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Misunderstood?
E.M. Swift
June 30, 1997
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 deeply loyal?
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June 30, 1997

Misunderstood?

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 deeply loyal?

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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."

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