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A look back at former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent

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A voice of reason.

Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

My wife and I were at a minor league game late this summer, watching the Quad City River Bandits. If you’re looking for the American experience, you know, the apple pie, Chevrolet, baseball thing, look no further than our minor league ballparks. There’s a jovial feeling to the crowd, perhaps because they didn’t have to pay out the nose for parking? Concession prices are very reasonable, so you see a lot of people, especially children, with ice cream and hot dogs. Reasonably priced craft beer seems to be the concession of choice for the adults and lots of it.

The staff of minor league teams generally work their tails off and the park has a “Veeck-ian” feel most of the time. There’s always some stunt or promotion between innings, usually involving kids and the crowd loves it. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and the atmosphere is very relaxed. This game happened to be the last of the regular season. There was a slight chill in the air, just enough to remind us that fall, and eventually winter, were around the corner. I’ve always been a summer person, but living in the Upper Midwest, you get used to the change of seasons. The death of summer, the onset of fall and winter, leads to another glorious spring. And baseball.

One of my favorite writers is Fay Vincent, the former Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Being named the commissioner is a rare thing as only ten men have held the office. Mr. Vincent was the eighth commissioner. By comparison, twelve men have walked on the moon. So, if you were a child of my generation, you’d have had a better chance of being an astronaut and walking on the moon than you would have become the next commissioner of baseball.

Much like me, writing is a secondary career for Mr. Vincent, and he is very, very good. He knows the game, obviously, but my favorite aspect of his writing is that he exposes his soul. He knows that he is in the final inning or two of his storied life and he’s not afraid to talk about it. He knows that winter is coming and God willing, he’ll be here for another spring and summer. His story about Old Acquaintances was a fantastic and thought-provoking piece of writing. His Ten Tips for New Executives was so profound, that I made a copy and keep it on my office wall. Great writers, especially those who can blend sports and life are rare birds. We have Joe Posnanski of course, and Joe is one of the all-time greats. Jim Murray was always one of my favorites. He’s been gone for 23 years. Can that be right?

Lewis Grizzard, another talented favorite has been gone for 27 years. John Coit was one of the first writers I admired. He’s been gone for 35 years. Jim Harrison? He’s gone too. Like it is with all great artists, you wish they would have produced more, but you treasure what they left. Vincent is still here and still producing thought-provoking essays.

A native of Waterbury, Connecticut, Vincent was born on May 29, 1938, right at the tail end of the Great Depression. In college, he fell off a fourth-story dorm ledge, a college prank gone wrong. The fall crushed his spine and left him partially paralyzed. The initial diagnosis was that he’d never walk again but showing the grit that would carry him through life, he regained most use of his legs, though he used a cane for assistance. He went on to get a law degree from Yale and joined a prestigious Washington, D.C. law firm. He later had a stint with the Securities Exchange Commission. That led to the job of Chairman of Columbia Pictures which led to a Senior VP job with Coca Cola.

When his longtime friend, A. Bartlett Giamatti was appointed the seventh commissioner of Major League Baseball, Vincent went with him, accepting the position of Deputy Commissioner of Baseball. Giamatti only served as Commissioner for five months before being felled by a heart attack on September 1, 1989. His death was a shocking turn of events as Giamatti had only eight days prior banned Pete Rose from baseball.

On September 13, Vincent was voted in as the eighth commissioner of Major League Baseball. Vincent had to hit the ground running. The Loma Prieto earthquake struck on October 17, just prior to the first pitch of Game Three of the World Series. Vincent made the right call to delay the Series for ten days. As if that weren’t enough, the owners locked the players out in February of 1990. The resulting work stoppage resulted in Opening Day of the season being pushed back to April 9.

Crowds in Candlestick Park after the earthquake

For Vincent, the hits just kept coming. On July 30, 1990, he banned New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for life. The Boss had paid a grifter $40,000 to dig up dirt on Yankees star Dave Winfield, after Winfield sued Steinbrenner for not making a contractually obligated payment to his foundation.

And Vincent still had the Rose issue hanging over him. There was some suggestion that Giamatti had struck a backroom deal with Rose to allow him reinstatement after one year. Giamatti’s untimely death changed that deal, if there ever was one. One thing you can take to the bank about Fay Vincent - he believes that the game is bigger than one person and he’s not afraid to take a controversial stance and stick with it. He never struck me as a person who looks at the polling numbers or waited to see which way the wind was blowing before making a tough decision, and I admire that trait.

