NEW YORK -- Due to pneumonia and an operation to remove his spleen, baseball commissioner Fay Vincent hadn't been in his office since Nov. 21. But yesterday he made up for lost time, presenting a grim scenario of baseball's financial health, taking a swing at George Steinbrenner, and, in a roundabout way, defending the new rule that effectively prohibits Pete Rose from the Hall of Fame.
Vincent disclosed for the first time that at least eight teams had not been profitable in 1990. Although he did not name them, the teams are believed to include the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Seattle Mariners, the Houston Astros and the Milwaukee Brewers.
Vincent acknowledged that most people wouldn't believe such news, given the huge TV contracts baseball signed last year and with the average player's salary fast approaching $1 million. To underscore his point, Vincent said at least 10 and possibly as many as 12 teams are having "serious problems."
Escalating salaries, Vincent implied, threaten baseball. He likened them to the junk bond market of the Roaring '80s. "Things that look like they make no sense, make no sense," he said.
The Mariners, Vincent pointed out, expect that their total revenues for the coming season will not match the payroll of the Boston Red Sox.
"With the TV signings and with Clemens," Vincent said, referring to the contract Roger Clemens signed with the Red Sox for $21.5 million over four years, "it's hard to convince people there are financial problems." But, Vincent said, there are.
One person hard to convince is Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Players Association.
"I have no way of knowing if the commissioner's definition of losing money is the same as mine." Fehr said. "For example, the Pirates' losses are all attributable to their payment of collusion damages. To that extent, they can claim they lost money, but they're writing off four or five years of expenses in one year."
On the issue of Steinbrenner, the former managing partner of the Yankees who was banished from baseball by Vincent in August for consorting with a known gambler, Vincent escalated their conflict to new verbal heights.
Speaking of complaints and accusations made by Steinbrenner in recent months, charging Vincent with bias, the commissioner said, "I can't think of anyone other than Saddam Hussein I'd want making those complaints."
His meaning was clear: He believes Steinbrenner has no credibility. After all, Vincent noted, Steinbrenner conceded under oath he had associated with an admitted gambler, Howard Spira, and signed an agreement that stipulated his removal from the game.
"He's obviously unhappy with the agreement he signed," Vincent said.
Through much of the commissioner's 90-minute session with reporters, most from New York newspapers, Vincent dwelled on the swirl surrounding Steinbrenner, but at one point said, "With all due respect, I'm told that the rest of the country just doesn't care."
He also took the opportunity to say he does not believe his job is in jeopardy, as at least one New York gossip columnist suggested recently. Vincent said he has outstanding job security, if for no other reason than that his contract and the baseball constitution state that a commissioner does not serve at the pleasure of the owners. "For me to be gone, I'd have to resign," he said.
Vincent, who inherited, in a manner of speaking, the commissionership from his predecessor and close friend, the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, raised Giamatti's name yesterday when discussing the new "Rose rule," which prohibits election to the Hall of Fame of any person on the permanently ineligible list.
Vincent said that although he and Giamatti, who permanently suspended Rose in the summer of 1989, had never discussed the issue, he was "confident" that if Giamatti were alive today, he would be comfortable with the new rule.