Commentary: Baseball: Who's Looking Out For The Game?

What would Bart Giamatti have done? Well, if history is any guide, the late commissioner of Major League Baseball, a gentle-spoken, erudite student of the game, would have pulled Baltimore Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar into his office by the ear, read him the riot act, and suspended him on the spot. Spitting in an umpire's face, as Alomar did in a Sept. 27 game against Toronto, would not have been tolerated in Bart Giamatti's baseball. "When Pete Rose [then manager of the Cincinnati Reds] pushed the umpire at first base in 1988, Giamatti threw him out of baseball for 30 days, and I would have done the same," says Fay Vincent, commissioner from 1989 to '92.

These days are different, though. Baseball hasn't had a commissioner since Vincent was forced out. The owners have been overseeing themselves, and their jerry-built management structure is again showing the strain.

In 1994, there was no commissioner to help bring the warring sides together and attempt to either avert the costly strike or, had the players walked anyway, at least save the season. Two years later, despite the best efforts of negotiators, baseball has still not nailed down a basic labor agreement.

Baseball has striven mightily to bring back fans turned off by what was perceived as greed on both sides during the strike. Attendance, though still below prestrike levels, is up 6.4% over 1995. But baseball may be blowing its slow bounceback. And even if the umps are mollified and the hot 1996 season goes forward without a hitch, the problem will remain. Without an independent commissioner, Vincent says, "the system is basically breaking down."

Baseball's owners have only themselves to blame for this mess. Since 1992, baseball has been run by an executive council--eight owners plus the two league presidents. Bud Selig of the Milwaukee Brewers, chairman of the council, is de facto commissioner. The owners elbowed Vincent out because of wide dissatisfaction with his performance, in areas such as labor relations and expansion.

Still it's not unreasonable to ask if the owners' performance has been any better. The longest strike in baseball history, no real solution to the disparities between small--and bigmarket teams, and an apparent inability to control the behavior of highly paid professionals pretty much prove it hasn't. Now, the owners desperately need a commissioner to get their house in order.

Back in 1989, Giamatti laid the blame for baseball's problems on rampant mistrust--"mistrust among owners, among players, mistrust of owners by players.... It is corrosive," he said. That's where a commissioner comes in. The owners, players, and umps need somebody who's got something other than money on his mind.

In the Alomar case, it is the umps who have taken on the role of commissioner. By standing up for themselves, for a standard of acceptable behavior on the field, they are standing up for the game. Big-time sports is unlike any other business, because the core of the enterprise--the game--must often be protected from those who profit from it. That's what Selig and the other owners didn't get in '92, didn't get in '94, and don't get today. They don't own the game. They own teams that play the game.

NO PUSSYFOOTING. The National Basketball Assn. has successfully dealt with strike threats and unruly players because it has a strong commissioner in David J. Stern. Last March, when Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman head-butted a ref, the NBA didn't pussyfoot around. Rodman was suspended for six games and fined $20,000. Even White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who helped engineer Vincent's ouster says: "We would be better off if we had a commissioner, no question about it." Reinsdorf says a commissioner will be appointed very swiftly--once a labor agreement is reached.

Ted Turner of the Atlanta Braves is said to have once told his fellow owners: "Gentlemen, we have the only legal monopoly in the country, and we're ----ing it up." The lords of baseball shouldn't dally. They need to anoint a commissioner fast, if only to protect themselves from themselves.

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