Former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent looks at the state of the sport in 2020
Former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent still pays attention to the game he ran for almost exactly three years.
Some 15 years ago, Vincent sat down with The Berkshire Eagle to discuss the state of the game at that time. With the sport in some flux due to the coronavirus pandemic, it seemed like a good time to reach out to the former commissioner again.
Vincent, who turned 82 on May 29, no longer has a home in Williamstown, dividing his time between Connecticut and Vero Beach, Fla.
He was appointed deputy commissioner when A. Bartlett Giamatti was named commissioner in April, 1989. That September, Giamatti died of a heart attack, and Vincent moved up to replace him.
Vincent was commissioner from Sept. 13 1989, until Sept. 7, 1993. In that time, Vincent presided over the game when an earthquake hit the Bay Area during the World Series between Oakland and San Francisco. He also banned the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for paying gambler Howie Spira money for "dirt" on Dave Winfield. Steinbrenner was banned for life, but was reinstated one year after Vincent was asked for his resignation.
Vincent graduated from Williams College in 1960, and ironically, he and Steinbrenner were at Williams at the same time. Vincent helped cover Williams College sports for the Eagle, calling the late sports editor Roger O'Gara one of his first mentors.
"Roger O'Gara taught me an awful lot about writing for a newspaper," Vincent said. "Mostly, to take the word 'that' out. I later read 'Elements of Style' by E.B. White, and I learned it all starts with 'Elements of Style.' It was a great lesson for me."
Interestingly enough, connections between Vincent and Pittsfield run along more lines than his byline. He was running Columbia Pictures when the movie "Absence of Malice" came out. That movie was a hit in 1981, starring Paul Newman and Sally Field.
"The name 'Berkshire Eagle' appears in the movie," Vincent said. "I was so excited. I had nothing to do with it, but when I was head of Columbia, the director was Sydney Pollock and I watched an early screening of the movie and there it was. I was so happy that the Berkshire Eagle got a little mention."
Here is the interview, slightly edited for length.
Berkshire Eagle — If you were the Commissioner of Baseball, would you be pushing for games to be played this summer?
Vincent — Probably not. The problem is I'm not privy to the economics and I'm not privy to the politics. The commissioner is a political position, and he works for the owners, unfortunately. The public thinks he works for all the constituencies, and I believe that. Bart Giamatti and I came into baseball believing we could make a difference in terms of widening out the scope of the baseball constituencies.
The great tragedy of baseball is I left baseball 28 years ago. When I left, I said publicly the problem is the owners and the players can't get along. Part of that is due to owners having stolen, the right verb is stolen, $280 million from the players in collusion. Everybody who isn't as old as you and I are, doesn't know what collusion means. Collusion means the owners rigged free agency and wouldn't sign free agent players. They got caught, because Bill Giles, the owner of the Phillies, kept notes of a conversation with Jerry Reinsdorf [the owner of the Chicago White Sox]. Giles wrote a book in which he said this is what happened. Reinsdorf said to Giles "Don't sign Lance Parrish. We've all agreed not to sign free agents. The rumor is you are going to sign Parrish. Don't do that." When the union sued, he turned the notes over to the union in discovery. That resulted in a $280 million judgement against the owners by an arbitrator. In the 28 years since I left baseball, you would have thought the commissioner [Bud Selig and Rob Manfred] and others would have worked hard to build a relationship with the players union. You would have thought the players union would have worked hard to pull together with the owners to build and protect the institution of baseball.
Eagle — Is it a fool's errand to try and play baseball this summer? Is this worth it to try to get a 60-game season a good thing?
Vincent — I think both those statements are correct. It's almost certain there's going to be a major problem with the virus. As players get sick, I don't know how you contain the virus if there's a 25-man roster or even a 40 or 50-person roster. The players are going to get sick, unfortunately. When they do, they're contaminated and then what do you do? Do you cancel the games of that team for a while? How are you going to keep running players in? The quality, obviously, is going to be affected. Point Two, a number of players are getting paid in any event, whether they play or not. My understanding is, some of them are saying we're not going to play. It's clear that the players are not getting enough money to persuade them to take the risk and play with the virus. As you know, I don't know how many, but a reasonable number are saying they're not going to play. Thirdly, it's all about the owners making some money on television. I don't believe baseball, without an audience, is the baseball I'm going to watch on television. I don't think it's going to be fun to watch a game where there's no noise when a guy hits a home run. I'm used to the rising sound that when a guy hits the ball, the audience responds. I think baseball without fans is a silent movie without voices and music. A silent movie, after you've seen a sound movie, is not a very attractive movie to watch.
