Is Jerry Reinsdorf, the belligerent union buster he appeared to be during the baseball strike,

June 30, 1997
June 30, 1997

Table of Contents
June 30, 1997

Faces In The Crowd
Business [bonus Piece]

Is Jerry Reinsdorf, the belligerent union buster he appeared to be during the baseball strike,

...the turncoat who signed Albert Belle to a $55 million contract to play for the White Sox, the lunatic who might break up the Bulls' dynasty, the malcontent who sued the NBA to protect his own TV Revenues? Or is he simply misunderstood? Is he, in fact, one of the smartest owners in pro sports, a businessman whose teams are powerful and profitable and whose employees are deeploy loyal?

Lots of people carry the Serenity Prayer around in their pockets. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous. Newlyweds. Admirers of Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian who is said to have written it. Jerry Reinsdorf.

This is an article from the June 30, 1997 issue Original Layout

Yessir, Jerry Reinsdorf. The 61-year-old chairman of the Chicago Bulls and the Chicago White Sox, one of the most powerful, loathed and loved men in sports, keeps the prayer on his person at all times: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Reinsdorf isn't a member of AA, nor is he a church- or temple-going man. He carries the prayer with him because he fervently--or perhaps serenely--believes that it sums up his approach to life.

Sort of like Harry Truman, the man Reinsdorf most admires. "He was the first president to recognize Israel, the one who desegregated the armed forces, the one who gave the go-ahead to drop the atom bomb," Reinsdorf says, lighting a cigar in his office in the new Comiskey Park, surrounded by baseball memorabilia, much of it from the era of his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. "Truman had brass balls and great common sense. He made so many big decisions without worrying about the criticism that would follow. He did what he felt was right. You know, Truman left office with a 25% approval rating, but history has judged him to be one of the great presidents."

Give 'em hell, Jerry.

In truth Reinsdorf is a man whom God seems to have granted about as much serenity as someone facing a dentist's drill. Forceful, self-made, independent and thin-skinned, Reinsdorf is enduringly out there on the front line, verbally sparring with fellow NBA owners, the Major League Baseball Players Association, the media and anyone else who stands in his way. It's what makes him an easy target.

Wasn't it Reinsdorf who filed a lawsuit against the NBA in 1990 when the league tried to limit the number of Bulls broadcasts aired over superstation WGN? The suit, which was finally settled last December, cost the league an estimated $10 million in legal fees. Worse, evidence that came out during the case led to the discovery by the NBA players' association that some owners were underreporting revenues that determined the salary cap. "Jerry was looked upon very favorably prior to the WGN lawsuit," says Jerry Colangelo, the owner of the Phoenix Suns. "But the litigation put up a wall, there is no question. He is basically now inactive in the NBA."

Wasn't it Reinsdorf who was cited by arbitrator George Nicolau as being in the middle of baseball's collusion conspiracy of 1985 and '86? There was the phone call Reinsdorf made to Philadelphia Phillies owner Bill Giles reminding Giles of his obligation to "fiscal responsibility" as Giles tried to sign free-agent catcher Lance Parrish, and two letters Reinsdorf wrote to the Detroit Tigers and then commissioner Peter Ueberroth, telling them the White Sox had no interest in signing free-agent pitcher Jack Morris. The judgment ultimately cost the owners $280 million in fines.

Wasn't it Reinsdorf who was portrayed by the media as the most strident of the hawks among baseball owners during the 1994-95 strike, the brains behind the owners' ruinous strategy, a man seemingly bent on breaking the players' union regardless of the cost? In June 1994 Reinsdorf had engineered the passage of a rule requiring a three-fourths majority vote by the owners to ratify any labor agreement. Then he successfully lobbied his fellow owners on Nov. 6, 1996, to reject a five-year collective bargaining agreement reached by Randy Levine, the owners' negotiator, and players union chief Donald Fehr, on the grounds that the agreement offered no meaningful restraint on salaries.

Wasn't it Reinsdorf who, after buying the White Sox in 1981, pulled many of their games off free television, drove away legendary announcer Harry Caray--to the Cubs, no less--and eventually brought the wrecking ball to beloved old Comiskey Park?