The Commissioner’s job, historically, has been to represent the owners. Reading Vincent’s history, I get the impression that the job was bigger than that. He didn’t see himself as a lackey whose job it was to massage the owner’s egos and do their bidding. And it cost him.

In September of 1992, the owners gave Vincent an 18-to-9 vote of “no confidence.” That was enough for Fay. He resigned on September 7, just shy of three years on the job. Vincent’s ouster was orchestrated by what was called “The Great Lakes Gang” which included Stanton Cook, CEO of the Tribune Co., which owned the Chicago Cubs, Carl Pohlad, owner of the Minnesota Twins, Peter O’Malley, majority owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, William Bartholomay, Chairman of the Atlanta Braves, Bud Selig, President of the Milwaukee Brewers and Jerry Reinsdorf, Chairman of the Chicago White Sox. The owners, looking for a yes man, appointed Selig, the milquetoast owner of the Brewers as the ninth commissioner of Baseball.

Upon his departure, Vincent said, “To do the job without angering an owner is impossible. I can’t make all twenty-eight of my bosses happy. People have told me I’m the last commissioner. If so, it’s a sad thing. I hope they (the owners) learn this lesson before too much damage is done.”

Baseball has long been beset by labor problems as we’ve seen again this year. We will see it again. One of the major issues Vincent had to deal with was collusion by the owners to not sign the top free agents. Reinsdorf was the ringleader of the collusionists and often drew the ire of previous commissioner Peter Ueberroth and of Vincent. The collusion got so bad that prior to the 1987 season, Andre Dawson, one of the best players in the game, could not find a team to bid on his services. He ultimately went to the Cubs and said he would play for a blank check. They could fill out the amount. The Cubs did just that, paying him the ridiculously low sum of $500,000 for which Dawson responded by leading the league with 49 home runs, 137 RBI and 353 total bases, winning a Gold Glove and the MVP award. The Cubs, being the generous employer that they are, kicked in an extra $200,000 in incentive bonuses.

The Major League Baseball Players Association filed a grievance, and long story short, eventually won a settlement for the players for $280 million. Of the settlement, Vincent said, “The single biggest reality you guys have to face up to is collusion. You stole $280 million from the players, and the players are unified to a man around that issue, because you got caught and many of you are still involved.”

The settlement, in turn, led to baseball expanding to Florida, Colorado, Arizona and Tampa, using the expansion fees to help pay off the collusion debt.

One has to wonder about the effect of the collusion on pennant races and World Series results. The 1987 Royals finished 83-79, two games behind the Minnesota Twins. The Twins went on the defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. What if Ewing Kauffman had bucked the trend and signed someone like Dawson? Could the Royals have had another flag flying?

After stepping down from the Commissioners job, Vincent has led a full life. For a time, he was President of the New England Collegiate Baseball League. He’s made some money as a private investor. And he’s done a lot of writing, all of it excellent. If you haven’t had a chance to read him, I urge you to. His columns often run in the Wall Street Journal. Vincent was an early and vocal critic of baseball’s stance on steroid use. And he was right about it.

Recently, he’s been back in the fray, commenting on the current labor problems. There was a time, not long ago, when Gary Bettman, commissioner of the National Hockey League, was seen as the most inept of the Big Four commissioners. In fact, Bettman was so unpopular around NHL cities, that he was almost always booed when he dared show his face. Nowadays with the travails of Roger Goodell, Adam Silver, and Rob Manfred, Bettman has suddenly ascended to the top of the heap. I don’t think Bettman has changed that much, it’s just that the other three can’t seem to get out of their own way and by consequence, have made ill-timed moves and taken controversial stances that have damaged their respective brands. If you want to see a leader of a sports league that has some guts, look no further than Micky Lawler of the WTA. The big four could use more of what she’s made of.

Regarding baseball, I think it would be wise for Manfred to bring Vincent back aboard as something like Commissioner Emeritus. One thing I’m not afraid to say about Fay Vincent: I believe his love of the game is as pure and deep as anyone else alive today. And baseball could use a wise, steady hand that’s not swayed by whichever way the popular opinion of the moment is blowing.

Vincent, now a lion in winter, remains the voice of reason for baseball. I hope he has a lot of innings left.