The good guy-bad guy of baseball's owners White Sox's Reinsdorf a contradictory figure

November 26, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

He is an apostle of financial self-control who has single-handedly launched the salary scale of two sports into orbit with blockbuster deals. He views organized labor as a necessary bulwark against sweatshops, but is the chief antagonist of the baseball players union.

Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls, will get the credit if Major League Baseball owners approve a tentative labor agreement today at their meeting in Chicago.

Why not? He was blamed for scuttling the same deal on Nov. 6.

He is, in the eyes of the Major League Baseball Players Association, a leader of a band of hard-liners who provoked a bitter strike in 1994 and have prevented a settlement since. Even some of his fellow owners blame him for digging in when compromise was called for.

And his signing of free-agent slugger Albert Belle to a record, $11 million-a-year contract last week has turned off enough former supporters -- who feel betrayed by the scale-busting deal that the agreement may be ratified.

To others, he is a smart and aggressive spokesman for financial sanity in a business bereft of such sensibility.

"He is an extremely bright and able person. He understands the economics of baseball better than most," said Richard Ravitch, the negotiator who led the owners into the baseball strike and stepped down in December 1994.

"He is not the bete noir that others say he is," said Ravitch.

That's not to say Reinsdorf is a pushover. People who have done business with him say he is honest and forthright, and doesn't hesitate to pursue what he wants.

"He's a shrewd businessman and a tough negotiator. It's safe to say you know where you stand with him," said Walter Knorr, chief financial officer of the city of Chicago, who encountered Reinsdorf in various stadium and arena matters.

"He's all business," Knorr said.

Reinsdorf also has a lighter side, according to former Orioles general manager Roland Hemond, who said he enjoyed working for Reinsdorf and the White Sox between 1981 and 1985.

"He's all business when it's business time. But he also has a good sense of humor and is a good storyteller," said Hemond. "He would play whatever role was needed."

On paper, the bookish-looking Reinsdorf, 60, is the least likely of men to be found at the center of controversy involving glamorous athletes and glaring publicity.

He's a certified public accountant, a registered mortgage underwriter and attorney who specializes in real estate securities. He was a lawyer for the Internal Revenue Service before founding his own real estate investment and management firm, which he later sold to American Express.

A Dodgers fan

But he is also an avid baseball fan who grew up in Brooklyn and was devastated by the Dodgers' 1958 move to Los Angeles. The Dodgers, he says, were "my religion."

Reinsdorf led a group that in 1981 paid $20 million for the White Sox, who had finished the previous season 26 games out of first. By 1983, the team won its division with a 20-game advantage over its closest rival.

Despite his Dodgers recollections, he wasn't above threatening to move the White Sox to St. Petersburg, Fla., in order to win public funding for a new stadium.

In 1985, he led another investment group that paid $9.2 million for the Bulls, an under-performing team that finished the previous season 38-44, but had a promising college draftee -- Michael Jordan. Last season, the team had the best record in NBA history, 72-10, and won its fourth league title in six seasons. The United Center, the Bulls' state-of-the-art arena, opened in 1994.

Between them, the teams are probably worth more than $350 million, a tidy appreciation for the $30 million Reinsdorf and his investors paid (he is believed to own only about 10 percent of each franchise, but is their chairman).

However, Reinsdorf has been a polarizing figure. He sued the NBA over the broadcast rights to Bulls games, and has stopped attending league meetings.

In baseball, he has repeatedly encouraged confrontations with the most powerful union in sports, whose strike beginning in 1994 lasted 232 days. The owners' negotiator had reached a tentative agreement with the union this fall, but owners, at the urging of Reinsdorf, repudiated their negotiator and rejected the deal.

"I would say the media has wildly exaggerated my role in the negotiations," said Reinsdorf, a member of baseball's labor and executive committees.

He said he has made no calls and done no lobbying in regard to today's vote. The only reason he spoke up at the Nov. 6 meeting was because the acting commissioner, Bud Selig, asked each member of the labor committee to share his views, he said.

Officials of the union declined to comment on Reinsdorf, but one source involved in negotiations for the players said: "It is clear he has an influence over his fellow owners that is very powerful."

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