Baseball Men - The Commissioner

Our new interview series, "Baseball Men", continues with an in-depth chat with Fay Vincent, former head of Major League Baseball.

Fay Vincent has stated that his time as Commissioner of Major League Baseball ended in failure. If he was right, it was a failure that was at once surprising and deeply disappointing to anyone who cared about the game.

 

When Vincent was forced out of the Commissioner's office in September 1992, after all, it was an inglorious ending to a tenure that began with such potential. Few, if any, previous Commissioners had Vincent's pedigree when he succeeded his late friend, Bart Giamatti, as Commissioner in late 1989 - degrees from Williams College and Yale Law, years as a top-flight securities attorney, followed by a stint as head of Columbia Pictures (1978-82) and a vice president of Coca-Cola (1982-88).

 

Perhaps no Commissioner in history had the kind of goodwill Vincent had built up, either, in both his stated determination to carry on the beloved Giamatti's legacy and in his steely leadership during the earthquake-rocked 1989 World Series in the Bay area. Ask most fans, and the Commissioner was just the kind of guy they'd want at the top - an indisputably bright man and avowed idealist, someone who matched a self-made millionaire's business savvy with a passionate fan's love of the game.

 

Vincent's downfall, despite that background, has to be traced to several impolitic clashes with his bosses among the team owners. He made enemies at several turns, in his allocation of expansion team fees, in his attempt to institute rational division setups, in the discipline process against serial drug offender Steve Howe, in the investigation of Yankees owner / blackmail victim George Steinbrenner. What many reporters and fans saw as decisive, clear-eyed moves for the betterment of the game, the millionaires and billionaires in the owners suites chose to perceive as rude and high-handed.

 

Perhaps Vincent's worst offence, in the eyes of owner hard-liners like Jerry Reinsdorf and Bud Selig, came in his unwillingness to court another labor strike. The Commissioner was in the peace camp before the 1990 season and in the long run-up to the disastrous 1994-95 clash. It was in the midst of that latter controversy, 13 years ago, that Vincent was finally pushed out of office through an 18-9 ‘no confidence' vote.

 

Let the record show that Fay Vincent's signature issues (division realignment, labor/management peace, tougher drug testing) were all adopted within a decade after his de facto firing back in ‘92. In the end, Vincent wasn't dismissed for substance - most owners ended up agreeing with his decisions - but for fact that he couldn't handle owners' over-inflated personal egos. For all his talent, preparation, and heart, he wasn't a good enough manipulator / politician and in that, at least, Vincent's disappointing time in the Commissioner's office was a setback for all baseball fans.

 

In the years since Fay Vincent left baseball, the 67 year-old has written a well-received memoir (‘The Last Commissioner'), served as an executive board member for the Time Warner media empire, stayed active in charities, and attended more than a few ball games. On August 19th, he was nice enough to invite me to his Connecticut home and share some surprising thoughts on his past and the game's present.

 

 

You've been a high-profile securities attorney and executive for companies like Columbia Pictures, Coca-Cola and Time Warner. How many times do the media ask you about those billion-dollar companies, rather than fun-and-games baseball?

 

It's an interesting question. I'd say three out of four interviews are about baseball. Very seldom do I talk about the other experiences, though the movie part comes up once in a while. I talked up at Yale Law recently, the topic was taking risks in a legal career, and that involved all the moves I've made.

 

But you're perceptive. Most of the focus is still on baseball.

 

In your time in office, you had to deal with the fallout from the owners' collusion case from the mid-1980's. How do you feel about the issue today?

 

I think it's been the ultimate disaster in the modern game, because it conditioned all the labor disasters of the ‘90's. It's still polluting the relationship between owners and the union, because the owners have failed to understand how bitter the Players Association has been about it.

 

To this day, the clubs have never admitted they engaged in collusion. If you ask Bud Selig, ‘Was there collusion?', he'll never answer the question. He'll never admit it. He used to yell at me when I said, ‘A) There was collusion, and B) It's never going to happen on my watch'. Selig would say, ‘I don't want you to ever admit it'.  

 

Well, it's said that more efficient front office moves may help keep salaries in line to players' production nowadays. Maybe the owners can set salaries in line with revenues through the marketplace.

 

Yes, but I think the owners are still capable of colluding. It's because they may see no other way to solve the problem of salary inflation. It's a last ditch self-help effort.

 

Actually, it's inconceivable to me that owners aren't talking to each other about what they're bidding on players. I remember, I sat with two owners once and, right in the middle of the conversation, they started talking about a free agent. One said to the other, ‘I'm not going to sign that S.O.B., he's too expensive'. I said to him, ‘Why don't you guys collude right under my nose?' He says, ‘No, we're not colluding, we're just talking about our business'.

