Vincent classy to the end Refuses to court own war at expense of game he loved

September 08, 1992|By Dan Shaughnessy | Dan Shaughnessy,Boston Globe

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Labor Day weekend. It was the beginning for Fay Vincent in 1989. It was the end in 1992. Nice symmetry there.

Exactly three years ago, baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti died while reading a book at his Martha's Vineyard house on a Friday afternoon.

Vincent was one of Giamatti's best friends and had been serving as deputy commissioner. He was at his Commentary

own summer home on Cape Cod when he learned of Giamatti's death. He became interim commissioner, and within two weeks, the owners gave him full powers and a contract through March 1993.

In the blink of an eye, Vincent went from deputy commish to full-time commish. Those were the days when Bud Selig and Jerry Reinsdorf spoke so highly of him. Vincent's coronation came at a meeting in Milwaukee, Selig's hometown.

Just like that. Fay Vincent, a guy we knew little about, ascended to the top job in baseball.

In the end, Vincent played LBJ to Giamatti's John F. Kennedy. Like Kennedy, Giamatti's term was cut short, and he became larger in death than he was in life. Like LBJ, Vincent's term was plagued with tough decisions, many of which were inherited from the previous administration.

LBJ in the spring of '68 said he would not run again. Vincent yesterday caved in to pressure from baseball's owners and resigned.

You'll have a hard time finding people to characterize Vincent as anything less than a good and decent man -- even if you talk to some of the spineless owners.

Could anyone object to Vincent's handling of his first crisis -- the World Series earthquake one month into his term? Day after day, Vincent sat behind a table in a candle-lit function room at the St. Francis Hotel and talked of "not letting our little event" disrupt efforts to pick up the pieces in the Bay Area. He was sensitive, strong and composed. "We know our place," he said.

Tougher issues followed. Vincent met them head-on. He did the job he was hired to do. He acted in what he believed were the "best interests of baseball."

He said he believed Pete Rose bet on baseball. He said he thought seven chances were enough for druggie Steve Howe. He said he thought it made sense for Chicago to play in the West Division and Atlanta in the East (radical, huh?). He told George Steinbrenner to take a hike.

Gradually, he made enemies. He was perceived as soft on labor. Owners were worried that he wouldn't let them lock out the players next spring.

Vincent was arrogant and smarter than everybody else. He didn't listen to many people. Worst of all, he refused to kneel at the altar of superstations.

And so it was time to go. When the commissioner's interpretation of "best interests of baseball" conflicts with the interests of the owners, the owners dump the guy. Simple.

Vincent could have stayed and fought for the office. He could have taken this to court. But this personal bout conflicted with his interpretation of "best interests of baseball." And so yesterday he stepped down.

His statement read, in part, "I've concluded that resignation -- not litigation -- should be my final act as commissioner 'in the best interests' of baseball.' "

And so he is gone, and Mr. Soundbite, White Sox owner Reinsdorf -- this annoying man who couldn't find the dugout 10 years ago and is now god of baseball -- can lead a search committee to come up with a cardboard-cutout commish. Why don't they just come clean and abolish the position? Commissioner of baseball, king of England -- what's the difference?

This space always wondered about the rush to hire Vincent after that awful weekend in '89. Little was known about him, except that he was a friend of Giamatti's and he'd been a force in the Rose investigation. It seemed that was good enough for everybody. They thought Bart's passion and vision would rub off on this former CEO.

Vincent was a good commissioner because he represented fans more than players, owners or superstations. He went to games. He talked to baseball people. He liked baseball. Deep down, he's a Red Sox fan. All former Williams football players are Red Sox fans.

He did not take himself too seriously. He could joke about his enormous head and poke fun at disastrous projects from his past. In his CEO days, Vincent had a hand in "Ishtar" and New Coke. Now he's been a part of the baseball follies of 1992. He's got the hat trick.

A good man has been forced to step down.

Maybe the owners will find another Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Maybe they can do better than Fay Vincent.

I doubt it.

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