Vincent beckons Yankees at game's expense

July 02, 1992|By Tom Verducci | Tom Verducci,Newsday

The phone rang in Gene Michael's house in New Jersey at 9:30 a.m. It was the commissioner's office calling. We want you and your manager in the office at 11 o'clock sharp regarding Steve Howe, they said.

"But we've got a game at 1 o'clock," Michael said.

Doesn't matter, he was told.

"He told us he wanted us there," Michael said.

A manager's work does not begin with the first pitch. And no manager is more prepared for a baseball game than Buck Showalter. He studies scouting reports, computer data, videotapes and organizational reports. He meets with players individually and collectively. He is so consumed by such preparation that it has caused him to lapse into the worst shape of his life.

"I'll get here early and go down to the weight room," he said, "get five minutes into the Stairmaster, and I start thinking, 'I've got to look at this' or 'I should be doing this' and I'm right back here in my office."

Yesterday, Fay Vincent would not let him do his job. A baseball game? Forget it. Francis T. Vincent Jr., king of baseball, announced yesterday that he is bigger than the game.

"The commissioner knew it," said Rich Levin, the commissioner's spokesman, about the 1 o'clock start. "He was very concerned about this [Howe] issue. He is very serious about it. He wanted to pass on the urgency of it to them."

It was 12:56 p.m. when Michael and Showalter finally pulled into the Yankee Stadium parking lot. Think of it. Four minutes before gametime and the manager had just arrived. Showalter looked angry and pale, though perhaps that had more to do with his commute than Vincent's inquisition.

"You ever ride with Gene?" Showalter asked reporters.

Michael is one of these people who thinks a turn signal is something third-base coaches give.

"Uh, I can get in and out a little bit," said a sheepish Michael.

Showalter walked quickly to the clubhouse.

"I'm the manager and I have a game to manage," he said, saying it as if some people needed to be reminded of that.

He did not arrive in the dugout in uniform until the top of the second inning, at which time the Yankees were in the process of falling behind 6-0. He barely had tied his shoelaces when he had to go fetch Tim Leary from the game at 1:42 p.m.

Vincent apparently did not think of calling in Showalter after the game. And what was wrong with today? The Yankees are off. What could possibly be so important? Someone dared speak against the throne, that's what.

A Yankees official preferred another analogy.

"It's a Gestapo outfit, that's what it is," the official said.

Michael and Showalter gave testimony Tuesday in favor of Howe, whom the commissioner banned for life. One of Vincent's attorneys, William Cavanaugh, asked them if they agreed with the ban. They said no, that Howe may have deserved to be disciplined, but not so severely.

It turns out that Vincent did not like this answer. Baseball management people implicitly sign on to his unilateral drug policy when they sign their contracts. Apparently there can be absolutely no betrayal of that policy, even if it means offering your truthful opinion when being questioned under oath.

"The commissioner has concern about their testimony," Levin said. "They took positions contrary to baseball policy. He will be reviewing the transcripts."

Vincent knew since last Thursday that Michael and Showalter were coming in to testify. Why didn't he brief them? What did he want them to do, lie?

It is important to remember that this Howe grievance procedure is ongoing. The legal equivalent of what Vincent did, according to one lawyer, is tampering with witnesses. You can get away with this, however, in a monarchy.

"What this has done," a Yankees official said, "is reopened the whole question about the commissioner's power. Unlimited power is too much power."

No wonder the Player Relations Committee is antsy about Vincent's use of power. We have seen Vincent deny Michael the privilege of the attorney of his choice. We have seen him tell the newspapers, but not George Steinbrenner, that a scheduled meeting with Steinbrenner was off. And now we see him keeping the manager of the Yankees away from his job because he dared say that from what he knew, Howe was a decent guy who may deserve another shot. Amazingly, Vincent's behavior actually manages to cast Steinbrenner in a sympathetic light.

It was Marvin Miller, the past executive director of the players association, who said Vincent started out as a decent chap, but that was before he took his first sip of the intoxicating power of his office. Miller said it was at the 1989 World Series, the one interrupted by the Bay Area earthquake, when Vincent realized he could do whatever he wanted.

"He changed after that," Miller said, adding that all baseball commissioners do.

Is the lure of such power so different than Howe and his cocaine? When does the commissioner lose control over his power and when does it begin to control him? You had a pretty good case study yesterday. The Yankees had a 1 o'clock game and the commissioner did not care.

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