So it is that the man who has helped bring five NBA titles to Chicago in seven years and who was the impetus behind two new stadium projects in a city that hadn't constructed a sports arena since Soldier Field in 1924 is reviled in his adopted city. Reinsdorf's approval rating, if it were solicited, would be pretty near rock bottom these days. That was evident after the Bulls clinched the NBA title on June 13 and a great many of the euphoric fans at the United Center stopped celebrating only long enough to boo Reinsdorf when he was introduced during the trophy presentation. The Bulls are Michael Jordan's team, no matter whose name is at the top of the organizational chart, and lately Reinsdorf has been making waves by thinking out loud about breaking up that revered team. A dangerous notion for a man whose image still suffers from the baseball strike.

Many of those who work for Reinsdorf say a kinder and fairer boss never walked this earth. Every time the Bulls make it to the NBA Finals, Reinsdorf flies the team's full-time employees and their families to the road games, a move that last year cost the club about $1.5 million. These employees also get championship rings. Even coaches Reinsdorf has fired are treated well. The owner still sends former Bulls coach Doug Collins, now with the Detroit Pistons, an engraved watch every time the Bulls win a championship, in gratitude for having taught Chicago's players "to believe in themselves." Reinsdorf doubted Collins was the right coach to get the Bulls to the next level, however--too intense, too driven to win--and replaced him in 1989 with the more laid-back Phil Jackson. To this day, firing Collins remains Reinsdorf's most unpopular managerial move--to be surpassed, no doubt, if he fails to re-sign Jackson.

Before allowing White Sox manager Tony La Russa to be fired by new general manager Ken Harrelson during the 1986 season, Reinsdorf, at the suggestion of his personal assistant, Sheri Berto, called then Oakland Athletics president Roy Eisenhardt to see if the A's would hire La Russa. "I'd known he was a great admirer of Tony's, and Sheri would have killed me if I hadn't done something," Reinsdorf says. "She loved Tony. I wasn't going to piss her off." La Russa was out of a job for less than three weeks.

"Jerry is a good friend to people who are his friends," La Russa says. "The personal side of him is 180 degrees different from his public side." So why not clean up that public side?

Can't do it, Reinsdorf says. "I know I could have a better public image if I were less open, if I ducked more issues and didn't speak out. But it's not my nature. I admire honesty more than any other trait. Two things I got from my mother: 'You have to tell the truth, even if the truth is hurtful,' she used to say."

The second thing? "'Don't eat ham.'"

Even those who are entrenched opposite Reinsdorf on business issues do not share the public's image of him. They respect what they see as his habit of intelligently and articulately speaking his mind. "His style is concise, logical and passionate," says Larry Lucchino, CEO and president of the San Diego Padres. "Even when we battle--and we do battle--there is a certain civility to it. I still consider him someone I can joke and laugh with in between the verbal fisticuffs."

"He believed that the Bulls franchise would permanently cripple itself if it did not take advantage of the opportunity, when Michael Jordan was playing, to establish itself on WGN," says Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL, who was the NBA's top attorney when Reinsdorf filed his lawsuit. "Whether he was right or wrong is not the point. He believed this in his bones."

Says a Chicago taxi driver, speaking unsolicited but authoritatively for the working people of the city, "Someone will put a contract out on him if he doesn't re-sign Phil Jackson."

Never mind that Jackson and Reinsdorf agreed in the spring not to discuss his contract until after the end of the season, that Reinsdorf has a history of keeping those coaches and players he wants to keep, that he still calls Jackson "the best coach in the NBA."

"I had one conversation with Phil," says Reinsdorf. "I told him, 'If we decide to break up the team, I don't want a coach who will be here only one year. Are you prepared to stay longer than that?' He said, 'I'm not sure.' Hard decisions should be deferred until you have to make them."

In the meantime Reinsdorf will suffer the barbs of the pundits in the media. "I can't believe what they write about him," says Alex Spanos, the owner of the San Diego Chargers. "I've known Jerry 30 years, and he's the most decent, humble individual I've ever known. I call him all the time and tell him, 'Don't let it worry you. Your friends will always know you for the way you are.'"