 

What's all that about? It's price fixing.

 

If you think about it, the guys who are running baseball today, [former Brewers owner Bud] Selig and [White Sox owner Jerry] Reinsdorf, were the ones who organized collusion in the first place. The critical piece of evidence in the case was a piece of paper that [Phillies owner] Bill Giles kept - it was a note  not to sign [free agent Lance] Parrish, the catcher. That turned out to be a $280 million piece of paper, so everyone criticized Giles for keeping that smoking gun. What they didn't often say is that Reinsdorf was on the other end of the conversation that produced the note. He was the one who said, ‘don't you dare sign Parrish; that will undermine our joint effort at collusion'.

 

Now, Selig and Reinsdorf are still there. What do you think?

 

Mr. Selig, of course, became your successor in 1992 and ended up leading the game into the 1994-95 strike. Do you think it could have been avoided if you had stayed in office?

 

There are two views on that. I don't know which one is correct.

 

I think I failed to convince the owners that there was no chance to break the union, then or ever. It's been one of the great disappointments of my life.

 

The other point of view says that the owners felt that this is the apocalypse; we're desperate, we're going broke, if we don't get this union under control, we're going out of business. That they felt the strike was the war to end wars. That they had to try one last effort to break the union.

 

Once you resigned in 1992, Mr. Selig and a negotiator named Dick Ravitch seemed to take a hard line in the union negotiations.

 

He was brought in and said [to the owners], ‘I'll get you everything you want, but you got to get rid of Vincent first'. He wanted to be Commissioner, of course, but he didn't know anything about baseball. (laughs) In his first few days on the job, he asked [then Deputy Commissioner] Steve Greenberg, ‘which league has the designated hitter?'.

That tells you all you need to know about Dick Ravitch.

 

And you know, the agreement that came after the '94 strike made no significant changes in baseball's labor relationship. None. I said to Selig, ‘was it worth it? Did you get anything?'. He said, ‘absolutely not, Fay. We got killed. We got nothing'.

 

Do you think the owners have been less inclined to force a strike as a result?

 

Maybe [Selig] learned from the '94 strike. Maybe he learned that you're not going to break the union, you're going to have to take little steps.

 

I'd been saying that all along. I think I turned out to be right about the way to deal with the union, but I was terribly wrong in that I couldn't persuade the owners to listen.

 

Apart from labor relations, one of the major controversies from your tenure involved drugs, specifically the Steve Howe case. Do you think recreational drugs are still an important issue in the game?

 

I don't know. I do know that the union was impossible to deal with on the issue - when I threw Steve Howe out of the game after seven drug policy violations, they contested the decision and got it overturned [in arbitration]. Absolutely ridiculous.

 

I don't know what the cocaine problem is in baseball. My guess is that it's probably there to some extent, as it is in society in general. I have no idea to how far of an extent.

 

Another kind of drug testing issue, one that's come up lately, relates to testing for steroids. Where do you see the issue?

 

We don't know what happened because we don't have the facts. Who knows what kinds of decisions were made? Absent some really big investigation, we'll never know.

 

My guess is that baseball, in the ‘90's, knew that steroids were a big problem, but baseball chose to do nothing. Now, Selig can say, with some justification, ‘we couldn't do anything without the union and the union wasn't willing to permit testing'. But he certainly wasn't yelling and screaming about the subject when the game was booming.

 

Do you think the union was wrong in opposing drug testing?

 

The union leadership is very left-wing, very civil liberties-oriented, very protective of individual rights. Almost Marxist, in a way.

 

The players have had a much simpler view. They've wanted to start testing, move on, clean the decks, and play some ball. Some of the ball players - guys like Tom Glavine - decided that the union leadership was wrong. When they reopened the Basic Agreement to permit more testing, it was the first time, in my experience, that the union leaders have been pushed aside. It was unheard of.

 

Another reason why you'll be remembered in the game was your role in Pete Rose's exile. Do you think he'll ever be eligible for the Hall of Fame?

 

Rose is his own worst enemy, by a huge margin. He's a terrible example; a guy who got some bad advice and made the wrong choice at every fork in the road. I think his case is pretty much a dead issue at this point.

 

To me, Rose's unattractive personal character - his gambling, his troubles with the IRS, his felony conviction, all of that - is sublimated by his thought that he was bigger than the game and above the rules. Bart and I proved he wasn't.

 

The Minor Leagues' increased attendance during the last decade or so has been partly attributed to the 1991 Baseball Facilities Standards passed while you were in office. What was your role in that that process?

