Never has, never will represent the fans

Alan C. Michaels

September 17, 1992|By Alan C. Michaels

IF YOU read the weepy testimonials in the sporting press, you probably think that the sacking of Commissioner Fay Vincent by the owners of the major league teams has severely weakened the once powerful office of the commissioner to the extreme detriment of baseball fans, who were supposedly protected by the commissioner's benevolent rule "in the best interests of baseball."

Baseball writers see the owners' plans to turn the commissioner into a CEO as the end of baseball as we know it.

The next commissioner will simply be a slave to the owners' whimsy, the reasoning goes.

He will be a gofer or a clerk; spinelessness will be a prerequisite for the job.

This view of events is entirely wrong.

Actually, Fay Vincent's firing could mean more power for the commissioner, who historically has had a largely ceremonial role.

And it is bad for fans not because they have lost someone who protected their interests, but because the new commissioner may be part of a renewed effort by the owners to break the players' union. In the past, such efforts have usually led to disruptions of the baseball season.

As often happens, the peculiar mythology of the grand old game has blinded many observers to the facts. And one of baseball's greatest myths has been that its commissioner serves the interests of anyone other than the owners.

The myth has its roots in the Black Sox scandal of 1919. After several players were charged with throwing the World Series, the owners hired Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as their first commissioner and purported to give him broad powers to salvage the integrity of the game.

The idea that the commissioner represented the fans and served as guardian to a national treasure was cultivated by the owners and the commissioners over the years to promote the game and to help the commissioners serve the owners' interests (for example, by defending baseball's anti-trust exemption) under the guise of objectivity.

In fact, the commissioner has always worked for the owners and always will. They hire him, they pay him.

And, when they want to, they get rid of him.

Vincent is not the first commissioner to have been dumped, and he will not be the last. Happy Chandler was forced out in 1951, as was William Eckert in 1968.

No commissioner has ever acted against the will of the owners and kept his job.

What has been exceptional about the employer-employee relationship between the baseball owners and the commissioner not the underlying realities of the relationship, but their efforts to hide them.

You don't see anyone pretending that the commissioners of the NFL, the NBA or the NHL represent the "best interests" of their sports or, indeed, any interests other than those of the owners.

This charade has actually been a hindrance to the baseball commissioners' ability to act. It's hard to govern decisively in the owners' interests while pretending not to.

For this reason the baseball commissioner has had little impact on the business of baseball. That's why the basketball owners reportedly pay David Stern $4.5 million, including bonuses, about seven times what Vincent was paid. His job is far more important.

Thus, rather than being a gofer or a clerk, the new CEO of baseball will, if freed from the constraint of pretending he doesn't work for his bosses, have more to do with what happens in baseball than any previous commissioner.

As James Baker probably realized when he left the State Department for the Bush campaign, working to promote the interests of your employer doesn't necessarily make you a lackey.

But it's a tough job to do effectively when you are publicly claiming that your job is completely different.

The ominous aspect of Vincent's sacking, then, is certainly not a diminishing of the commissioner's power.

Rather, it is that most of the owners who apparently led the charge to fire him are hard-liners on labor relations. They, together with the commissioner they select, may lead another attempt to break the players' union.

Mr. Vincent, an experienced businessman in the entertainment field, would have been uncomfortable and ill-suited for that role, a fact that may have cost him his job.

The decision to make Bud Selig, the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, "acting commissioner" only strengthens the suspicion. Of baseball's owners, Mr. Selig is generally regarded as among the most bellicose toward the players union.

Look for the new commissioner to be a union-buster, not a clerk.

Alan C. Michaels, a lawyer, was an outside counsel for the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1989 to 1991.

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