Baseball Needs A Firm Hand

Once was apparently more than enough for the Lords of Baseball. With the smashing 1996 season just a pleasant memory, they're in each other's faces again, demonstrating that the disarray in Major League Baseball will not go away without the firm hand of a commissioner.

The current flap involves George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' principal owner and a man who seems psychologically incapable of keeping away from trouble. Early this year--in fact, on the very day that MLB announced its new marketing campaign for the season--Steinbrenner went public with a $90 million-plus deal with Adidas. Because his lone-wolf tactic came only months after he helped kill a league-wide sponsorship agreement with Nike and Reebok, he seemed to be kicking dirt on the other owners' spikes. Push came to shove, and Steinbrenner and Adidas wound up suing MLB on

antitrust grounds. Then, on May 13, MLB's Executive Council, headed by Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, went after Steinbrenner with a bat, suspending him from baseball's pro tem governing body.

The owners should have figured out by now that what is essentially a joint venture of 28 companies cannot be run effectively without a manager who has no agenda other than the health of the overall business. The good news is that after years of foot-dragging, MLB has finally hired a headhunter to search for a commissioner. The appointee should have the clout to stand up to the owners--especially if Rupert Murdoch buys the Dodgers and joins their ranks. And the new commissioner must insist that the office carry the full powers wielded by distinguished predecessors such as A. Bartlett Giamatti. A figurehead who is just a batboy for the Executive Council would be further evidence that the owners are not serious about catching up with other major-league sports. Most important, the overriding concern should be who would be best for the game. Another squabble is just what baseball doesn't need.

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