So what things has this scrappy, misunderstood, fair-minded man found the serenity to accept as unchangeable, as immutable as time and tide--just as it says in that prayer he carries in his wallet? Reinsdorf answers without missing a beat: "Financial insanity in baseball. I've given up. I've capitulated."

Uh-huh. And?

"Wanting to be six feet tall."

Right. Anything else?

"The unaccountability of the media."

You see, he likes this stuff. He eggs people on. "He is amused how the media portray him," says Stan Kasten, the president of both the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Braves. "Jerry is portrayed as having other owners, and their votes, in his pocket, and we laugh about it because the guy has none of that influence. No one follows him because he's Jerry. Not in baseball or basketball. I'm his biggest fan, and I'm telling you that."

"There have been two fallacies about [Reinsdorf repeated in print] in the last three years," says Giles, a fellow member of baseball's executive council. "One is his power. He doesn't have that much power. He hasn't won too many big votes on the executive council. He didn't want to make the labor deal, and we made it anyway. The other fallacy is all this stuff about his influence on [acting baseball commissioner] Bud Selig. It's untrue."

Still, it was Reinsdorf who was portrayed in the press as the puppeteer pulling Selig's strings throughout the strike. He was the most outspoken of the owners, the man the players' association focused on as the enemy working behind the scenes. Reinsdorf's disdain for the fourth estate is understandable, and he keeps a file of media distortions and fabrications, which he frequently updates and happily retrieves on request. There was the time, for example, he was watching ESPN at home with Martyl, his wife of 40 years and mother of his four children, when an anchorman informed viewers that at that very moment Reinsdorf and Fehr were meeting to discuss a resolution of the baseball strike. Reinsdorf turned to his wife and asked, "Do you have Fehr stashed in a closet somewhere?"

Alternately wry, self-deprecating and combative, Reinsdorf has an edgy sense of humor that he employs either to disarm or enrage his adversaries, depending on his mood and purpose. He is a needler of both friend and foe.

There was, for example, the reference he made in the spring of 1995 to the Jonestown mass suicide: Reinsdorf compared Fehr to cult leader Jim Jones and wondered if he was offering Kool-Aid to the striking players. (Fehr did not respond to a request for comments about Reinsdorf, but his righthand man, Gene Orza, admitted that though Orza found Reinsdorf to be "a formidable adversary," he got a kick out of him.)

Then there was the time Reinsdorf took a shot at Lucchino, who had purchased the Padres in '94, during the strike. "Larry stood up [at his first owners' meeting] and basically said that the strike was pretty dumb," Reinsdorf recalls. "No one said anything at first, so at the end I raised my hand. I said, 'Isn't it funny that the smartest guys in baseball are always the last ones in?' I told him not to worry. After a while he'd be as dumb as the rest of us."

"He can be quite sharp," says Lucchino. "But I do not consider him any kind of archenemy. In fact, I find him to be funny and charming and quite bright."

And his own man. Over the years Reinsdorf has taken endless grief from partner Bob Judelson for wearing nothing but brown suits, so at one owners' meeting, Reinsdorf wore a maroon jacket instead.

"Nice jacket," one of the other owners remarked. "Did you get it from an usher?"

"This is not a guy working on his image," says Steve Greenberg, president of the Classic Sports Network and a former players' agent. Greenberg served as deputy baseball commissioner under Fay Vincent, who was forced out of office in 1993 due in part to Reinsdorf's disapproval of his job performance. Still, Greenberg considers Reinsdorf a good friend. "What important person wears brown suits?" Greenberg says. "He is who he is: a product of his upbringing. He is a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who worked like heck, came up with a few good ideas, developed a business around a couple of them and parlayed that into the passion of his life--baseball. He is not trying to impress anyone or looking for public recognition. The public's image of Jerry Reinsdorf is so far off the mark. He is a soft touch. I love negotiating with Jerry."

Greenberg cites the time a player-client faced arbitration over a demand for $170,000 and an offer from the White Sox of $130,000. Reinsdorf and Greenberg agreed to settle at $150,000, but the player, after having told Greenberg he would accept that figure if it were offered, demanded another $5,000. Greenberg, embarrassed and unprepared for an arbitration hearing, called Reinsdorf. "I told Jerry, 'I don't know any way to do this but to make a rachmones plea.' It's a Hebrew word for mercy." Reinsdorf gave the player the $5,000.

