Empty suit might best suit owners

JOHN EISENBERG

September 13, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

You may have heard that baseball's owners are searching for a new commissioner now that they have lopped off Fay Vincent's head. A lot of names are being thrown around. Here is a profile of a candidate the owners would find perfect:

* Does not know that Chicago and St. Louis are west of Atlanta and Cincinnati.

* Is adept at taking complicated food orders at large board meetings. (Without getting the entrees mixed up, dadblastit!)

* Dissolves with laughter every time he hears Jerry Reinsdorf tell a joke, even if it is a lousy joke he has heard before.

* Has a more appropriately masculine first name such as Duke or Butch.

FTC * Believes that the peak of the commissioner's powers should be determining when to take off the tarp during a World Series rain delay.

* Finds ridiculous the notion that labor disputes turn off fans and should be mediated by the commissioner.

* Does not talk to ballclubs about the dearth of minority hirings when there is serious business to conduct.

* Blithely dismisses the notion that George Steinbrenner ran the Yankees into the ground.

* Blames spiraling player salaries on anyone and anything other than the owners who offered the players those spiraling salaries.

* Wakes up every morning and chants this mantra: "Superstations are my life."

* Never tells anyone else what to do.

* Sees nothing wrong with the concept of settling all disputes in court.

* Is unable to pronounce the words "public trust."

* Handsome.

There. So. Anyone come to mind?

Didn't think so.

The owners will not be picky, though. As long as they find a candidate who can take their food orders and stay out of any labor disputes, they will sign him up.

This is not good news for anyone who cares about baseball. At a time when the game desperately needs a visionary, it will get a toady.

Vincent was neither the villain the owners portrayed nor the mountain of virtue his supporters envisioned. He got some calls right. He made some mistakes. He was capable of arrogance. But he was a reasonable commissioner who did not deserve such an end. He was an adept conscience. He was smart and principled and always intended the best for baseball. You certainly can't say that about the people who got rid of him.

His beheading was unfortunate not because he was the best commissioner ever, but because of what happens next: The owners pull an Al Haig. Yes, they're in charge now. Just ask them.

It probably would have happened anyway at the end of Vincent's term in 1994, although the plot might have thickened had he sued to protect the powers of his office, as he considered doing. But no one wanted the long, hurtful trial that would have ensued, which was why Vincent bailed out.

Anyway, the office of the commissioner will never be the same. Neither will baseball.

When the owners try to bust the players' union in the next couple of years -- and it is going to be ugly this time -- there will be no "uppity" commissioner hanging around suggesting that perhaps the game will suffer the most.

The owners no longer wanted to hear such carping, which was the primary reason they wanted a new commissioner.

A commissioner who says "sir."

The timing could not be worse. Baseball is in a slump. A slump that dwarfs even Cal's slump. Television ratings are down. Attendance is down in New York, Los Angeles and a half-dozen other cities. Ten teams were for sale earlier this year. The marketing of the game is prehistoric next to the NBA.

Here in Baltimore we have blipped right over this depressing downturn because of a new ballpark and a surprising contender. But the fact is that right now the game is flatter than a piece of road kill.

It needs help. It needs someone to sell, to primp, to push. Get the game back on network television during the regular season. Give the fans the feeling that someone cares what they think. Reach new audiences. Pull the game from the cesspool of headlines about agents and salaries. Start a dialogue about sharing revenue with the players, the concept at the foundation of the NBA's renewal.

Perhaps it is naive to think that such a progressive, savvy person exists. But the point is that the owners should at least be looking. Instead, they are just looking for a puppet.

They are looking for a commissioner who will not get in their way as they mortgage the game's soul while squeezing every penny from it, regardless of the damage they cause to the fans' trust.

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