Knocking The Commish Out Of The Park

Ah, spring training. Time for the smell of pine tar and the crack of the bat. But there's something missing this year: the knocking of heads in baseball's executive suites.

No players' strike is imminent. A television joint venture, signed with ABC and NBC last autumn, looks to be more lucrative than the dire predictions of a year ago. Attendance soared 25% in 1993, with half the gain coming from two successful expansion franchises. And an overhaul of the game's divisions and playoff structure has met only muted resistance. Baseball's big-market owners have even agreed to share the loot with their small-market brethren if players agree to a salary cap. Heck, even retired basketball icon Michael Jordan wants to get in on the game, as a Chicago White Sox spring-training prospect.

Flash back 18 months. When baseball's owners walked out of a Rosemont (Ill.) hotel meeting room with the head of Commissioner Fay Vincent on a platter, it seemed one of the darker moments in the sport's storied history. The national pastime had been hijacked by 26 spoiled aristocrats. The starched suits did not want to share their balls, bats, and power with anyone who was not a member. Surely chaos would result.

HOUSE PET? Quite obviously, the worst fears were wrong. Faced with a crisis of their own making--running baseball without the unifying and popular offices of a commissioner--the owners have done surprisingly well. So well that on Feb. 11 they announced that the new commissioner, if one is ever found, will be nothing more than a trained house pet.

Those weren't the exact words. The announcement, in fact, stated that the evisceration "enhances the commissioner's authority." That's surely addition by subtraction. Employing artfully lawyered cross-referencing and yes/butting, the owners handed over vast swaths of clerical and administrative power but held on to every bit of policymaking clout. The commissioner is now fully in charge of labor negotiations. Unless the commish wants to cancel a lockout or intervene in a strike in ways that got Vincent and Bowie Kuhn ousted. The executive is "empowered" to act in the best interest of the game--unless that means realigning the divisions, stopping clubs from broadcasting their games on superstations, or taking other actions that might rile the sport's chieftains.

The owners are fighting the good PR fight. "The commissioner of baseball is now the most powerful man in America," says Acting Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig, owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. "We've cleared up the ambiguity that has driven people crazy before."

Under the old construct, baseball's commissioner was assumed to be a demigod who could protect the interests of the game, the public, and the owners--though only the last group wrote his paycheck. "It was a subterfuge," says Andrew Zimbalist, author of Baseball and Billions. And it was a lot to ask of one person. Even so, a commissioner with conflict-ridden, ambiguous power served the sport bet-ter than will a clerk with no power at all.

HARD LINE. Baseball needs a commissioner with broad powers, not just the authority to police morals charges, as the job description now implies. Owners will learn that once labor talks begin in earnest. Bereft of a meddling commissioner, the bosses plan to take a rock-hard line. They want a salary cap, and to get one will take a strike--which the players will happily provide, probably around the playoffs. With no commissioner to mediate, watch for Congress to take action, scrapping baseball's special antitrust status and opening the sport to lawsuits on issues such as labor, expansion, and franchise movement. What a mess.

For the time being, owners are busy trying to fill the commissioner's job. They want a person of stature, yet willing to be a lackey. It hasn't been easy. Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III was mentioned early on, but he wasn't interested. Most recently, former Labor Secretary Lynn Martin and Northwestern University President Arnold R. Weber were contacted, to no avail.

Baseball's brass aren't expected to finish their search until after labor talks are sealed, and Selig has agreed to stay on. Will the delay make much difference? Hardly. It used to be that the commissioner had the right to throw out the first ball on opening day. The owners have expanded that power, too: In addition to tossing the ball, the new commissioner will also be empowered to go fetch.

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