Need and greed fuel Vincent's hopes and fears for baseball's future

June 09, 1991|By Don Pierson | Don Pierson,Chicago Tribune

The future of baseball is at once endangered and ensured. For those apparently contradictory notions, we have the assurances of the same expert, commissioner Fay Vincent.

"Baseball is poised for a catastrophe. And it might not be far off." -- Fay Vincent

"You couldn't kill baseball with a stick. Neither can the owners, and neither can the union. One thing we know: 100 years from now baseball will be around." -- Fay Vincent

The man does not speak out of both sides of his mouth. Instead, the words come from different sides of his brain. While greed threatens the structure of the major leagues, need guarantees the survival of America's pastime. While salaries spiral through the roof, the game thrives at the grass roots.

Vincent, 52, oversees all from the Manhattan headquarters of baseball, where the din of horns and sirens cannot be escaped in his 17th-floor office. The decidedly unbaseball-like atmosphere seems perfect, for its tension provides a constant reminder that the sport is big business.

From his perch, Vincent can see no grass, let alone diamonds. But this serves as a constant reminder of baseball's importance. He is worried about participation in the inner city because he recognizes that, unlike conventional spectator sports, baseball grips those who have played it.

"There's only one Harlem Little League field. Ridiculous. I'm working on that," Vincent said.

Less than two years after succeeding his late friend, Bart Giamatti, Vincent already has made enemies on the job. It is a sure sign of success amid the egomaniacal ravings of the George Steinbrenners, who believe sports were invented for their private self-aggrandizement. It was Vincent who helped prepare the book Giamatti threw at Pete Rose, whose sleazy association with gambling forever tarnished the way he honored the game with his play on the field.

Although millions of baseball fans couldn't care less about the details of Steinbrenner's payoffs to gambler Howard Spira, the same fans find comfort in the expectation that a commissioner's main function is to preserve the integrity of the sport. It is often a tough job, but somebody's got to do it. To Vincent, it is one of his easier tasks, although it is usually one of the most visible. Reprimanding impropriety is simple compared to recognizing and reconciling all the economic complications that threaten teams in smaller markets.

Vincent draws on all his experience as a lawyer with the Securities and Exchange Commission, a businessman with Coca-Cola and an entertainment leader with Columbia Pictures Industries to guide baseball. At Coke, he watched the monumental blunder of replacing the original formula and having to reintroduce Classic Coke. And he said he learned a lesson for baseball.

"In their research, the one question they wouldn't ask people was, 'If we bring out a new Coke and take away the old one, what would your reaction be?' They never said 'take away the old one' because they didn't have the guts to ask it. Massive screw-up," Vincent said.

"People complained who didn't even drink Coke. They were not consumers, but it bothered them because we were tinkering around with America. So I think that's the lesson for baseball. If you don't understand exactly what you're dealing with -- and I don't see how anybody can tell me the nature of the tie between American culture and baseball -- you tinker with baseball at your peril. You just don't do it because you never know when you're getting close to the aorta. It is not a game to be tinkered with."

Vincent doesn't like the designated hitter and wouldn't begin to think about aluminum bats. To the contrary, because he started the videocassette business at Columbia, Vincent is more interested in developing a market for old baseball videos to preserve memories before fake grass and domed stadiums.

The perspective Vincent brings to baseball as an outsider is in keeping with the tradition of the job. Somehow, baseball men manage to protect themselves and their sport by hiring commissioners from all walks of society -- Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Gov. and Sen. A.B. "Happy" Chandler, sportswriter and sportscaster Ford Frick, Army Gen. William Eckert, attorney Bowie Kuhn, travel agent Peter Ueberroth, Yale president and English scholar Giamatti.

"The 'best interests of baseball' clause represents one of the most unique grants of authority by ownership to a figure, to a bureaucrat if you will, in American history," Vincent said.

When Sports Illustrated suggested in October that Vincent and his office were doing a "bad job" in pursuing the Steinbrenner affair, Vincent was defensive. As late as two weeks ago, he called the article "a piece of trash. Bad work, badly written, boring, almost unfinishable and muddle-headed."

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