Baseball's Bases Are Still Loaded With Problems

In the middle of a rough season, with the toughest part of the schedule coming up, Major League Baseball's 28 owners reverted to form: They canned the manager. Now, with Commissioner Fay Vincent out of the way, it's up to the suits in the skyboxes to show that they can solve the serious problems confronting the game.

The litany is familiar to most fans: mushrooming salaries, the likelihood of declining television revenues, the fate of financially troubled franchises, and the power of superstations. At least 18 of the owners didn't trust Vincent to address those issues to their liking, so on Sept. 3 they voted to ask him to resign. Four days later, Vincent grudgingly complied, clearing the way for them to name Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig as his temporary replacement on Sept. 9.

Now the owners are free to choose a permanent commissioner to do their bidding. But it's not at all certain that the owners, their differences exacerbated by huge disparities in revenues and income, can present the new commissioner with a coherent mandate. Fresh signs of turmoil are already apparent. Nelson Doubleday, half-owner of the New York Mets, is threatening to sell his share of the team, citing his disgust with Vincent's ouster.

LESS POWER. One thing the new baseball boss will get is a new job description. Since Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was brought in to clean up after the 1919 Black Sox scandal, commissioners have had the power to override the owners' dictates. Vincent's successor almost certainly won't. "At present, there is no strong voice that is in a position to force the owners to act in the interests of the industry when their own private interests may not be advanced," frets Henry J. Aaron, a Brookings Institution economist--not the all-time home-run champ--who sits on a joint labor-management committee on baseball economics. "This is a move away from the kind of structure that I think is needed for baseball."

The first stress on the new structure will come in baseball's most troubled area: labor relations. Some owners, notably Selig, Jerry M. Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox, and Carl Pohlad of the Minnesota Twins, want to reopen contract talks after the 1992 season. And sources close to the three men say they're willing to lock the players out of spring-training camps--indeed, sacrifice the entire 1993 season--to back up their demands to rein in players' salaries.

Now, they don't have to worry that Vincent would order an end to the lockout, as he did in the spring of 1990. "Negotiations can go on a little more directly and clearly without the ambiguity of a commissioner coming into negotiations," says Richard Ravitch, who, at the urging of Reinsdorf and Selig, was hired in November, 1991, as the owners' chief negotiator.

Compounding the owners' difficulty in presenting a united front: the willingness of some wealthy owners to land big-name stars, no matter the cost. Detroit Tigers home-run hero Cecil Fielder, Pittsburgh Pirates superstar Barry Bonds, and Minnesota Twins slugger Kirby Puckett are among the players whose free-agent filings at the end of this season will test the owners' resolve to hang tough on salaries.

Then come the television talks. The owners will need a coherent strategy--comprising national rights for both broadcast and cable, and perhaps even some local pay-per-view--to come close to the value of the current CBS package, which runs for another 18 months. Bill Giles, the Philadelphia Phillies owner who's on the television committee, is concerned about the timing of Vincent's ouster. "This is the time when everybody who wants to be involved in baseball is anxious to talk," says Giles. "We can't wait for the appointment of a new commissioner."

There are other issues on the plate. Baseball's ownership committee still is debating the wisdom of moving the San Francisco Giants to St. Petersburg, Fla. And the huge revenue disparities between thebig-market and the small-market teams persist, raising cries for revenue-sharing among some owners, not to mention the players' union.

STERN TASK. But addressing those problems will have to wait. First, after redefining the office, the sport will look for a new chief executive, whose only allegiance will be to the sport's 28 owners. "What they're looking for in terms of the commissioner's office right now is somebody who's dynamic and can help them go out and make more money," says Gary Roberts, an expert in sports law at Tulane University School of Law. Want a model? National Basketball Assn. Commissioner David J. Stern, who has turned the NBA into a worldwide marketing powerhouse.

In the letter announcing his resignation, Vincent offered one last bit of counsel to his former employers. "Owners have a duty to take into consideration that they own a part of America's national pastime--in trust," he wrote. "This trust sometimes requires putting self-interest second." With Vincent gone, millions of baseball fans will soon find out if the owners deserve that trust.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.