The Los Angeles Dodgers left Dodgertown—their legendary Vero Beach, Florida spring training complex, which Branch Rickey began and Walter O’Malley completed—for fresh digs in Arizona after the 2008 season. Former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent and his wife built a home in Vero Beach six years earlier.
From that home today, Vincent is unamused by today’s coronavirus-abetted baseball furies. The commissioner who didn’t ask “how high” whenever the owners ordered “jump!” thinks today’s owners are looking for more trouble than even the 1994 strike those owners provoked eyes wide shut.
Today’s owners, pleading potential poverty with little enough evidence to support the plea, seem to prefer jamming an abbreviated 48- or 50-game 2020 season down the throats of the players who prefer and hope to play an 80- or 82-game season. This morning’s whispers indicate that the haggling could mean a season beginning not in July but in August, if at all.
Assuming the owners stay on the terms of a March agreement to pay the players pro-rated 2020 salaries, even Sesame Street‘s residents can tell you that normal times equal the owners thinking the good of the game is making money for them, but abnormal times equal the owners thinking the good of the game is . . . making or at least saving money for them.
Not so fast, warns the last commissioner not to cancel a World Series. (1989, rudely interrupted by the Loma Prieta earthquake shaking Candlestick Park into being nicknamed by one wag “Wiggly Field.”) “[I]f you shut the game down,” he told NJ.com columnist Bob Klapisch, “you’re going to war with the [Major League Baseball Players Association] and that union cannot be broken. It looks like it’s 1994 all over again. I don’t think anyone has learned their lesson.”
The players want the owners to live up to the agreement the two sides made in March. The owners want the players to live down to it. Vincent remembers what a lot of people forget: nobody pays their hard-earned money to go to the ballpark or watch the game on cable television because they’re anxious to see their team’s owner.
The names on the backs of jerseys in which Joe and Jane Fan step out on the town read Trout, Harper, Scherzer, Bellinger, Judge, Yelich, Altuve, and Bumgarner—not Moreno, Middleton, Lerner, Guggenheim, Steinbrenner, Attanasio, Crane, or Kendrick. (Unless it’s Howie Kendrick, 2019 World Series hero.)
“Over the last 25 years,” Vincent told Klapisch further, “there’s been this general myth that the players have done better than the owners. People think, ‘the union’s won because the players are making so much money.’ Well, the reality is the Yankees are worth $10 billion. If the Steinbrenner family sold the team today, the players wouldn’t get a nickel. The players don’t own YES, they don’t own SNY, they don’t own NESN. So tell me who is the winner and who is the loser?”
It cost George Steinbrenner and his original partners $10 million to buy the Yankees from CBS in 1973. Today the Yankees—with their singular if not always controversy-free history—are actually worth $4.6 billion. But still. “That team is one of the greatest investments in history,” Vincent said, “and [the Steinbrenner family] owns it all. The same is true for all the owners: after tax dollars and capital gains (tax) they’ve held onto every bit of equity.”
Vincent gets why the MLBPA and their executive director Tony Clark, himself a former longtime major league first baseman, trust the owners about as far as they can hit or throw them. It’s not that the owners necessarily learned to play nice beforehand, but the mid-1980s collusion of owners suppressing genuinely competitive free agent biddings probably did the most to re-convince the players that most of the owners were about as trustworthy as a politician.
The owners were finally mandated to pony up $280 million in damages for their trouble then. “They owners stole that money from the players,” Vincent said, and you could practically feel him snap as you read the quote. “Stole it. There’s no other verb. When you steal that much it’s a hard argument to deflate. It’s why the players have never trusted owners since then.”
Vincent was thrust into his former office upon the death of A. Bartlett Giamatti, who barely got to serve a full year in office before—abetted, but not necessarily caused by the ferocious stress of the Pete Rose gambling investigation he’d been bequeathed—suffering a fatal heart attack at 51 eight days after he banished Rose.
