Baseball Strikes Out
Baseball lost a large measure of its integrity when commissioner Fay Vincent at last bowed to the inevitable and resigned Monday from the thankless job he had held for the past three years. It was not that Vincent himself had come to be such an irreplaceable moral giant, but he had acted as an essential counterbalance to some of the more unreasonably greedy desires of the game's owners. Unfortunately he frequently did his counterbalancing with an arrogant and condescending attitude that ultimately left most of the people who employed him—the owners—so alienated and so angry that they couldn't wait to get rid of him.
Last week at a meeting in Chicago, 18 of baseball's 28 owners voted to demand Vincent's immediate resignation. At first he refused, saying he would never quit. Then on Labor Day he came to his senses and issued a sad, but eloquent, letter of resignation, addressed to the owners, which put the whole ugly mess into its proper historic light. "Unique power was granted to the commissioner of baseball for sound reasons—to maintain the integrity of the game and temper owner decisions predicated solely on self-interest," he wrote. "The office should be maintained as a strong institution. My views on this have not changed. What has changed, however, is my opinion that it would be an even greater disservice to baseball if I were to precipitate a protracted fight over the office of the commissioner. After the vote at the meeting last week, I can no longer justify imposing on baseball, nor should baseball be required to endure, a bitter legal battle."
So Vincent took the high road, although it is unlikely that anyone else involved in this ego drama is even aware of such a route. The owners moved against Vincent primarily because they were seeking an unobstructed path to deal with surging costs and contentious labor relations—problems largely of the owners' own making. No longer could these owners tolerate a commissioner who might consider the interests of players, umpires or, god forbid, fans in the ongoing affairs of baseball.
September 13, 1992
Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox and one of the ringleaders of the Slay Fay Gang, has described the perfect baseball commissioner this way: "He should be a CEO of the owners—not the players or the umpires or the fans. He would handle issues involving integrity or discipline. In issues involving business he would answer to the board of directors—the owners." After last week's surprisingly lopsided vote calling for Vincent to step down, Reinsdorf said this about what he would do in the commissioner's place: "If I were the chairman of the board of a company and two thirds of the board of directors said they didn't want me to serve, I would say, A pox on your house,' and I would go on to something else."
Vincent will go on to something else, but despite the insulting treatment by his employers, he didn't wish a pox on baseball's house as he departed. He insisted to the end that he could have gone to court and held on to enough power to keep the owners in line for a while. But his term was to end in March 1994 anyway, and as he wrote in his letter, "I am confident that in the end I would win...but what would that accomplish? What will the fight have been worth if, 14 months from now, prior to electing a new commissioner, the owners change the Major League Agreement to create a 'figurehead' commissioner? This is certainly the goal of some. And while it is bad for baseball, I cannot prevent that change."
If there was a pox placed on baseball's house last week, it was put there by the owners. From now on, the household will be run by the owners and their new commissioner—for whom the term figurehead may prove to be too generous. Puppet, yes-man, lapdog, janitor—they are just some of the descriptions bruited about. What self-respecting person might fit the owners' needs? Well, maybe another owner: The name of Paul Beeston of the Toronto Blue Jays was brought up within hours of Vincent's resignation. Ron Brown, the Democratic party chairman, was mentioned. So was James Baker, the White House chief of staff. Then again so was George Bush.
No such speculation preceded the appointment of Vincent as commissioner in 1989. He was deputy commissioner when, on Labor Day weekend, the commissioner, his friend Bart Giamatti, died. Now Vincent has left a legacy for whatever poor soul succeeds him. It is the last paragraph of his letter of resignation: "I remind all that ownership of a baseball team is more than ownership of an ordinary business. Owners have a duty to take into consideration that they own a part of America's national pastime—in trust. This trust sometimes requires putting self-interest second."
