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This is an election year in Baseball. That explains why Ted Jacob, a friend of former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, put up a 14-foot by 20-foot billboard on Interstate 279 just outside of Pittsburgh touting THORNBURGH FOR BASEBALL COMMISSIONER. Can pie charts and infomercials be far off?
Truth is, baseball's commissioner search committee, which has moved slower than a game with Carlton Fisk behind the plate, cringes at such populist campaigns. The committee, comprised of eight owners, is working so secretively that it won't disclose even to the general ownership the names on the current list of candidates, who now number "in the high teens," according to Atlanta Brave chairman and committee head Bill Bartholomay. The search panel began with a list of more than 180 names, including such heavyweights as Thornburgh, former Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca and Gen. Colin L. Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Indeed, several committee members say that interest in the position is strong. Well, it does come with good seats to the World Series. Otherwise, it's a migraine of a job with lousy security. The next commissioner will be the ninth since the post was created in 1920—but the fifth in slightly less than 10 years. It has become one of those no-win jobs that some people still find appealing, such as being president of the U.S., mayor of New York City or a convenience-store overnight clerk.
Still, no candidate has overwhelmed the committee. "There is no clear-cut front-runner," says one American League owner. But then, the owners are looking for the perfect commissioner. And who might that be? " Peter Ueberroth without some of his personal negatives," one top executive of a National League club said of the man who was commissioner for 4� years beginning in 1984. Yes, it might be nice to have someone who actually likes baseball, wouldn't it? And while the sort of business and marketing skills Ueberroth had are high on the wish list this time around, the owners aren't interested in anyone who wants the job as a stepping stone—not after Ueberroth, who they believe used the office in a vain attempt to further his political aspirations.
"We need someone dedicated to the game, with no other agenda but to roll up his sleeves and get the job done," Bartholomay says. "We need someone capable of expanding our game and bringing it into the 21st century. There's lots of room for expanding our game in foreign markets."
Whoa! How about first waking up the bored and disenfranchised fans right here at home? The person to do that will have to be an amalgam of the best qualities of some of the previous men to hold the job. He'll need the business savvy of Ueberroth, the passion for the game of Fay Vincent, the square-jawed grit of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the eloquence of Bart Giamatti and—given the likelihood of a November World Series game in the expanded postseason format—the long Johns of Bowie Kuhn. Good luck. No wonder the office has been empty for nearly 10 months since Vincent, at the request of the owners, packed up.
Moreover, until recently no one seemed to be in any big hurry to replace Vincent. At a meeting of the owners last March, Bartholomay, whose search committee was to be assisted by an executive-recruitment firm, stood up and declared, "I'd like your input on who the search firm should be." With that, a search was begun for the search firm for the search committee.
The proceedings have moved at a crawl, in part because of a faction of owners who don't want a commissioner around to meddle with labor negotiations, which are expected to intensify after the season. Those fears apparently have been allayed by a redefining of the commissioner's job by the owners' restructuring committee, which recently submitted its report to the executive council headed by Milwaukee Brewer owner Bud Selig.
The next commissioner will not have the broad authority that ultimately proved to be Vincent's undoing. While the commissioner still will be able to act "in the best interests of baseball" with regard to maintaining the integrity of the game—especially in matters of discipline—he will have a more limited role in labor and financial issues. For example, he will not have the power to unilaterally order realignment, as Vincent did last year—an initiative that was withdrawn after the Chicago Cubs mounted a challenge in court.
"The powers have to be defined," Bartholomay says. That should please the dissidents and Richard Ravitch, the owners' chief negotiator with the players' union, who are so wary of a commissioner fouling up their labor strategy that a year ago they conspired to strip Vincent of his powers in that area.