Ever since he replaced Fay Vincent in the palace coup of 1992, baseball commissioner Bud Selig has been tagged a passive company man, more mope than Machiavelli. This off-season, however, Selig's office floated a flurry of trial balloons on everything from a proposed competitive-balance draft, which would shift players from top teams to underperforming clubs, to a crackdown by umps on head-hunting pitchers. Among fans and the media, reaction to the flow of ideas has ranged from puzzlement—World Series home field advantage being given to the league that wins the All-Star Game?—to apoplexy at the thought of Randy Johnson being tossed for a little chin music.
So how serious was Selig about this reform movement? The answer became clearer with reports last week that the commissioner's office had issued a gag order, threatening a $1 million fine to any owner who publicly discusses labor issues. Understand that the most pressing matter facing baseball isn't whether to fiddle with the All-Star format. It's the lockout looming at the end of the season, when the collective bargaining agreement expires. Last summer Selig called the widening financial gap between baseball's haves and have-nots "my number one priority," and it's certain to dominate the upcoming labor negotiations. The recent spate of high-profile proposals has helped direct attention away from these sticky problems.
Take last week's memo from Selig's right-hand man, Sandy Alderson, to big league umpires reinforcing their power to eject a pitcher without warning if they determine that he intended to hit a batter. The edict resurrected the hottest of 2000's hot-button issues and made Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza fresh news. "You don't have that many incidents during a season when someone throws at a batter's head," says Angels righthander Tim Belcher, "but the few incidents become magnified."
All the better to shift the focus from the negotiating table. The expiration of each of the eight previous basic agreements has resulted in a work stoppage, and much of the acrimony at the root of baseball's labor wars has been caused by public potshots taken by one camp at the other before and during negotiations. Selig's gag order—along with intimations from the union that it will also hush up—suggests that this year's talks will be conducted on the Q.T. That means the details of revenue sharing and salary cap proposals (anathema to owners and players, respectively) won't come up for public dissection.
"It's been a circus," Selig has said of past negotiations. "You got updates at 10 o'clock, at noon, at 2. We're not going to do that anymore. We're going to do it quietly. When we start, nobody will know?' Here's hoping they already have.