Commissioner, Warehouse, and Letter Was it proper for baseball's chief to get involved in a dispute over a building proposed near Baltimore's new stadium?

April 28, 1991|By MARK HYMAN

Generally speaking, Fay Vincent knows a controversy when he's about to stick his nose into one.

He ought to. In two years as baseball commissioner, Mr. Vincen virtually has lived from crisis to crisis. How else to describe a tenure that began with the first World Series to be interrupted by an earthquake and, last summer, pitted the commissioner against baseball's all-time bag of hot air, New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, in a negotiation that ended with Mr. Steinbrenner's indefinite suspension from the sport?

This latest flap is a quite different. Mr. Vincent never expecte this in a million innings. A friendly letter. An innocent phone call.

And whammo.

"Why am I not entitled to speak on a ballpark design issue?" Mr. Vincent asked in his office in New York last week.

Mr. Vincent surely is entitled to his opinions, particularly whe they pertain to the new ballpark for the Baltimore Orioles that rapidly is rising at Camden Yards. But this month, he learned those opinions can feed a controversy as quickly as they might resolve one.

For Mr. Vincent, the story began several months ago. He an Orioles principal owner Eli S. Jacobs have offices in buildings on the same block on Park Avenue in New York. They speak often. Occasionally, Mr. Vincent said, the topic is what is new at Camden Yards.

One new thing was a proposal by the Maryland Stadium Authority to build an addition to the south end of the B&O warehouse in an area outside the ballpark. The refurbished south end and the addition then would be leased as the State Highway Administration headquarters. The state would earn rent to offset debt on the $105.4 million ballpark. The games would be unaffected. Perfect.

Mr. Jacobs hated the plan, and told Mr. Vincent so. Orioles negotiators also relayed the message to the stadium authority, complaining the addition would detract from the ambience of the ballpark and ruin the clean lines of the 1,016-foot long railroad warehouse. They promised a fight if the stadium authority did not relent.

The Orioles keep promises. Concerned citizens began to contact Gov. William Donald Schaefer with objections. Syndicated columnist (and Orioles board member) George Will was one. Baseball Commissioner Vincent was another. Suddenly, if not surprisingly, support for the plan slipped. Last week, the addition disappeared for the time being -- stadium authority chairman Herbert J. Belgrad announced an alternate plan to seek proposals from private groups interested in developing the south end as it currently exists.

Maybe this was a triumph for historic preservation. Or maybe seven years after the National Football League abandoned Baltimore, it is still the local custom to cave into the wishes of any pro sports owner who raises his voice or flips through his rolodex.

It's anybody's guess what truly motivated the about-face, though one legislative source believes, even with the walls of the new ballpark in place, "The governor still is worried that the Orioles will leave in the middle of the night, like the Colts did."

Paranoia? Maybe. But see it from Mr. Schaefer's perspective. First, Mr. Jacobs is grousing. Then, the commissioner is knocking at the mailbox. Here is a governor who is trying to lure an NFL expansion franchise to Baltimore. Can he afford to make an enemy of even one pro sports executive?

And another thing: Who knew where the letter-writing campaign might end? It's one thing to get a letter and a follow-up phone call from Mr. Vincent, as Mr. Schaefer did. But what if Mr. Jacobs had followed with other acquaintances? Hosni Mubarak? Dick Cheney? Where is President Bush on the warehouse addition thing? Mr. Vincent, for his part, insists he was not asked by Mr. Jacobs to contact Mr. Schaefer. It is never that simple.

Instead, Mr. Vincent recalled discussing problems at Camden Yards with Mr. Jacobs "over a period of time." Mr. Vincent remembered, "At some point, it got serious. I offered. I said [to Mr. Jacobs], 'Do you think it would be important for me to tell the governor that I feel strongly about the design?' "

By the way, at least the commissioner agreed to discuss his thoughts about the warehouse addition. Mr. Jacobs has a different policy. He cheerfully returns phone calls. Then he declines to answer any question about himself or the Orioles, a practice which allows most interviews with the Orioles principal owner to be wrapped up in 18 seconds or less.

On the warehouse addition, Mr. Jacobs did respond to a few questions. He noted the following: that he had spoken to Mr. Vincent on the issue; that he didn't know whether Mr. Vincent supported or objected to the addition; that he wasn't aware that Mr. Vincent had phoned Mr. Schaefer.

Anyway, you have to feel a little bit for Mr. Vincent. What does he know about Colts paranoia? Or the tyranny of Orioles' ownership? All he knew was they were going to take a perfect ballpark design and make it less perfect. He thought the governor should be told.

"Was it a huge deal? Is it something I consider to be one of the big accomplishments of the year?" Mr. Vincent asked. "No. I don't consider it to be a significant event of that day."

Mark Hyman is a sports reporter for The Sun.

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