BASEBALL Vincent makes case for retaining power, but did baseball's owners really listen?

June 12, 1992|By Frank Dolson | Frank Dolson,Philadelphia Inquirer

NEW YORK -- His speech to the owners having been delivered, his determination not to relinquish power having been established, baseball's embattled commissioner sat behind his desk in his shirtsleeves yesterday afternoon, clipped the end of a cigar and reviewed the tumultuous events of the past couple of days.

The titles of some of the books on the shelf to Fay Vincent's left captured the moment beautifully. Two had the word "chaos" in the title. Another was called "The Reckoning." Still another, "Enough's Enough."

Mere coincidence, the man in the white shirt insisted. Maybe so, but baseball's battle lines had been drawn. League against league. Pro-Vincent owners vs. anti-Vincent owners.

A serious move was afoot to diminish Vincent's powers, to prevent him from having a say in the next round of labor negotiations. The commissioner found it necessary yesterday to defend himself and his office, to make it clear that he did not intend to give up his right to act, if necessary, in "the best interests of baseball."

"I spoke about dissension, disagreement, discord between the two leagues, which continues in baseball and is not attractive," he said at the news conference that followed his speech to the owners. ". . . I guess the tenor of my talk was to tell baseball owners that they are in serious [financial] adversity, some of which is [of] their own making and some of which is not; that baseball has no chance without cohesion and unity and it seemed to me ownership has the most at stake."

Indeed, it was that huge stake that prompted the owners to hire Richard Ravitch as their chief labor negotiator. Baseball's dilemma was clear: a chief labor negotiator had to operate from a position of strength. How could he be effective if, at any time, the commissioner -- invoking his "best-interests-of-baseball" powers -- could overrule him? Clearly, this was one time two heads could not be better than one; thus the effort to "chop off" one of those heads by rendering Vincent powerless in the labor area.

"There is no way baseball succeeds on any front with dissension and disunity," the commissioner lectured. "It's a lesson that baseball has never learned. But it seems to me my responsibility to say, 'Let's try.' Or maybe, given the enormous problems facing these people, they will finally realize this kind of discord and bickering and relatively undistinguished behavior is not productive."

He understood the owners' concern "that the commissioner, whoever he is, [might] do something out of the blue, like a bolt of lightning in the night" that could "disrupt an orderly, seriously managed labor negotiation."

But they had to trust him not to do that, rather than strip him of his historic right to act in the best interests of the game.

Fay Vincent was prepared to fight for that right.

"It is not my responsibility to deal with labor issues and I won't do it," he said in his office. "That's why they hired Ravitch. . . . Baseball is structured with the commissioner out of labor, and I accept that. I think the issue is more subtle than that: 'How can we [the owners] be sure that the commissioner is going to stay out?' "

The obvious answer: Eliminate his power to act.

"The major-league agreement says the commissioner's authority may not be diminished during his term," Vincent said. "My position is I do not want to be involved with labor negotiations and yet I'm not going to give up my authority. . . . I don't think it [limiting the commissioner's power] should be done on two weeks' deliberation with me not being involved in the deliberative process."

These are the most difficult of times for a commissioner whose regime began with an earthquake and has been shaky ever since.

"Have you ever asked yourself why you took this job?" Vincent was asked.

He leaned forward in his chair.

"Oh yes," he replied.

And the answer?

"I took it because when Bart [Giamatti] died, I was pretty sure it was the right thing to do. I still think it was the right thing to do."

Unfortunately, though, the wrong time to do it. First an earthquake, then a recession, neither of which even his biggest detractors can blame on Vincent.

"I thought when I took the job that you would go through tough issues," he said. "I thought Pete Rose was one.

"I [also] thought that there would be a period of reasonable stability when you could work on things that were good for the game with some tranquility."

Fay Vincent has found only chaos instead.

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