Baseball needs a leader who has power to rule

On Baseball

December 29, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

It would not be a stretch to suggest that Beavis and Butt-head would be better candidates than Bud Selig for the position of permanent baseball commissioner.

They're currently popular, something Selig cannot say. They've demonstrated an ability to generate tens of millions of dollars (their movie made more money in its first weekend than the Milwaukee Brewers' payroll for the 1997 season). And ol' Beavis and Butt-head are big with the coveted under-25 set.

But there's bound to be a Beavis and Butt-head sequel, making them unavailable, and unless the powers of the commissioner are altered, it won't really matter if Selig or Jerry Reinsdorf or Donald Fehr holds the job.

About the only real power the commissioner is afforded now is ceremonial. He has the right to speak to the media and explain all the strange things his brethren do. He can attempt to penalize another owner, but he cannot do so without the popular support of the other owners. Imagine if the Supreme Court could enforce its decisions only when the armed forces agreed.

The office of the commissioner has almost no sway over the members of the players association (witness the handling of the Albert Belle suspension last season, after Belle ran over Milwaukee second baseman Fernando Vina and when Selig stood by as AL president Gene Budig, helpless to counter the aggressive litigation of the players union, reduced Belle's suspension not once, but twice).

The commissioner apparently has no authority over the umpires, either -- or else how could the umpires threaten to strike in the middle of the playoffs (over the Roberto Alomar spitting incident) and openly mock the game's leadership before a playoff game, as they did Oct. 5? The office of the commissioner is certainly powerless to prevent labor strife from wounding the game. Selig is Exhibit A of that. He holds a job that has no teeth, no ammunition.

Several teams have discussed trades involving high-priced players this winter, deals that would require one of the clubs involved to assume up to $4 million of salary to trade a specific player -- or, $2 million more than is allowed under the rules. "Who is going to stop us?" said one executive. "Who's going to enforce the rules? The way the game's going, anybody can do what they want."

The worst possible scenario has developed, with baseball devoid of leadership. Each autonomous group in the game, each of the 30 teams, the players union and the umpires union, is acting with nothing more than self-interest in mind, and the vicious spiral is doing real harm to the game.

The Pittsburgh Pirates will pretend to compete with a $10 million payroll next season while the New York Yankees spend six times that. The Orioles average nearly 45,000 in attendance, and they say they're losing money (a claim they intend to support sometime in 1997). The players association, more skilled in litigation than the owners, fights every action against its members, no matter how absurd the defense and the damage done to the credibility of the game. (Remember how the union initially appealed Alomar's five-game suspension?)

The game badly needs a strong, autonomous commissioner who wields power over players and owners. The two sides should pick such a person together, someone of impeccable credentials and reputation, and give him or her the authority to end labor strife, to guarantee that baseball will be played.

Give the commissioner power to enact and enforce suspensions and rules, and to call for binding arbitration when players and owners disagree. Give the commissioner a five-year contract and let him represent the interest of the fans. Not just the interest of the owners, as Selig must do (while serving as acting commissioner, Selig also has solicited loans from the other owners). Not just the interest of the players, as Fehr must do.

Such a commissioner would have the best chance to heal the game's fractures, draw together the factions and regenerate the faith of fans.

I'd ask former Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, if he would take the job. Maybe Colin Powell could use something to fill his time if he never runs for president. The game needs somebody along these lines -- not a Beavis, not a Butt-head, not a powerless Bud Selig.

Avery, Duquette in need

The Boston Red Sox and Steve Avery eventually will be forced into a marriage of convenience. Boston officials think they're the only ones bidding on the pitcher, offering a one-year deal for $4.3 million. On the other hand, Avery and his agent, Scott Boras, understand how much general manager Dan Duquette needs to sign the left-hander, in the wake of Roger Clemens' departure; ticket sales promise to be sparse, and Duquette could be in trouble if the team loses in 1997. Avery wants a multi-year deal, with an option to leave after next season. In time, they should reach some sort of agreement.

Before the Cleveland Indians signed Tony Fernandez to play second base last week, they pursued a trade for the Red Sox's John Valentin.

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