When he showed himself a mediator instead of an owners’ errand boy or strong-arm to end the 1990 spring lockout, Vincent made few enough friends among those who thought he was there to do their bidding strictly. Like Giamatti, who didn’t live long enough to suggest whether he’d always behave as though the good of the game didn’t always equal making money for it, Vincent didn’t see himself as his bosses’ stooge.
A man who loves baseball as deeply as his predecessor did, but without Giamatti’s scholarly but accessible eloquence, Vincent visited as many ballparks as he could. He was present and rooting in Milwaukee on 31 July 1990, the night Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan earned credit for his 300th win, even accepting the chance to sit and chat with Ryan in the dugout.
White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, arguably the number one pusher for the 1994 strike, was not amused. “Nolan Ryan’s a player,” Reinsdorf “reminded” Vincent. “You’re the commissioner of baseball. You can’t be in awe of a player, I don’t care who he is.”
Thus said the man who commissioned statues of Hall of Famers Luis Aparicio, Harold Baines, Carlton Fisk, Nellie Fox, Frank Thomas, and Jim Thome around Comiskey Park—oops! Guaranteed Rate Field—not to mention those of Paul Konerko, Minnie Minoso, and Billy Pierce. Reinsdorf certainly seems somewhat awed by middle and corner infielders, a couple of designated hitters, at least one catcher, and at least one pitcher. (So where’s Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm?)
When he banished Steinbrenner from baseball in 1990, after Steinbrenner was caught and exposed having paid a street hustler to dig up dirt on his future Hall of Fame outfielder Dave Winfield, Vincent lost the Yankees as an ally but won admirers in New York and elsewhere. The news broke while the Yankees hosted the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium and provoked a slowly circulating standing ovation from beleaguered Yankee fans.
Vincent ran afoul of the owners for keeps in 1992. A cabal of smaller market owners led by Reinsdorf and then-Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig (the cabal was known as the Great Lakes Gang), fed up with Vincent’s apparent disinclination to let them keep pleading poverty against those big beasts in the larger markets, knowing only too well that they weren’t as impoverished as they claimed, were only too ready to dump him and finally lined up the votes to do it.
He knew a few things they’d forgotten conveniently, including that it was their own fault player salaries inflated beyond sensible logic as the 1980s turned into the 1990s. Nobody put guns to anyone’s heads when, for example, San Francisco Giants general manager Al Rosen blew a hole in the market ceiling by signing a good but not great 33-year-old pitcher named Bud Black to four years at $2.2 million per, the kind of money paid usually to the Orel Hershisers of the time, not guys with ERAs approaching 4.00.
Vincent also didn’t help himself when he tried strong-arming three Yankee people including manager Buck Showalter out of baseball for going to bat on behalf of drug-troubled relief pitcher Steve Howe, whom Vincent allowed to return to the Show after six previous drug-related suspensions. The commissioner enraged many and caused headlines when he ordered the Yankee three to his New York office as Showalter was preparing to manage a game—with Showalter returning as the game was in progress.
Vincent resigned in 1992, after an 18-9 (one abstention) no-confidence vote by the owners. Except perhaps for his foolish bid to drive the Yankee three out of baseball over Howe (he fumed when one said he’d learned in the Marines that you don’t abandon the wounded), he was the commissioner who swung and missed at knockdown pitches. He remains the last commissioner who was neither an owner nor the handpicked successor to that eventually-former owner.
But if you ask as Klapisch did whether this year’s strife means no major league season and good luck selling a 2021 season, Vincent says . . . well, not so fast. “Even with what’s gone on it’s hard to really, truly damage this game,” Vincent said. “It always comes roaring back, especially if it’s been taken away for a long period of time. Fans end up missing it. Remember one thing. People do love baseball.”
He said in less tortured grammar what Sparky Anderson, Hall of Fame manager, once said by smooshing a pie in the face of the King’s English: “We try every way we can think of to kill this game, but for some reason nothing nobody does never hurts it.” Possibly until now.