Baseball's owners give Schott free pass

JOHN EISENBERG

February 05, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

The baseball owners really gave it to Marge Schott, huh? She can still watch the Reds in person. Still make major policy decisions. She was allowed to pick the person to run the team in her "absence." Let's see, what can't she do?

Oh, right. She can't sit in her field box. She can't give the manager her lineup suggestions, which she never did anyway. She can appeal her 12-month suspension in seven. And she's out $25,000, which is tip money in baseball today.

Call it the Mario Mendoza of suspensions. It doesn't hit.

What can't Schott do? She can't yell at the umps from the front row. She can't let her dog poop on the artificial turf during BP. That's it. (Advice to the next player or owner up for suspension in front of the owners: Just say, "Gimme a Schott." They won't say, "Of what?")

Of course, the light sentencing is not exactly the surprise of the sports year. Let's just say that the public outrage expressed by the owners at Schott's racial ravings was about as earnest as your standard campaign pledge.

"Maybe we ought to have the baseball owners run the ethics committee for Congress," Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut said yesterday.

Please.

(Actually, the owners might be pillars of morality next to a Congressional ethics committee. But that's another story.)

Let's get down to it here. The owners assumed a grim posture because they had to. They offered a penalty because they had to. But guiding them was not some nascent beacon of morality. It was just that any alternative course was bad business, especially with Jesse Jackson talking about a fan boycott. Anyone who thinks the owners were grievously offended is simply an innocent.

Suspending Schott does not mean that the owners suddenly have realized the abhorrence of such intolerance. It just means that they recognize a tricky political wind when they see one.

They're mostly just glad that the spotlight wasn't turned on them.

A less cynical conclusion might be reachable if the owners weren't so overtly guilty of discovering that they possessed this strain of morality only when a member of their lodge was thick-headed enough to curse aloud.

Think about it. Since the rise and fall of publicity surrounding Al Campanis' "Nightline" appearance, the game's horrible minority hiring record got little attention from fans or many front offices -- .. until Schott started making the papers and the owners had no choice but to get indignant again.

It's the same way they got indignant when Fay Vincent kept bringing up the subject as commissioner. Why, the owners got so indignant that they finally lopped off Vincent's head because they were tired of hearing about it.

If the owners were anything other than cynical about this, they would have attached to Schott's suspension an announcement that they were embarking on a drive to improve minority hiring. The timing was perfect. Everyone was watching.

But there was no such announcement. No one said that the problem actually was much greater and more institutionalized than one person's bigotry, that her suspension was just symbolic, that it means nothing if not joined with an earnest commitment to right an obvious wrong.

Instead, the owners didn't say or do anything more than they absolutely had to, anything more than the bare minimum of what was demanded by Schott's outrageousness. They certainly couldn't leave her alone, and had no right to force her to sell. They had to penalize her somehow, and did. The severity of the sentence tells you all you need to know.

Maybe the the case will prove worthwhile in that symbolism can be effective at least in its ability to force people to examine an issue. Baseball executives certainly will be more careful about what they say.

But symbolism also can be so frustrating because of its intrinsic emptiness. Marge Schott is suspended, and it doesn't really mean anything. It's not going to change baseball's old-fashioned attitudes. The only way to change those is to install executives who understand and accept the concept of equal opportunity, and such new faces generally are those being denied. That is known as a vicious circle.

The sad truth is that baseball runs on the blood of money, which diminishes such devilish little items as hiring practices to little more than small type. Baseball was in for a costly, unpleasant legal fight if it tried to assess Schott a more fitting penalty, and it wanted no part of such. So she goes free, in essence, and not a single person is happy except maybe Marge Schott.

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