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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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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.

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 spoils, 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.

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