For fay Vincent, it seems, the ground has never stopped moving. The first time we noticed him, he was dignifying baseball with some highly sensible and sensitive behavior at the 1989 World Series, a series remembered less for the baseball than for the earthquake that disrupted it. Now, when we look in on the baseball commissioner, we find the continental plates of fractious owners shifting and grinding beneath his feet. He still brings what dignity he can to his beloved game. But he surely is an unlucky commissioner if this latest upheaval—along a Pacific fault line running from Japan through Seattle—is no more his doing than the first.
The seismic shocks have been considerable; perhaps their cumulative force will be enough to ultimately topple this commissioner. As one owner says, "He may be acting in the best interests of baseball, but he is not acting in the best interests of being reelected." While it is the game itself that is on shaky ground, the one who wobbles now is Vincent.
The proposed purchase of the Seattle Mariners by a group that may or may not be considered foreign is the latest crisis. The Seattle offer centered on investment by the Nintendo Co. Ltd. of Japan; when Vincent articulated baseball's long-considered objection to foreign ownership, he was singled out for, among other things, decidedly limited vision, Japan bashing, racism, even xenophobia, which no baseball writer had ever had cause to spell before. Certainly those complaints were legitimate when applied strictly to baseball: What's so world about a World Series that can't accommodate baseball-crazy Japan? But when Vincent issued his statement, he believed he was functioning as the baseball owners' mouthpiece, not as an arbiter of geopolitics. "What could you expect me to say?" he says.
But wouldn't you have expected somebody else to say it too? Not one of his constituents—the owners—jumped in to lend support, and Vincent and his office were left to fend off" a nation of editorial writers, all of whom knew very well how to spell xenophobia. Now, what do you make of that?
Perhaps the commish is being hung out to dry, is one thing to make of it. After all, other curious things have been happening. What do you make of this? The owners replace management's chief negotiator, Charles O'Connor, with Richard Ravitch to bargain with the players' union for a new basic agreement (the current labor contract ends after the '93 season); they bestow upon Ravitch, a high-powered labor expert, the new title of president and chief executive officer of the Player Relations Committee and then leak word that they are paying him a salary that is $100,000 greater than Vincent's. And what do you make of the fact that Vincent travels to Washington to address a congressional delegation on the Seattle issue and others matters of owners' policy, and is joined by not a single owner?
Out of such details perhaps only Oliver Stone might make a compelling and convincing drama. In real life it might not add up to a sinister plot. Yet try to remember that no men love a good conspiracy more than baseball owners, and few are more practiced at enacting one. No longer allowed to collude over player salaries, the owners may have turned instead to a different kind of clandestine operation, one that, in the end, might systematically remove power and meaning from the commissioner's office. Says one baseball official, "The owners have taken very significant steps to render this commissioner a total and complete figurehead, and they have largely succeeded. It reinforces the notion that the person who occupies that office is not nearly as important as his constituency."
Occupying that office has not been nearly as enjoyable as Vincent once envisioned. Beginning with the earthquake, he has dealt with one crisis after another. There was Pete Rose. Bart Giamatti made the decision on Rose; but Giamatti died nine days after that decision, just five months into his commissioner-ship, and his deputy and friend, Vincent, was thrust into the position of having to defend baseball's most celebrated disciplinary action since 1919. And then there was the investigation and eventual banishment of George Steinbrenner—a messy matter that still generates new headlines every week in Vincent's morning papers. And, of course, there was the spring lockout of 1990. A tumultuous time, all in all.
The thing is, Vincent only came aboard for the fun of it. In a career marked by a certain serendipity, Vincent, a lawyer by training, had been president of Columbia Pictures and then executive vice-president of Coca-Cola, where he'd amassed a personal stake worth at least $20 million. When Vincent realized he got no kick out of marketing Sprite in Spain, he quietly left corporate life to pursue an interesting semiretirement—writing, teaching, a little law. But Giamatti, a good friend with whom he would share an Italian meal once or twice a week at Toscana's in mid-town Manhattan, had an idea whereby the two of them might have a little fun.
When you look at Vincent's career, it does seem a case of knowing the right person at the right time. He was a $47,000-a-year man with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1978 when he was tapped to head a giant movie studio. An odd move, but Herbert A. Allen, a major shareholder in Columbia, thought his old Williams College schoolmate a perfect choice to clean up the studio still reeling from the David Begelman check-forging scandal.
Vincent's equally surprising move from Coca-Cola (which had bought Columbia) to baseball was another result of the old-boy network. Certainly he wouldn't have gotten involved if soul mate Giamatti, the former Yale president gone on to caretake the national pastime, hadn't brought him on board. Of course, as Vincent tells you, they had long intended a partnership. Had Vincent found the right job for Giamatti at Columbia Studios—and he tried—the name Fay Vincent might never have landed in the sports pages.