Commentary : Who Does Ueberroth Think That He Is--Boss?

Washington Post

Peter Ueberroth is driving them crazy. They made him commissioner of baseball. Now he thinks he's the boss, just because he is.

Baseball is accustomed to avoiding problems, usually for decades, though, sometimes, if the issues are big, for generations. Ueberroth usually solves problems in days, though, sometimes, if the stakes are big, in a few weeks.

For two years, while Bowie Kuhn was being drawn and quartered, baseball's owners moaned about wanting a commissioner who was a multimillionaire businessman, who was a dynamic leader and organizer, who was young and telegenic, who was independent of their ancient squabbles and beyond their power to intimidate.

Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. The day L.A. Olympic organizer Ueberroth became Commissioner Ueberroth, Milwaukee owner Bud Selig, who had headed baseball's search committee, said, "I came up with just the guy they said they wanted." Selig smiled. "But I'm not sure how happy they're gonna be."

The morning Ueberroth took office, the umpires struck. "Easy decision," he says, recalling how he appointed himself arbitrator and decided the issue almost immediately. "Baseball just had a bad attitude toward the umps. They're good people . . . working stiffs . . . underpaid . . . You give 'em a raise. Done. Next subject."

Somebody asked him last week what it was like dealing with the owners who elected him and now pay him, "Off the record?" he said. "It's Looney Tunes. It's wacko. It makes no sense." How about on the record? "It's Looney Tunes," he said. "It's wacko."

On his track record to date, it seems Ueberroth's First Law is that whatever the owners want, he's going to oppose. Call him Bowie's Revenge.

The owners voted down a sale of the Texas Rangers. Ueberroth unilaterally overruled them and OKd the purchase--a baseball first. The owners then upheld a sale of the Cincinnati Reds. Ueberroth overruled that, vetoing the purchase and ordering a further study of the new owners.

Kuhn, Mr. By-The-Book, tried for 10 years to rope and corral the maverick owners who'd built superstation empires whose basic predicate was that they had a right to invade the markets of competitors with their TV signals. Ueberroth said, "This is wrong. I won't stand for it." Everybody chuckled. Wait till he tells Ted Turner he can't make the Atlanta Braves America's Team.

It didn't take Ueberroth three months to extract an agreement from four of baseball's five superstation teams (including Turner's), which limited telecasts and indemnified teams whose markets were penetrated by the signal. Only the Cubs are still holding out.

Ueberroth has been called charming, brilliant and ruthless, descriptions he accepts because it's such a useful persona if you enjoy watching people step out of your way. It's widely assumed all three of these trumps were played in the back-room superstation deals. Of course, after dealing with the Soviets, maybe Turner just seems like a cream puff.

A fortnight ago, Ueberroth noticed that the owners' crack negotiating team seemed to be making its customary progress toward a labor agreement: none. Owners were undermining the process. The players union started to growl that if it didn't see a serious offer soon it was going to assume all this Era of Good Feeling stuff was cheap talk.

So, Ueberroth waltzed into an owners meeting and told them that if the players union wanted to see their financial books, then he'd order it unilaterally and immediately.

"I said, 'If either side says that's what it takes to get these negotiations concluded, then I'll order it. There'll be no discussion. So, get 'em ready.' "

Get 'em ready? No discussion?

Yes, sir, Mr. Ueberroth, sir.

For generations, baseball owners have guarded their sacred books. "The way we get it, Ueberroth's decision was pretty much of a shock to them," says union boss Don Fehr.

"We still don't know what to make of it yet," adds Fehr, who is fiercely determined not to take Ueberroth at his word when he says he's the commissioner of baseball, not the commissioner of the owners. "Let's see how open those books are and what they say . . . "

Ueberroth's been slapping owners in the snout since he took over. Now it's the union's turn to gasp. If Ueberroth wants the books open, maybe that means he's telling the truth when he says that 22 teams lost money last year and eight are for sale. Maybe the days on the free agent gravy train are finished. Maybe some rollbacks, like changes in the arbitration procedures, are due.

One high union source says, "Do the owners really know where this opening the books can lead? We may end up their partners. We may have to become part of their decision-making process, even have veto power over decisions that have traditionally been theirs."

The union might be as uncomfortable with this possibility as the owners. They've done very well playing the adversary role of nag and critic. It's easy to gripe and demand and threaten. Would the union like it on the inside if it were invited in?

Maybe Ueberroth really is going to make everybody mad. And make the game better. Maybe, in his own career plans, he only cares about the voters . . . ooops, fans.

The wonderful thing about Ueberroth these days is that, while most people in baseball are wringing their hands, he thinks he's on vacation. When he ran the Olympics, he had to worry about terrorists, gridlock and boycotts. Somebody even poisoned his dog. For a year, he says he felt "we had the country's reputation in our hands."

Now, he has to worry whether a bunch of rich players and richer owners will keep him on their Christmas card list. "I think baseball will survive anything . . . me and a lot of other people . . . because it's part of the fabric of society. But it may change form. The game has some real adjustments to make. Its economics are way out of kilter."

So far, baseball's owners are still in line behind Ueberroth. Not in lockstep, but not in revolt either. That's partly because, under the new voting rules that Ueberroth demanded before taking the job, he needs only a simple majority vote to stay in office.

"A large majority of the owners are in favor of him on this issue of opening the books," says Baltimore Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams. "Those who oppose him are not particularly influential."

Of baseball's owners, Williams is one of very few whose accomplishments outside baseball are on the same general plateau as Ueberroth's. How would he grade the new man's performance?


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