made during yesterday's meetings. Here's a quick rundown.
* Milwaukee Brewers president Bud Selig agreed to remain as interim commissioner until collective bargaining negotiations are complete.
* Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf was appointed to the Executive Council, replacing former Orioles owner Eli Jacobs.
* Philadelphia Phillies owner Bill Giles was named to the Executive Council, replacing Atlanta Braves president Bill Bartholomay.
* Montreal Expos president Claude Brochu was added to the National League search committee for a league president to succeed Bill White.