Fay Vincent, baseball's back-seat commissioner.

The stadium scene.
Nov. 19 2002 5:29 PM

Baseball's Back-Seat Commissioner

Fay Vincent likes to grumble about Bud Selig. But could he have done any better?

Book cover

Ten years ago, it is safe to say, Major League Baseball, coming off of Fay Vincent's brief tenure as commissioner, was a lot better off than it is today under Bud Selig. The league was set to expand, not contract, and World Series ratings were almost twice the record-setting lows of this past October. The world championship belonged to Canada, where no one doubted baseball's staying power, and a year earlier still, Minnesota was tops. The Yankees hadn't made the playoffs in over a decade, and they weren't having any luck enticing free agents to save the day. It was, as the sportswriter Thomas Boswell wrote, "competitive balance time, baby."

Few people have been as outspoken in the past year about baseball's current woes as Vincent, and based on the comparison above, it's not hard to see why. In the fall of 1992, Vincent was effectively forced out of his job by Selig, then the owner of the Brewers, after just three years of service. When he left, bitterly, Vincent offered a parting warning: "I think baseball is headed for major problems." Then, like a fired employee waiting for his confidentiality agreement to expire, he kept quiet for the better part of a decade, as the sport's troubles worsened—and reappeared to speak up only recently, in time for this year's tumultuous round of labor negotiations. Vincent's public remarks have been unfailingly critical with regard to his successor. "What, exactly, have been his successes?" Vincent asks of Selig in his new book, whose title, The Last Commissioner, is itself a slap in Bud's face. As the strike date drew perilously near, in late August, he declared, "If baseball were a stock, it would be at an all-time low."

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Fay's continued carping begs the question: Would he have done any better? Vincent has always styled himself as a sort of eggheaded ideas man. So, how might his version of the game differ from the one he complains about today?

The problems that have plagued baseball in the decade since Vincent abandoned the throne are essentially threefold: dwindling public enthusiasm for the sport, relative to its competitors; poorly run teams; and the rapidly accelerating divide in earnings potential between small- and large-market teams, as caused by the boom of regional cable networks. The first concern, of course, was exacerbated by the legacy of the canceled 1994 World Series, and it's a good bet that, under Vincent, the season would have been saved. Vincent interceded to end the 1990 lockout in a month's time, after all. And though this was perceived as a fatal, player-friendly weakness by Selig's cohorts, the owners' failure to extract any substantial benefit from their hard-line stance four years later ought to be seen as a plus for the ameliorative approach.

The second problem is a perennial one—how to account, say, for the Phillies, who play in the sport's sixth-largest market and yet manage to qualify for revenue sharing while maintaining a stingy payroll that's nearly $10 million below the league average. Vincent's radical solution to the problems posed by independent owners drawing low revenues is basically to get rid of them by starving them of any help and making them vulnerable to buyouts from corporate predators. ("The day of the individual owner is dying," he writes, "and ultimately that may be a good thing for baseball.") Which gets at his more general approach to the third issue of cable inequities; Vincent embraces the synergistic trend of teams being owned by media companies, and—here's the kicker—he recommends that such conglomerates be allowed to own several teams each, as a way of incorporating smaller markets into larger, regional ones. The Chicago-based Tribune Co., for instance, might control the Cubs, White Sox, and the Brewers (bye, Bud), spreading its cash around to each.

Contraction would almost certainly not be a matter of concern. Vincent oversaw plans for baseball's first expansion (the Marlins and Rockies) since 1977, but he was not in favor of the league's continued growth, favoring instead the relocation of struggling franchises that is the norm in the NFL and NHL. A fair assumption is that Tampa Bay and Arizona, the teams that (according to Vincent) required Selig's bailout to avoid bankruptcy last winter, would not have existed to begin with—or at least not as new franchises. More likely, we would have 28 major-league teams, with a Washington, D.C.-based group still trying to lure the Expos and a Portland- or Phoenix-based team carrying on the Astros' tradition.

Judging by Vincent's book, in which he lays out what he calls "a radical vision for the future of the game," the sport's financial arrangement would be quite different, too—and baseball would eventually be a stock. Trust of the conventional nature between workers and bosses having been irrevocably broken by the owners' collusion in the late '80s, Vincent concludes that "the old model of owners as capitalists and players as employees no longer works." He proposes that Major League Baseball, or a portion of it, become a publicly traded company (goodbye, antitrust exemption!), with players holding a minority stake, to give them a vested long-term interest in the sport similar to that of the owners. Not only would this force the much-needed opening of the owners' balance books, but it would also reduce salaries, as players could be given stock-option incentives to remain with the same franchise.

But would Fay's big ideas, however admirable, have had much chance of implementation? Probably not. In office, Vincent practiced what might be called a politics of friendship, in which loyalty to one's pals trumps ideology and progress is made through a credit-bank exchange of personal "chits." (One of his best baseball buddies, George W. Bush, passed over for the commissionership, has applied more or less the same strategy to world governance.) But Vincent could never muster the kind of support that Selig, for instance, has demonstrated particular aptitude for shoring up. Selig may not have many true friends in the business, but he's adept at securing his power base. His relentless working of the phones enabled him, arguably, to defeat the union this year for the first time in more than three decades of collective bargaining.

In other words, Vincent needed a power broker like Selig to get his agenda on the table. Selig, on the other hand, proves every day that he needs a smart, independent player like Vincent to keep his ambitions in check. And yet Bud got rid of Fay and Fay now hates Bud. All they needed was each other.

Ben McGrath is on the staff of The New Yorker.