 

I'd like to take more credit for that. That was really done in cooperation between the Major Leagues and the organization that runs Minor League Baseball. I had very little to do with it, except support it.

 

Before the Standards were passed, many Minor League fields were badly maintained and had poor lighting. I mean, these kids were taking their lives into their hands, and no one wants to sign a player to some huge bonus, ship him off to Rookie League, then watch him break his leg by stepping into a gopher hole in centerfield.

 

The basic objective was to ensure that all facilities were up to a very high standard for the young ball players. You may be right; it may have led to a gain in the minors' popularity as well.

 

I wish I could have had more success in another area in Minor League Baseball, and that was in umpires' pay and treatment. They were treated like indentured servants - they were expected to survive on tiny, tiny salaries. Say, $15,000 for six months work. $20,000. A man can't live on that. And you can umpire 10, 15 years before you make the Majors.

 

I think that kind of treatment is still a major issue in baseball. It's not the highest problem, but more should be done. Major League Baseball should run its own umpiring schools. It should provide financial aid to talented young umpires, particularly minority umpires. It should recruit college umpires.

 

In reading your past comments, I know you've been critical of the whole structure of the Minor League system…

 

Well, Major League Baseball spends a fortune on Minor League teams and they don't need them all. The average team probably has about 200 players under contract, 40 of them on the expanded Major League roster and another 150, 160 or so in the Minors. Now, out of all those Minor Leaguers, at any given time, there may be 15, 16, max - who are real big league prospects. The rest are there to play catch with guys who have a future.

 

Why would the ball clubs go through all that expense? It makes no sense. I mean, if you were GE or Coca Cola, you wouldn't run player development the way it's run in baseball. It doesn't make any business sense.

 

It's been my feeling that some of the owners should get rid of their player development programs. They should take 40 players on the big league roster and, maybe, 25 others in a league in Florida or Arizona. The players won't be in Norfolk or East Jesus, they'll be under control in a central place where the teams can work them out and keep an eye on them.

 

Think about it. They could play a lot more games, around the clock. They'd have a lot more instruction, good weather, first rate facilities. It makes a lot of sense. 

 

Why do you think the current system has survived?

 

The country loves it. The teams aren't sure if all that Minor League attendance doesn't bolster Major League attendance. They may be right about that. I'm not so sure.

 

The other issue is political. If the teams ever try to do something about the Minor Leagues, they'll run into a firestorm in Congress. The politicians are very anxious to preserve their local Minor League franchises.

 

You know, when Congress used to threaten me with [the possible revocation of MLB's] antitrust [exemption], I used to tell them, ‘Look, if you push hard enough, we'll close down your local Minor League team'. I used to tell [Senator] Arlen Specter [of Pennsylvania], who was a very difficult fellow, ‘if you're responsible for a Minor League team's shutdown, I don't think that will be a political plus for you'. He knew I was right.

 

Baseball's antitrust immunity is basically a red herring, but it does have several important consequences. One of which is the fact that it supports the Minor League structure.

 

One of the other notable facts about career is the fact that you've been inducted into the Negro Leagues' Hall of Fame. Along with Branch Rickey, you're the only white executive in the Hall.

 

As a matter of fact, the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown just asked me to chair a committee reviewing the remaining outstanding ballplayers from the Negro Leagues, to see if any of them belong in the Hall.

 

I think one of the turning points of my life is when Joe Garagiola, who is a good friend, came to me and said, ‘we ought to honor the old ballplayers from the Negro Leagues. We ought to have some sort of an affair at Cooperstown to honor them and welcome them back as important figures in baseball history'. We did that, and it was a spectacular weekend. There were about 75 Negro Leaguers there, and I'd say two-thirds of them have since passed away.

 

I got to know a lot of the old guys at that weekend, some of them I got to know very well. The late Joe Black was a good friend. Buck O'Neil is a friend. I met a guy named Slick Suratt, who never played in the big leagues, but he was a very good ball player in his time. He became a friend.

 

It became a bit of a cause for me, because they had ignored by Major League Baseball - they didn't get any pensions, any health benefits. Len Coleman, the former president of the National League, worked to get them a pension. It made a big difference to many of them and I'm proud of that.

 

Do you ever see yourself getting formally involved in baseball again?

 

Well, I've been asked to come and advise in an executive position, but I think that's behind me. I'm living a really wonderful life and I'm very happy in it.

 

I think I had a good run in baseball. The people who probably benefited the most from my time in the game were the underdogs - the umpires, the Negro Leaguers - and I'm proud of that. Circumstances were tough and I failed in some things. Some of it was my fault, but most people know I tried.

 

How would you like to be remembered?

 

That I always loved the game and tried to do right by it.

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