"At heart, he cares about his players, especially those he thinks are trying hard and are good people, whether or not they perform," says Greenberg. "Ed Farmer is an example. He had one great year with the Sox, but he never came back to that level. Now he's back in Chicago as a broadcaster. Jerry gave him a second career. I say to him all the time he should fire all his p.r. men, his p.r. is so bad. But he contributes to it because he can't keep his mouth shut. He says things he shouldn't say. There is a part of Jerry that likes being a contrarian."

If Reinsdorf had wanted to fire one of his public relations people, he never had a better chance than in the spring of 1994. Bulls p.r. chief Tim Hallam, who'd been with the team since '77, was arrested at his home after receiving a four-ounce packet of cocaine in the mail. Police also found an unregistered handgun in his home. Hallam's arrest was the lead story on the local news.

"I had a huge drug and drinking problem," Hallam says. "I sat in that jail cell that night and saw my life, my wife and my job all passing before me. I never thought I'd be back with the Bulls. But Jerry helped me find a good lawyer, and the lawyer got the case thrown out on a technicality. I hadn't been home from court for 15 minutes when someone from the Bulls Employee Assistance Program told me I was going to the Rush Treatment Center. One day while I was there, I got a phone call: 'Hi, it's Jerry.' I didn't think I'd ever hear from him again. After an incident like that, people look at you so differently, but if someone like Jerry Reinsdorf, who deals with all these heavy hitters, was willing to stand behind me--I don't even know if he realizes how much it meant."

That act of loyalty wasn't an isolated instance. Reinsdorf still cannot talk about Berto, his assistant, without crying. In 1991 she checked into a hospital for routine elective surgery and died of internal bleeding when the operation was botched. She was 40, and she left behind a husband and a three-year-old daughter. "She started working for me when she was 23," Reinsdorf says, pausing to collect himself. "She was a rare human being. I hired a writer to do a book about her so her daughter would know what a remarkable woman she was. She influenced every decision I made. If I asked her to do something she didn't want to do, she'd just say no and would hold up her pinkie. 'Know what this is?' she'd ask. 'It's when you don't care enough to send your very best.'"

In the September 1995 trial of the wrongful-death suit that Berto's family brought against the hospital, Reinsdorf testified that he had promised his assistant 5% of his share of the Bulls, the White Sox and the United Center in the event he ever sold them--but he could never produce a written copy of the agreement. Asked during the trial what those assets were worth, Reinsdorf, under oath, said, "Somewhere over $2 billion. A little over $2 billion, I would say." Reinsdorf owns 10% of the Bulls and 12% of the White Sox, which means his share of a $2 billion sale would have come to $225 million. Berto's 5% would have been $11,250,000. The jury did not believe that Reinsdorf and Berto had had an agreement.

In a 1992 deposition Reinsdorf had estimated the value of the two teams as being between $300 million and $400 million. The United Center, of which he owns 6.5%, cost $200 million to build. So either the value of those three assets had soared more than 300% in three years, or Reinsdorf had grossly inflated their worth. "I was being aggressive," he now says. "I felt that was the top of the range at the time." At the end of the defense attorney's cross-examination, Reinsdorf confessed that he wanted to see the people punished who had taken someone away from him. The jury awarded the Berto family $17.3 million in damages. The Bulls practice facility, in Deerfield, Ill., is named after Berto.

It is such gestures that breed an extraordinary loyalty, even protectiveness, among Reinsdorf's employees. They are genuinely nonplussed that he isn't beloved. "The White Sox [charities] have given about $300,000 to help fund the Direct Instruction reading program to improve literacy in Chicago public schools in the past four years," says Christine Makowski, the head of the White Sox community relations department. "Jerry considers reading a survival skill, and he's told the mayor we want to be the corporate catalyst for this program. Then I go around with him and see him booed."

