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THE STEINBRENNER PROBE
Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent is expected to announce next week what action, if any, he will take against New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who has been under investigation by the commissioner's office for possibly violating baseball rules through conduct "not in the best interests" of the sport. Vincent could fine or suspend Steinbrenner, or even order him to sell the Yankees—though speculation among insiders last week was that Steinbrenner may be headed for a two-year ban.
Baseball launched its investigation in March, after Steinbrenner admitted he had paid $40,000 two months earlier to Howard Spira, 31, a self-described former gambler from the Bronx. Spira says Steinbrenner gave him the money in exchange for damaging information about former Yankee outfielder Dave Winfield, with whom Steinbrenner has long feuded. Spira claims he had dirt on Winfield—who was traded to the California Angels in May—because he had once worked for the David M. Winfield Foundation, a charitable organization founded by Winfield. If Spira and Steinbrenner did engage in such an unseemly quid pro quo, that alone may be grounds for Steinbrenner to be suspended.
Steinbrenner has offered several explanations for paying Spira. He initially said he was just trying to help Spira out. He later said he gave Spira money so he wouldn't go public with embarrassing information about former Yankee employees. Spira claims to have damaging information about Winfield and Steinbrenner, and may yet air some of that in U.S. District Court in New York City. He is awaiting trial there on charges that he tried to extort money from Steinbrenner and threatened to harm Winfield and Steinbrenner. Spira has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The Spira payment is not the only issue in the Steinbrenner case. Baseball has looked into Steinbrenner's other efforts—some alleged, some well established—to disparage and discredit Winfield. Almost from the moment Winfield signed a 10-year contract with the Yankees in December 1980, he and Steinbrenner have butted heads. Some say Steinbrenner has harbored a grudge because he vastly underestimated the value of Winfield's contract, which constantly escalated because of a cost-of-living clause. The deal, which barred the Yankees from trading Winfield without his permission, is said to have ultimately cost Steinbrenner $23 million.
During the 1980s Winfield sued Steinbrenner three times to force him to make contractually required payments to the Winfield Foundation. Last year Steinbrenner answered with counterclaims that the foundation was mismanaged and that Winfield hadn't contributed as much as he was contractually obliged to, either. In a settlement last September, Winfield admitted that certain moneys had been "inappropriately expended" and also paid $229,667 in delinquent contributions.
Sources close to the commissioner's office and the Yankees have told SI that Steinbrenner went to extremes to try to diminish Winfield's reputation, even being so petty as to keep Winfield's photo off the cover of programs and year-books. " Winfield is no angel," said one source close to the commissioner's office, "but the kind of stuff Steinbrenner was doing to this kid was most insidious." Another source close to the commissioner's office says that for years Steinbrenner called the commissioner regularly to level a "barrage" of broad, sometimes "bizarre" charges against Winfield and the Winfield Foundation, none of which baseball could substantiate. "I can't understand the bitterness of the man," the source said of Steinbrenner. "The man is incessantly bitter."
Steinbrenner even lodged allegations against Winfield and the foundation with investigative authorities. Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau told SI that in 1987 the Yankees notified his office of possible tax improprieties involving the foundation. Morgenthau looked into the matter, but closed the case without filing any criminal charges.
Baseball sources told SI that Steinbrenner has also suggested to the commissioner's office that Winfield has consorted with gamblers and perhaps bet on baseball. Winfield denies betting on his sport or consorting with gamblers; one of the baseball sources told SI that the commissioner's office looked into gambling allegations against Winfield and found nothing. Winfield admits lending Spira $15,000 in 1981; Spira has said he needed the money to pay off gambling debts, including baseball-betting debts, and that Winfield knew that. Winfield says that at the time he had no knowledge that Spira was a gambler.
In an echo of the Pete Rose case, Steinbrenner's side reportedly plans to sue baseball if Steinbrenner is suspended. The grounds for such a suit may have been heard in grumblings last week by sources close to Steinbrenner that their man isn't getting a fair shake from Vincent and his special counsel, John Dowd, who directed both the Steinbrenner and Rose probes. But Steinbrenner seems to have received ample opportunity to defend himself. When Dowd presented a summary of his findings to Vincent last month, he gave Steinbrenner's side all the documents, including phone records, letters, memos and transcripts of interviews, from which the report was prepared.