Qualifications for commissioner? Not being an owner ranks No. 1

June 23, 1996|By George Vecsey | George Vecsey,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In the classic film "The Wizard of Oz," Dorothy (Judy Garland) discovers a befuddled chap posing as a wizard and indignantly tells the man (Frank Morgan) that he is a fraud. He musters up his dignity and insists that he is "a very good man but a very bad wizard."

Baseball -- dear, anarchic baseball -- has a bit of a wizard problem itself. The owners have maintained one of their own, Bud Selig, as acting commissioner, forcing a rather nice man to appear as a rather ineffective commissioner.

Now there are rumors that Selig would take the commissioner's job permanently as soon as he could arrange a new stadium in Milwaukee. Perhaps Selig is willing to sell to another owner who would move the team while Selig made a fresh start as full-time commissioner.

Selig is saying the rumors are not true, but he remains the acting commissioner, trying to run an industry with some large-market teams that have opposing viewpoints on such vital issues as sharing revenue from cable television.

The owner-as-commissioner was a bad idea when the owners appointed Selig in September 1992. It remains a bad idea, even though Selig clearly loves baseball and his hometown.

Baseball must combat the impression of the past four years that its home office is only occasionally visited by a commuter from Milwaukee who keeps one corner of his mind on the number of bratwursts being sold at his own ball yard. That is no way to run a business.

When the National Basketball Association last needed a commissioner in 1984, the owners did not opt for one of their own but rather promoted David Stern, the tax lawyer who had shown great aptitude for making money.

When the National Football League last needed a commissioner in 1989, the owners did not appoint one of their own but rather named Paul Tagliabue, the lawyer who was already serving the league.

And when the National Hockey League last needed a commissioner in 1993, the owners did not hire one of their own but rather brought in Gary Bettman, the lawyer who had mastered the intricacies of the NBA salary cap.

But when baseball needed somebody to hold together a slipping enterprise, the owners reached into their own ranks. Given the intransigence of both sides, any executive might have been doomed by presiding over the strike that aborted the 1994 season, but we will never know.

There is no point getting misty-eyed about the good old days of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner. There were no good old days of commissioners. They all worked for the owners.

But there was one good thing about all the commissioners: None of them was actually an owner. At least lip service could be paid to being a neutral, bottom-line executive brought in to make money for the owners, and maybe even the players, too.

The point of hiring a David Stern, a Paul Tagliabue, a Gary Bettman is that they have expertise, legal and financial, not shaped by an attempt to get fans to come out to County Stadium in Milwaukee or subscribe to cable channels in Chicago or browbeat New York for a new stadium, and all the other crass things owners do.

Commissioners can search for industry-wide solutions without being tied down by their own histories. When Peter Ueberroth came to baseball after the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, he initiated surveys about what was best for the business. The stadiums of the '90s, with their grass fields, modest scale and friendly old-time feeling, stem directly from Ueberroth's surveys.

Baseball hired sentimental power-to-the-people commissioners, although Bowie Kuhn liked to call himself "The Old Commish."

Bart Giamatti could wax poetic about the humanity in the bleachers at Fenway, but he had jousted with unions as president of Yale. Fay Vincent had made money in soft drinks and film. Kuhn, Ueberroth and Vincent alienated one owner too many, which is not hard, and Giamatti would have, too.

Baseball surely needs to find a sports business executive or lawyer without the bruises and preconceptions from running a single club. Baseball needs somebody who is both a very good man and a very good wizard.

Pub Date: 6/23/96

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