So what's the deal? "Owners have a bad name," says Eddie Einhorn, Reinsdorf's White Sox partner the past 17 years who served as the team's president from 1981 through '90 and is now the vice chairman. "It sounds like slavery: owners. Even when you win, there's always controversy, someone who needs to be signed. Phil Jackson has to be signed. Dennis Rodman has to be signed. Michael Jordan. It's always something. If you're an out-front owner, which Jerry is, you're going to get killed. He doesn't hide. He goes on the radio. He talks. He's constantly on the grill. It's bad enough with one sport. He does it for two. But if you're around the action, you're going to get burned. 'You've got to be around the action.' That's what his father used to say."

Max Reinsdorf was born and raised in Brooklyn, a first-generation Polish-American Jew who never finished high school. Jerry's father worked as a mechanic, drove a taxicab, drove an ice cream truck, fixed sewing machines and resold them, even worked for a while as a stagehand for MGM in Hollywood until he got homesick for Brooklyn and returned there. He worked six days a week to provide for his wife and three children. "In 1936, the year I was born, he was making $25 a week, but that was enough to live on," Jerry says. "Everyone loved my father. He was so nice that people took advantage of him. We were lower middle class. I slept in the hallway on a cot that rolled away during the day, and my younger brother and sister slept in my parents' room. My goal as a kid was to someday have my own room and to own a car--and I wanted to be able to take care of my parents."

Like nearly everyone else in Brooklyn, Jerry was a baseball fan. Dodgers centerfielder Duke Snider lived on the same street as the Reinsdorfs, and Jerry can remember playing stickball with his friends when the Duke would join in. But Pee Wee Reese--the Brooklyn captain, the scrappy leader--was Jerry's favorite ballplayer, the guy who first put his arm around Jackie Robinson, as a gesture to the other Dodgers and to the world. Reinsdorf was in the stands for Robinson's first game at Ebbets Field, a preseason exhibition against the New York Yankees. He arrived at 9:30 a.m., as was his custom, to get the best seat in general admission.

"I coasted through high school," Reinsdorf recalls. "I was 203rd in a class of 987. At graduation they gave out all these awards. My mother said, 'Couldn't you have won just one?' I told her, 'It all starts in college. No one remembers what you did in high school.'"

Reinsdorf had been accepted at George Washington University, and before he left Brooklyn, the family doctor, Lewis J. Wesley, offered him some friendly advice. "He told me not to be afraid to compete when I got to college, because if you could compete in Brooklyn, you could compete anywhere," Reinsdorf recalls. "The people at the top aren't so smart, he said, they're just not as dumb as the people at the bottom." Words to live by. Reinsdorf began applying his considerable intellect to his studies, finishing in the top 10% of his class.

Only one full scholarship to George Washington Law School was awarded to undergraduates, and Reinsdorf got it. But the dean of the law school told him that he had to give up his $135-a-month job managing the school's auditorium. Reinsdorf, who had married fellow student Martyl Rifkin in his senior year and wanted the extra dough, told the dean to keep his full scholarship and moved to Chicago, where he had a partial scholarship waiting for him at Northwestern Law School. The school eventually upped Reinsdorf's scholarship to a full one and lent him $300 to pay for surgery Martyl needed. It proved to be a wise investment. Reinsdorf is now a university trustee.

His father-in-law, Milton Rifkin, told him to stay in Chicago. "He used to say, 'If you can't make a living in Chicago, you can't make a living anywhere.' They don't care here where you've come from, as long as you're honest and work hard." So Reinsdorf stayed, working at the IRS regional council's office from 1960 through '64. While at the IRS, he says, he learned "how to settle and how to negotiate" and that "you didn't have to squeeze every last nickel out of a deal." He also learned "that if you try to be loved and respected, you'll wind up neither. You have to make a choice. To me, it wasn't a choice."

That's the nut of it: Reinsdorf would rather be respected than loved. It's important to him. Nothing in his manner says, Hey, I'm one of you. He does not solicit affection. He solicits something much colder--respect--and it has cost him the common touch.

After he left the IRS, Reinsdorf made a name for himself around Chicago in the late '60s by taking professional people, such as doctors, and incorporating them--a new concept at the time--setting up tax shelters and tax-free retirement plans. In '73 he started Balcor, a real estate investment firm selling limited partnerships to the general public. Four years later he reported gross income of only $112,000; by '82, he had built Balcor to the point where he sold it to American Express for $53 million.

