Baseball's bottom-line logic

Marvin Miller

March 11, 1992|By Marvin Miller

SOMME CRIMES against baseball are worse than others.

From 1985 to 1988 the major-league owners agreed secretly among themselves not to sign free agents from one another's clubs.

This collusion violated their contract with the players and resulted in their fielding something less than the best possible teams.

That offense against all players and all fans never prompted any discipline, not even a word of disapproval from a baseball commissioner.

In August 1990, for a baseball "crime" directed at a single player, with no discernible effect on the game, George Steinbrenner received a lifetime banishment from Commissioner Fay Vincent.

Mr. Steinbrenner had paid $40,000 to an admitted gambler for derogatory information about his star outfielder, Dave Winfield.

The official position, that Mr. Steinbrenner was kicked out because the institution of baseball rose up to defend a player, is ludicrous.

The lifetime banishment is not likely to last that long, but not because of its hypocrisy. Rather, Mr. Steinbrenner's reinstatement can make the league more profitable.

Owners paying to obtain dirt about players is an old story. Mickey Mantle said recently that in the mid-1950s George Weiss, then an owner of the Yankees, pressured him to accept a low salary by threatening to show his wife reports from a private detective.

No league official intervened on Mr. Mantle's behalf. Yet Mr. Steinbrenner, who holds a 55 percent interest in the Yankees (which has an estimated value of more than $200 million), is not permitted to occupy the owner's box in Yankee Stadium or have any say about how his money is spent and what happens to the value of his asset.

Such an absurdity is almost beyond belief.

The real reason for the severity of the punishment is that commissioners, who are appointed by the club owners and can just as easily be fired by them, have to slow down free-spending owners who tilt the salary scale.

Mr. Steinbrenner fits that description. He contributed to higher baseball salaries from the beginning of free agency, signing Catfish Hunter to a record contract in 1975, then Reggie Jackson and others in the years that followed, and paying even higher salaries to less-talented players in recent years.

In 1989, with the collusion scheme against free agents in tatters, a record-high network TV contract in place and the Yankees' $486 million local cable contract starting, the potential for astronomical spending concerned the owners. And thus the Yankees' owner took a fall.

But there are reasons why Mr. Steinbrenner may be let back into the fold. For one thing, his absence certainly has not kept player salaries down. (The Orioles are about to find that out with their star shortstop, Cal Ripken Jr.) More important, a competitive New York franchise is a must for the long-term health of the league.

The Yankees are the most storied team in baseball. A high-profile champion puts TV money and gate receipts into the coffers of all the teams. And there are many indications that the Yankees cannot operate successfully under an unenforceable ban against meaningful decisions by the majority owner.

The commissioner has created a "who's on first?" situation in the front office.

Mr. Steinbrenner was to be replaced by one of his sons. That didn't pass muster, and the spot was filled by Robert Nederlander, Leonard Kleinman, Daniel McCarthy and now Joseph Molloy in revolving succession.

This is hardly the way to run the corner grocery, let alone the most valuable franchise in the major leagues.

The alternative to letting Mr. Steinbrenner run his baseball business would be to require him to sell his share of the team. Of course, that would force a distress sale at many millions of dollars below market value. The litigation that would follow would pose a test that the owners have no desire to undertake.

Although he banned Mr. Steinbrenner for life, the commissioner publicly suggested at the time that a suspension of only two years was appropriate. This would suggest that in August the majority owner of the Yankees will be permitted to return.

One caveat is necessary. Baseball owners and officials frequently are strangers to logic. Recently, I was asked if I thought Mr. Steinbrenner and Pete Rose would be returned to eligibility. My answer then and now is that the former has a far greater chance.

The holder of the all-time record for base hits, Mr. Rose is not likely to enhance revenue. That, in the eyes of baseball's owners and officials, makes him expendable.

Marvin Miller, former executive director of the Major League Players Association, is author of "A Whole Different Ball Game."

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