Mr. Finley's ideas aren't so crazy now

July 19, 1995|By PHIL JACKMAN

Who'da ever thunk it, someone seeking out Charlie Finley for a serious assessment of what's wrong with baseball these days, not simply seeking a little bombast?

It was around this time two decades ago when Charlie Finley, operating his baseball team with ideas, good and bad but imaginative, and a telephone WATS line, was the scourge of baseball.

The insurance man from LaPorte, Ind., seemed to work overtime at making enemies. Franchises were still a fairly stable commodity when Finley hauled the A's out of Kansas City for Oakland. Strong-minded? Oakland was only third on the list of a concern he hired to do a study. "Go back out and come back and tell me to move to Oakland," he commanded.

He seemed to "cheap it" any chance he got except when it came time to tip a hotel doorman, greasing the guy's palm and saying, "Don't forget to tell people where you got it."

Charlie was volatile, dumping a good player and gate attraction Ken Harrelson one night right here in Memorial Stadium when he decreed "The Hawk" had spoken out of turn. He got nothing in return save for thanks of Boston fans where Harrelson ended up. He loved to call then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn "the village idiot," which wasn't altogether untrue but was definitely not the thing to say.

Colored baseballs. Jazzy softball-like uniforms. The one-half pennant porch. Grazing sheep. Nicknames for his ballplayers (Vida Blue once refusing to change his first name to True). Starting kids on the mound the day after they graduated from high school and the ink wasn't wet on their bonus contract. "Charlie," his mule, who had the quaint habit of eating off people's plates in the hospitality room at the World Series.

Yes, Finley was a trip, remember?

But for the strange way the man used to run his business, which included virtually no front office or minor-league farm system, the man brought the baseball establishment to its knees with a run of back-to-back-to-back World Series victories and four straight appearances in the AL Championship Series.

It wasn't the dawning of free agency and arbitration in the mid-'70s that felled Finley. He screamed until he was blue in the face about the owners losing control of the game when salary arbitration arrived. Did he know his colleagues or what? It was the absolutely unconscionable way baseball (Kuhn) dealt with Charlie's attempts to assure his club's future success as the times were changing. Finley wasn't allowed to get anything for his stars as they headed out the free agency door.

The recognized "fine" minds of the game wouldn't give Finley the time of day; they wouldn't even give him a hint what day it was. Everyone took their shots, including the people who used to show up at ballparks packing a typewriter.

In retrospect, many have come to the realization that Charlie was probably a genius, or as close to one as the game is ever apt to produce. And as the years go by, it has been 15 since he left the game, his ability to assess a situation correctly doesn't seem to have diminished.

Asked by a reporter recently how he sees the game's predicament, Finley started slowly. "It's going to hell," he said. Notice he didn't say gone, which indicates he sees cause for hope.

"All sports other than baseball are continuously looking into ways and means to keep their game exciting. Not baseball. It has done nothing to make the game more interesting and exciting."

While everyone knows what a debilitating effect what goes on off the field has had on the one-time national pastime, the strikes, greed and so on causing many to throw up their hands in disgust, Finley bypasses most of that and deals with things more closely associated with the play itself.

The man who originally introduced the idea of the designated hitter, which angered purists, some broadcasters and the National League, still is pushing for his companion idea of a designated runner.

He employed one named Allan Lewis, who batted just 29 times in 156 games over six years, but caused a lot of excitement as his 44 stolen bases and 47 runs scored attests. "You get into the latter part of the game, the score is tied and one of those slow guys gets on base. The rabbit comes in to run. Now the fans get excited. They know he's going to try to steal," Finley says, breathlessly.

Sounds like just a little thing, but a lot of Finley's ideas started out that way and blossomed if only because of sheer numbers. Interleague play, putting balance back in the game by cutting into the advantage defense has built up. Charlie would have made these moves yesterday if he was named commissioner today.

For better or for worse, Charlie was the first guy to come up with playing World Series games at night. Hey, all his ideas weren't the greatest, but at least he has ideas. No wonder so many owners did and probably still do despise the guy. It never bothered Finley for an instant, then or now.

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