NEW YORK -- Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent said yesterday that between eight and 10 of the 26 major-league teams lost money last year, and that the sport is headed for leaner times if player salaries continue to escalate.
Vincent declined to identify the teams that operated in the red, but he said most play in smaller cities and make less from television contracts than teams in larger cities.
"No rational person can see what is going on in baseball and not have concerns," Vincent said.
He acknowledged that a big problem facing the owners is convincing the players of the crisis at a time when teams are spending more freely than ever. Last week, the Boston Red Sox signed pitcher Roger Clemens to the first $5 million-a-year contract. Next season, 200 players will be earning at least $1 million a year.
"The difficulty is credibility," Vincent said. "It's very hard to convince anyone off the [national] television contract [worth $1.1 billion to the owners] or the Clemens signing that there are financial problems in baseball. I tell you without any question that there are financial problems in baseball."
Vincent said he had high hopes for baseball's new Economic Study Committee, a six-member panel that is now looking at the sport's financial present and future.
The committee is expected to complete its report late this year, and Vincent said it will be a success if it helps the owners and players agree on what their problems are.
"How much did the industry earn? You cannot get the players' association to agree on any number you propose," the commissioner said. "One thing the study commission will do is give us a baseline."
Vincent's comments came on his first day at work in more than two months, since he landed in bed and ultimately in an operating room for removal of an infected spleen. Vincent's doctors believe he contracted the infection while having his teeth cleaned.
The illness has caused some changes in the baseball commissioner, including two he is pleased about. He is 25 pounds thinner, the result of being hooked to a feeding tube during his hospital stay.
Vincent also has given up cigars, which had been both a passion and vice of the commissioner.
"As I lay in bed, it seemed smoking cigars was not consistent with my determination about a vigorous recovery," he said.
Vincent sounded confident that he could make good on his resolution to forgo cigars, but he said friends are skeptical.
"Some have said this is a very good, temporary decision," he said dryly.
During a 90-minute meeting with reporters, Vincent discussed a number of baseball issues, including a new Hall of Fame rule that prevents Pete Rose's name from appearing on the ballot unless he is reinstated to baseball and renewed efforts by George Steinbrenner to regain control of the New York Yankees.
Last week, a New York newspaper reported that Steinbrenner sent a 500-page petition to baseball's executive council, detailing what Steinbrenner alleges are improprieties in the investigation that led to his being barred from operating the Yankees.
Vincent was asked several times to comment on Steinbrenner's actions. To each question, he said that Steinbrenner had admitted his dealings with gambler Howard Spira in their agreement, and that was that.
Asked about Steinbrenner's refusal to accept his status, Vincent said: "I don't know about you, but it never occurred to me otherwise. It's part of the territory and I expect it to continue.
"George is very unhappy with an agreement he signed. I continue to live by it."
Finally, he said, "I couldn't think of anyone other than Saddam Hussein that I'd rather hear making these complaints."
Asked to explain the statement, Vincent looked at deputy commissioner Steve Greenberg and, smiling, said, "I've been advised by my attorney not to say more."
Steinbrenner, in a statement yesterday, took issue with Vincent's remark. Steinbrenner said, "I am truly sorry that Fay Vincent would make such a statement in that it only underscores the question many people in baseball have raised recently regarding his ability to serve as commissioner and act rationally."
Vincent had less to say about Rose, who was banned from baseball for allegedly betting on baseball games.
Last week, the Hall of Fame's directors voted, 12-0, to bar from the shrine players on baseball's ineligible list. That wasn't the only bad news for Rose, because the directors also approved a rule that states that no player who began his career after 1945 and who hasn't received at least 60 percent of the votes cast during any one of his 15 years of eligibility can be considered for election by the Veterans Committee.
Unless Rose is reinstated by 2006, he will be permanently blocked from being elected to the Hall of Fame, according to the rule.
"The abstract issue is should people who are on the ineligible list be elected into Baseball's Hall of Fame. But the problem with my commenting on it is you can't deal with it as an abstract issue now. It is a Rose issue," the commissioner said.
On his first day back at work, Vincent even drew on his recent experiences to offer a medical opinion.
He smiled and said, "You don't need your spleen."