Why are all these people saying such nice things about baseball's sixth commissioner?
"I think Peter Ueberroth is determined to be the commissioner of the game, not just the owners"—San Diego Padre president Ballard Smith.
"Pete Ueberroth is a man I can trust"—umpires-union boss Richie Phillips.
"I'm glad he stepped in and took action, and I was one of his biggest opponents"—San Diego player rep Terry Kennedy.
Ueberroth, fresh from his triumph as president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, took office on Oct. 1 and is already being applauded in diverse quarters because he has made a stunning initial impression under the toughest circumstances.
Honeymoon period? The major league Umpires Association struck the playoffs the very day Ueberroth succeeded Bowie Kuhn. Umpires-union and league officials asked him to arbitrate the remaining issues, an unprecedented move undoubtedly facilitated by the fact that the strikers didn't want to be absent from the World Series and thus leave the impression that they were anything but indispensable. Ueberroth, whose arbitration decision was expected early this week, made the most of his entry into the dispute by insisting that the regular umps return immediately and work the fifth game of the National League playoffs without pay. "We agreed to work for two reasons—the integrity of the game and Mr. Peter Ueberroth," says National League umpire Doug Harvey. "We were very impressed with him."
Only Don Fehr, executive director of the Players Association, seemed nonplussed by the umps' decision to go to arbitration. "How can a paid employee who can be hired and fired by the clubs categorize himself as a neutral?" Fehr asked. "Since he does, the Players Association would be happy to have one of its employees arbitrate our contract negotiations this winter." Removing tongue from cheek, Fehr added, "If it would help to negotiate a settlement, we'd welcome Ueberroth on behalf of the owners." But Ueberroth says he won't enter the Players Association negotiations unless both sides request him as a neutral third party. "The odds of that," says Fehr, "approach zero."
The bottom line at the moment, however, is that Ueberroth is 1 for 1 in resolving labor disputes. He's also batting 1.000 in resolving dilemmas posed by television. When he learned that a possible fifth Series game at lightless Wrigley Field had a late 2:45 p.m. starting time, Ueberroth negotiated quietly with NBC and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to start the pro football games preceding the Series telecast half an hour earlier; as a result, the baseball game would have started at a more tolerable 2:15. In deference to Kuhn, whose administration had been saddled with the late time, Ueberroth announced the change on a Saturday, the slowest news day of the week.
Above all, Ueberroth perceives himself as a fans' commissioner. Declining Smith's invitation to throw out the first ball of the. World Series in San Diego, Ueberroth took the advice of American League publicist Phyllis Merhige and selected 83-year-old Pat Olsen, a former minor league teammate of Babe Ruth's who was attending his 238th Series game.
Asked what he'd learned from the Olympics that might be useful to him in his new arena, Ueberroth replied, "You can't have 58,000 people in an arena and nothing going on. I noticed there was 15 minutes of downtime before the first Series game started." The new commissioner folded his arms and frowned, imitating a bored spectator. "Why not eliminate the gap or do something that's fun for the fans?"
Enjoying the mild Series temperatures from his front-row seat, Ueberroth wore a gray sport coat as he watched the games, checked television monitors, made phone calls and chatted about "a thousand and one little things" with major league administrator Bill Murray. He didn't rise for the wave. No matter. Recalling his intervention in the umpires' strike, the fans evidently considered him a stand-up guy. For the first time in memory, a baseball commissioner wasn't booed at the World Series.