Reinsdorf agreed to stay on for another five years as CEO of Balcor for a percentage of the profits, and by the time his contract expired, he had overseen $6 billion in real estate deals and had reaped $50 million in commissions. Reinsdorf left Balcor in '87--just before a real estate collapse occasioned partly by the federal tax reform act of 1986. That debacle cost investors millions and forced American Express to take a $200 million write-off on Balcor in a single quarter. But Reinsdorf didn't lose a dime.

In January 1981 Reinsdorf and Einhorn, who first met in law school, put together the partnership that bought the White Sox from previous owner Bill Veeck for $19 million. Reinsdorf was the general partner, with control over baseball operations; Einhorn, a former television executive at CBS, was in charge of marketing. "We were hit by a strike that first year," Reinsdorf says, "and I remember thinking that what the two sides were fighting over was crazy. Either side could have given up and not lost anything."

Sound familiar? It's funny how the last guy into the owners' ranks is always the smartest. But over the years Reinsdorf has become disillusioned with the collective bargaining process in baseball. "The baseball business was worse than I ever imagined," he says. "The first two years we lost $8 million. The ballpark was crumbling, and we sunk $20 million into it. I was scared to death we were going to go broke during that period."

Reinsdorf's response? He doubled up. In '85 he put together another partnership, which bought the Bulls for $16 million. Two years ago the team paid a dividend to shareholders equal to approximately twice that original investment. "I thought the Bulls were a sleeping giant," says Reinsdorf, who'd grown up a Knicks fan. "I felt owning the Bulls would help with the White Sox, since it would give me more leverage when dealing with sponsors. And if the White Sox failed, I would still be in sports."

The White Sox, however, didn't fail, thanks to a new, publicly funded stadium, which Reinsdorf, Einhorn and Illinois governor James Thompson, a law school classmate at Northwestern, rammed through the state legislature in '88--but only after Reinsdorf, who had mourned the Dodgers' flight from Brooklyn, threatened to move the team to St. Petersburg, Fla. Reinsdorf negotiated a sweetheart 20-year lease according to which, after the first 10 years, the state promised to purchase up to 300,000 tickets in any year that attendance fell below 1.5 million. It was a stunning coup: a publicly financed building with downside protection. Reinsdorf was portrayed as a ruthless businessman who had held the city hostage and snookered state politicians. No one much cared when he said that the St. Petersburg deal would have been $9 million a year sweeter because of television rights, but he had stayed put because he didn't want to be remembered as Chicago's Walter O'Malley.

Still, the White Sox drew more than 2.5 million fans each of their first three years at the new Comiskey Park, from 1991 through '93, and Reinsdorf was riding high when the team appeared to be headed for the World Series in '94. Then in August the players struck, and a month later the Series was canceled for the first time in 90 years.

While Reinsdorf didn't single-handedly cause the strike, he might have helped prevent it by siding with the large-market teams, which at first were against increased revenue sharing. "The 10 big-market clubs had a caucus," Reinsdorf says. "We stayed with the small-market clubs. We felt for the long-term interests of the game, we had to have revenue sharing. Otherwise the Pittsburghs and Milwaukees couldn't compete, and that was no good for the game. You have to have strong teams to play against."

"Reinsdorf took positions over and over again that were in the best interest of the game, even if it meant a sacrifice to the White Sox," says Boston Red Sox general partner John Harrington, whose club was part of the large-market caucus. "I was across the table from him on [revenue sharing], but I came to admire his integrity because he was so unselfish. He felt that going into labor negotiations, we had to have additional revenue sharing before we could ask the union to do something about controlling salaries. He felt we could not be two-faced about it."

Once the revenue-sharing formula was settled, Reinsdorf warned his fellow owners that there could be no turning back. "I said that if a strike occurred, it could wipe out all of 1994 and maybe the 1995 season, too. That was my warning. The Chicago White Sox were making a lot of money then. We had $40 million in the bank, so we could have lived with the system that was in place. But I needed to know that we were not going to quit in the middle. It was at my urging that we adopted a rule that said it would take a three-fourths majority to settle if a strike did occur. I thought once the union realized we were strong, common sense would prevail, and a reasonable deal could be negotiated."