The Bedeviled Sun Devils
Saturday afternoons are supposed to be a time when heroes emerge on college playing fields, but on Arizona State's campus last Saturday the only thing emerging was the rancid smell of heroes who had fallen. An unwholesome compost of spoiled athletes and permissiveness has created an atmosphere of almost shocking lawlessness at ASU, where over the past 14 months 18 athletes have been arrested or indicted or had some other brush with the law—many of them more than once. Jamal Faulkner, the leading scorer on the Sun Devil basketball team last season, was arraigned Saturday for assaulting his girlfriend, at about the same time that the ASU football team was throwing fourth-string quarterback Troy Rauer, a redshirt freshman who had been playing defense until two weeks ago, at No. 2-ranked Washington. Rauer was forced to start after first-string quarterback Garrick McGee, charged on Sept. 1 with participating in three burglaries, was suspended for one game and backup Grady Benton was unavailable to play because he had been suspended for allegedly using a credit card stolen from a woman's wallet by teammate Derrick Land. (A fourth quarterback transferred out.)
McGee would actually have been charged in the burglaries sooner had the county attorney not been considering him as a possible witness in the upcoming trial of Sun Devil linebacker Raythan Smith, in whose car McGee was riding when Smith allegedly pulled out a gun and shot a 19-year-old man after a dance on campus last March.
Faulkner's arrest followed by only four days his release from jail; he had been imprisoned for violating the probation he received after an earlier conviction for credit-card fraud. He would have been one of seven veteran players returning to coach Bill Frieder's basketball team after having been arrested if Frieder had not already dismissed him from the team. "I don't know," Frieder said wanly, "maybe I have a little too much faith in people."
It was the coach, of course, who set the tone three years ago, when he began systematically stocking his team with outlaws-in-waiting. Maybe the problem at Arizona State is that the school has had too much faith in coaches like Frieder.
Have You Seen This Man?
"Do not ask where the money comes from. No pictures of me. No going to training sessions. I warn you, there is a guard with a gun at the pool. Do not go near it. Do you understand?" These were the orders I received when I visited Hungary last January to write a story on the Hungarian swim team, pound for pound the most potent swimming team in the world. They were issued by a short, round, bespectacled 40-year-old man who often paused to open his office door and whisper directives to gofers and bodyguards in the anteroom.
The reason for all the mystery became clear last week. Gy‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√árgy Zemplènyi, the president of the Hungarian Swimming Federation, became the target of an international manhunt after he vanished following the Barcelona Games under suspicion of embezzling $7 million.
Police sealed his apartment and his office at the Idea Tours travel agency in Budapest, from which Mr. Z ran an empire that included nightclubs, bars, furniture stores, a health-food store, a lamp store, a candy kiosk and a dance troupe. Creditors who had helped finance the swim team's training camps in Australia, Austria, Barcelona, Mauritius and even Hungary itself flooded the swimming federation with calls, demanding payments ranging from $4,800 to half a million dollars. The Hungarian consul in South Africa reported a sighting of Zemplènyi there last week. No extradition treaty exists between Hungary and South Africa.
New accounts of Zemplènyi's behavior also surfaced last week. A Budapest newspaper, Magyar Hirlap, quoted a bodyguard as saying that Zemplènyi had increased his protective squad of former boxers, wrestlers and martial-arts experts to 12 before the Olympics and often insisted that one of them eat from Zemplènyi's plate first, in case his food was poisoned.
Hungarian sports officials, basking in the glow of the five gold medals Hungarian swimmers won in Barcelona, seemed to be scurrying for cover. Swimming coach Tàmas Szèchy told newspapers that he had lost contact with Zemplènyi after July 15, but at the end of July, Mr. Z was acting as interpreter for Hungarian medal winners at press conferences in Barcelona.
Norbert Rozsa, world-record holder and Barcelona silver medalist in the 100-meter breaststroke, was the swimmer closest to Zemplènyi. After he was informed that the "stepfather" who had bought him a car and an apartment had vanished, Rozsa burst into tears.
They Said It
Joe Bugel, coach of the Phoenix Cardinals, after his rookie quarterback, Tony Sacca, complained that NFL footballs slip out of his hand: "Well, if you can't throw the NFL ball, you might as well quit, because that's the ball we use."
Ann Richards, governor of Texas, after Jose Canseco was traded to the Rangers: "Now that Jose is in Texas, I'll be expecting him to hit 60 home runs—and drive 55."