Acting one final time in what he called the "best interests of baseball," Fay Vincent resigned as baseball commissioner yesterday, precluding a potentially long and bitter legal battle with the owners who wanted to oust him.
In announcing his resignation, Mr. Vincent urged the owners to maintain a strong role for the commissioner and not make him a "figurehead," as he said some owners would like.
"People have said, 'You're the last commissioner,' " Mr. Vincent said by telephone from his summer home in Cape Cod, Mass. "Well, if I'm the last commissioner, that's a sad thing."
Although Mr. Vincent told the 28 major-league club owners last month and reiterated Thursday that he would never resign, he changed his mind during the weekend in the face of an 18-9-1 vote by the owners Thursday asking him to resign.
Some of Mr. Vincent's supporters urged him to stay on and fight, but he said: "I cannot govern as commissioner without the consent of owners to be governed. I do not believe that consent is now available to me. Simply put, I've concluded that resignation -- not litigation -- should be my final act as commissioner 'in the best interests' of baseball."
With Mr. Vincent gone, his opponents are likely to push for a restructured commissioner's office with reduced powers, perhaps changing forever the way baseball is administered.
In Mr. Vincent's absence, the executive council, an advisory body to the commissioner made up of the two league presidents and four owners from each league, will govern the major leagues. The owners can elect a commissioner pro tem while they seek a permanent commissioner.
Mr. Vincent's opponents wanted him out for a variety of reasons. They believed he had been too accommodating on labor issues with the baseball players' union and would be again in future negotiations.
His rulings on such issues as expansion and National League realignment and drug suspensions managed to anger one or more owners who felt Mr. Vincent's decisions adversely affected their clubs.
"Unfortunately," Mr. Vincent said, "some want the commissioner to put aside the responsibility to act in the 'best interests of baseball;' some want the commissioner to represent only owners, and to do their bidding in all matters. I haven't done that, and I could not do so, because I accepted the position believing the commissioner has a higher duty."
Mr. Vincent's opponents had been expected to try to fire him at a meeting in St. Louis tomorrow. The commissioner, whose term had been scheduled to run through March 31, 1994, had contended he could not be fired, and it seemed most likely that the dispute would wind up in court.
The Major League Agreement, the document that governs the commissioner and the owners, is silent on the subject of the dismissal of a commissioner. One provision says that a commissioner's powers cannot be diminished during his term, and Mr. Vincent and his supporters viewed dismissal as the ultimate diminution.
Also in the agreement is the clause stating that the commissioner may act "in the best interests of baseball." It was this precept that Mr. Vincent relied upon and cited in making many of his decisions, but it left some owners feeling the commissioner had become too powerful.
At a specially called owners' meeting in a Chicago suburb last Thursday, the anti-Vincent faction raised a myriad of complaints about Mr. Vincent's three years in office.
But his supporters said most were convenient excuses for the real reasons the dissidents sought a change.
One goal of Mr. Vincent's opponents is to change the commissioner's previously powerful role and make him a chief executive officer who would report to a board of directors made up of the 28 club owners.
"I can only hope owners will realize that a strong commissioner, a person of experience and stature in the community, is integral to baseball," Mr. Vincent said.
With many clubs claiming they are losing money, the owners also wanted to take a militant approach in the next negotiations with the players union. That hard-line approach could result in shutting down the game for a season if necessary, and the owners saw Mr. Vincent as an obstacle in the way of that strategy. Mr. Vincent felt that improved relations with the union would produce labor peace, and that, not war, was critical.
"This is not a good day for baseball," said Walter Haas Jr., owner of the Oakland Athletics. "He was a good man, and he did a good job. We have more important problems we should be addressing."
Bill Giles of the Philadelphia Phillies said Mr. Vincent's resignation relieved him.
"We immediately have to restructure baseball," Mr. Giles said, "not only the responsibility of the commissioner's office but the league presidents also. In my opinion, the league presidents should have more responsibility, have more to do that affects baseball in a more positive way."
Mr. Giles said it is important to have a new commissioner in office by mid-November.