Senate advises owners to pick strong leader

December 11, 1992|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- If baseball owners care about keeping thei treasured exemption from federal antitrust laws, the best way to show it would be to appoint a strong and independent commissioner to replace Fay Vincent, the strong and independent commissioner they recently forced from office.

That was the stern warning issued to owners during hearings of the Senate Antitrust subcommittee yesterday.

Hearing testimony from an owner, a players union official, the mayor of San Francisco and an ex-commissioner, among others, the senators ticked off a litany of recent controversies and expressed doubt whether the sport continues to merit its special status with regard to antitrust laws. Those laws are aimed at outlawing monopolies and promoting competition among businesses.

Among the issues raised by the Senate panel were the cloud of racial prejudice hanging over Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott to the 11th-hour jilting of Florida investors seeking to move the Giants to Tampa/St. Petersburg.

But much of the discussion centered on Vincent's removal in September and the owners' plans to restructure the job of baseball commissioner.

A management committee is expected to come up with new guidelines for the job by the end of the year, and some owners believe the new executive should be beholden only to them. In fact, Chicago White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf was quoted as saying that the next commissioner will have to "run the business for the owners, not the players or the umpires or the fans."

That's a far cry from the role of past commissioners, who technically were charged with balancing the interests of players, umpires and fans, too.

The senators clearly favored the old model.

"Fay Vincent was forced out because he believed the business interests of the owners should be subordinated to the best interests of the sport," said Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.

"We want a commissioner who will stand up to the owners on issues that are important to fans," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who then bluntly put the question about future commissioners' independence to a handful of owners in the room.

"Can you tell us what happened to Fay Vincent won't happen to the next commissioner?" he asked.

There were no volunteers to answer that. But speaking for the owners, Milwaukee Brewers president Bud Selig said there was unanimous support for keeping intact a "strong commissioner." For example, Selig said there was no plan to cut back powers of the commissioner to decide "integrity" issues,including thosedealing with players involved in illegal drug activity.

"All of us in the game understand the need for centralized authority," Selig said.

Vincent, himself a witness at the hearing, suggested that the senators weigh heavily the changes forthcoming in the commissioner's role before deciding whether antitrust exemptions should continue.

"If the owners of baseball continue on their stated course of making baseball into a business and at the same time insist that the commissioner is their CEO to be forced at will, I would no longer support the preservation of the exemption," he said.

Vincent and Selig agreed that baseball had been served well by the antitrust exemption, which baseball received in 1921 as it was receiving its first commissioner,Kenesaw Mouintain Landis. The combination of Landis and the exemption were components of a plan to put baseball back together after the Black Sox scandal in 1919.

Selig said the exemption was useful in areas such as dealings with the minor leagues, franchise relocations and network television, where being outside antitrust provisions allows teams share equally rights fees.

Vincent, who resigned Sept.7, said the exemption allowed the commissionerto tell team owners they can not move their teams "in that sense,it's a veryforceful and helpful asset,"he said

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