It couldn't. The players struck, the strike dragged on, an impasse was reached, and the owners tried to hire replacement players to open the 1995 season. Judge Sonia Sotomayor prevented those replacement games from being played. A new revenue-sharing plan was adopted by the clubs, but nothing changed to stem the rise in salaries. From Reinsdorf's, and the White Sox', point of view, the strike had been a significant net loss--and the fans were as mad as hell. Nowhere was the poststrike drop in attendance more precipitous than on the South Side of Chicago, where the average gate fell from 32,000 a game to 22,700. It continued to slide in 1996, averaging 20,700 per game.

"I had to make the fans fall in love with the team again," Reinsdorf says. "My original plan was to unload all the high-salaried guys except for Frank Thomas and trade for young players, rebuild the ball club. To get the payroll down [from $44.8 million] to $20-$22 million. If we drew a million fans, my accountant had it figured out we'd make a $5 million profit. It would have been the smart thing to do. Then I got nervous. What if I destroyed the franchise? I thought if I signed Albert Belle I'd excite the city."

Instead, he excited the league. Within days after the Belle signing, the previously rejected agreement that had been hammered out by Levine and Fehr was ratified by the clubs over Reinsdorf's objections. (The agreement, it is widely believed, would have been ratified whether Reinsdorf had signed Belle or not.) "I knew we were caving," Reinsdorf says. "Selig told me we couldn't fight anymore."

"There's no question the Belle move contributed to the escalation of salaries," says Orioles owner Peter Angelos. "Roger Clemens's signing for almost $8 million a year [with the Toronto Blue Jays] was a product of the Belle move."

"People were stunned by it," says Lucchino. "It was a very, very loud noise that was heard by a lot of people."

Others, though, are equally certain that if Reinsdorf hadn't ponied up $55 million over five years for Belle, the Florida Marlins would have. "If anyone knows the market value of players, it's Jerry Reinsdorf," says Harrington. "He knew other clubs would pay Belle that kind of money."

That's where the market was going, but no one had expected Reinsdorf to lead it there. "Who got to the World Series last year?" he asks. "It was the highest payroll [the Yankees] against the second-highest payroll [the Braves]. Spending money won't guarantee that you win, but if you don't spend money, you're guaranteed not to win."

So he's spending money because, more than anything, he'd like to bring the World Series to Chicago. The White Sox payroll of more than $54 million is the third highest in the American League. To break even, the team must either draw 3 million fans--it is on pace to average a bit more than half that--or draw 2.5 million and make the playoffs.

The upper deck of Comiskey Park, steep and yawning, is vacant on this May night. The owner's suite is nearly empty. Reinsdorf is remarking on the game--"I can't believe Albert didn't get to that ball"--while conducting an interview. He still considers himself a fan, though he doesn't enjoy the game as much as he once did. "I'm still not all the way back," he says. "I used to go out to the batting cage and kibbitz with the players. I didn't do that at all in 1995 or '96."

Reinsdorf has instituted a $1 ladies' night--an old Veeck tradition--to try to win back fans, but the truth is, all the excitement these days has been generated by Reinsdorf's other team. The Bulls' season won't end for another month, and until it does, the White Sox won't draw flies. Still, it's at sleepy Comiskey Park that the kid from Brooklyn looks most at home. "The passion will come back," he says, relighting his cigar. "It's such a great game."

Reinsdorf vows that he is finished with labor wars, that after the current basic agreement expires in 2000, he will not let himself be sucked into another black hole of acrimony. But he still has plans, big plans. "I don't feel like selling," he says. "I don't think I'm close to getting out. I still love what I do. It's not the love I had when I was only a fan, but I still love the competition. The payback is when you're standing in Grant Park and see 500,000 people celebrating a championship, people who feel pride to be living in Chicago, and you know you've played a part in that. It's better than a real job."

He seems surprisingly at peace with his niche. God, or perhaps Jerry Reinsdorf himself, may have granted him the serenity after all.