From beginning, Vincent was wrong commissioner for owners

September 08, 1992|By Frank Dolson | Frank Dolson,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Give Fay Vincent some credit. He finally set his ego aside, did the decent thing and resigned.

By doing so, the eighth commissioner of baseball averted a potentially ugly scene tomorrow in St. Louis, where the owners were prepared to fire him -- yes, go to court, if necessary, to get rid of the man they never should have hired in the first place.

There had been talk that if Vincent had refused to resign and insisted on presiding over tomorrow's owners' meeting, a guard might have been posted at the door to prevent him from entering. That's how determined a majority of the owners were to rid themselves of this failed commissioner. That's how nasty this thing was on the verge of becoming.

"I'm relieved, pleased that it didn't go to the next step," said Philadelphia Phillies president Bill Giles.

Relieved, but not surprised. "I told my family two nights ago I thought he'd do it this afternoon," Giles said. "I couldn't believe any human in a position like that could go on and operate any kind of an organization when so many people had no confidence" in him.

If there was relief in baseball circles, there was also a sense of sadness, a deep regret that it had to come to this. Even those who had lost all confidence in Vincent recognized that.

"Nobody's happy with this," National League president Bill White said last night. "Baseball loses with this. It's been a tough two, three weeks for baseball."

And there are tough times ahead.

In his letter of resignation yesterday -- an eloquent, if self-serving, document -- Vincent did the expected. He scolded the owners who demanded his resignation and made it clear that what they made him do was "a great disservice to the Office of the Commissioner and to baseball itself," but he acceded to their wishes for the good of the game.

"Simply put," he wrote, "I've concluded that resignation -- not litigation -- should be my final act as commissioner 'in the best interests' of baseball."

There are those who will read his parting words with tears in their eyes. They will see Fay Vincent as a man unfairly maligned by a pack of selfish, unscrupulous business types who, as the ex-commissioner suggested, put their self-interest ahead of the game.

Indeed, there were passages in Vincent's farewell letter that deserve reading and rereading. Especially this one:

"I can only hope owners will realize that a strong commissioner, a person of experience and stature in the community, is integral to baseball."

On that score, Vincent is right. The office, as he put it, "should be maintained as a strong institution." It was the man who occupied that office for the last three-plus years, not the office itself, who failed baseball.

"Everybody has a different reason" for wanting Vincent out, said the Chicago White Sox's Jerry Reinsdorf. "There are a whole bunch of reasons."

Giles was especially upset by Vincent's handling of the critical TV issue.

"He's been completely dictatorial," Giles said. "He doesn't exchange views or even spend any time talking about various options. He doesn't listen to anybody."

But now he's gone, and baseball is in a holding pattern. What next? The figurehead commissioner that Vincent warned about in his letter? A year of labor strife in the offing -- perhaps a lockout by the owners next spring?

"I keep reading we want to weaken the commissioner's office," Giles said. "That's not quite true. We just don't want him to be the final dictator in our business matters."

White said: "I don't think they want a weak commissioner. Baseball needs somebody who understands the game."

Giles insisted: "I don't think we're going to have a problem getting a good person. I think the right man certainly can control the owners."

The trick, of course, is to get the right man. The owners thought they had him in Bart Giamatti; they were so impressed by Giamatti that they assumed that Vincent, the man he chose as his deputy, was worthy of the commissioner's office. It was not the first mistake they made.

These are some of the same owners, after all, who hired Peter Ueberroth and followed him down the road to collusion. And then there was Gen. William Eckert.

"They supposedly hired the wrong guy," Giles recalled. "There was another general -- pronounced the same, but spelled different."

There are owners who still recall the day Eckert, speaking to a luncheon attended by baseball people, pulled the wrong speech out of his pocket -- one intended for a group of airline reps. "He started talking about cockpits and flight patterns," Giles said.

Considering the problems baseball faces, it would be nice if the owners picked the right man for the job this time.

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