Eagle — Earlier, you mentioned the role of the commissioner; someone asked if there is a way for a baseball commissioner who has one foot in each camp, and not to just do the bidding of the owners?
Vincent — It's a very good idea and it's an idea that has to come. It's going to happen. We're talking about a governance system that says the players, the owners and to some extent, the fans, all get to participate in the way baseball is governed. The way to have that happened is to have the fans own an interest in Major League Baseball — a new corporation that would be formed. In that corporation will be ownership interest in every big league team. The players' organization will own part of each team. The players will be partners, full economic partners, with the owners. Until that happens, there can't be a commissioner who is elected by all the constituencies. There should be a governing board of baseball that has the commissioner as the chief executive. It has an individual, probably, as chairman to be elected by the constituencies. The ownership would be a percentage, an equal percentage owned by the players and the owners, and then a small percentage owned by the public. We would have a system where all the parties would be interested in building the game.
I came from the movie business. Dustin Hoffman makes a movie called "Tootsie," and it made a fortune. He got paid a big salary for making the movie, and then he owns I don't know what percentage. Let's say 10 percent of the movie. The other talent, the director and the producer, they all own a piece of the movie. The movie "Tootsie" will continue to make money as long as you and I are alive and long after Dustin's grandchildren have died, it will still be producing money. Dustin, if he decides to sell his interest in "Tootsie," will get a Capital Gains transaction, which is a tax benefit which the players will never get access to.
Eagle — Your predecessor and you were adamant about Pete Rose not going into the Hall of Fame; when it comes to users of performance-enhancing substances, who do you put in, if any?
Vincent — I view it with regret. Using performance-enhancing drugs, let's say steroids, was to use a drug that was on the United States prohibited substance list. It was using a drug that was dangerous and is dangerous, and was prohibited for use as a matter of federal law. It's very hard for me to come to the conclusion that people who cheat, whether they cheat by betting on baseball — Pete Rose was cheating because he knew that he had a big advantage. He could keep his relief pitcher in the bullpen on a night when he otherwise would have used a relief pitcher. On a day when Pete didn't bet, he didn't bring a relief pitcher in because he would save him for a day when he was betting. That kind of corruption can't go on. I have no respect for Pete because he cheated. Do I think he should be in the Hall of Fame? No. Do I think he will be in the Hall of Fame? Yes.
I think our country is going through a values realignment, where truth and duty and honor, which were all the things I thought were pretty important growing up, I don't think they have any meaning any more. I've turned totally cynical. I say put everybody, put [Roger] Clemens, [Barry] Bonds, [Sammy] Sosa, all of them in. How do I know Mike Piazza didn't use steroids? I don't know that, but a lot of people believe he did and he's in the Hall of Fame. If he's in the Hall of Fame and Bud Selig is in the Hall of Fame and he was the commissioner during the years a lot of this was going on, I think the American public and the American institutions such as baseball have basically said we're going to do what the public wants. I think there's going to be a day soon, when it becomes clear the public wants to ignore any of the things I thought were really important.
The problem with what I just said is the Houston Astros, because there, you had another form of cheating which was really blatant. Basically, no player was punished. We know the players were cheating. We know exactly what they did. We know the union threatened a grievance over every one of them and baseball backed away.
Eagle — The designated hitter is coming to the National League in the shortened 2020 season. We figured it would happen sooner or later, so are you good with it or did you figure that it was going to happen anyway?
Vincent — I think it's the wrong result. I think the National League game is the game as it was always played. I think most of the gimmicks, like the DH, were gimmicks by owners to raise revenue in the American League which was having a tough time. The designated hitter was an experiment. But as you know, experiments have a way of developing a life of their own. Sure enough, the DH has a life of its own. People who like home runs and big innings and offense are for the DH. I'm for the National League [game] because pitchers are athletes. They should learn how to hit. They should learn how to bunt. They should learn how to sacrifice and be an all-around player. I like the strategy in the National League. I think it's the way baseball was put together. I'm against the DH. Do I care? No, I really don't care, because it's what people want.
Howard Herman can be reached at email@example.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.
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