Baseball: A field of dreams far from the game: Forced to resign as baseball commissioner, Fay Vincent knows a bit about politics and power games in sport. Richard Weekes met him

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND has been Fay Vincent's refuge for the last five months, a place to lick his wounds after his forced resignation from the job of baseball commissioner by the owners last September, a place to take stock, to write and to smell the roses. 'I'm a real Anglophile, though I'm Irish by lineage,' he says. 'I always had this fantasy of a long visit, renting a little place and living here.'

He and his wife's little place has been the former residence of Herbert Asquith, Liberal prime minister from 1908 to 1916, an old stone house in the sleepy Berkshire village of Sutton Courtenay, where Vincent can feel the ghosts of Churchill and other visitors in the rooms. The village is now overshadowed by the vast cooling towers of Didcot, but they cannot spoil the view from the library, of trees and flowers in bloom.

The 54-year-old Vincent has done some writing, not yet the book on baseball everyone wants him to, but a series of essay portraits of people he has known. 'John McCloy, a US diplomat and friend of Churchill, who told me how wet it was at the Marne in 1918, Joseph E Levine, the movie producer, George Bush, for whom I worked as a kid in the oilfields, Bart Giamatti (the former commissioner whose death in 1989 threw Vincent, his deputy, into the fray). They're all very positive - I haven't written about George Steinbrenner, or Pete Rose.'

He has also had a chance to look at our English games, at cricket and football, and discovered that, if sports are not the same the world over, their problems certainly are. 'Sport is a business, but it is more than that,' he says. 'There has to be some recognition that a baseball franchise has duties beyond just making money. I can see it here, with football. Is there a duty to the fans that's different from the duty to the customers of a bank or insurance company? I think there is.'

What most worries Vincent is the increasing recourse to law. The ludicrous award of dollars 27.5m ( pounds 19m) to Butch Reynolds by an Ohio court is the worst case, but it is by no means only an American disease. 'Look here, at Venables and Sugar, fighting in the High Court over Tottenham. There has to be a way of dealing with that within the structure of football.'

Vincent came up against the law last year, when his ruling that four National League clubs should change division, drew a swift injunction from the Chicago Cubs, whose parent Tribune Company was worried that this exercise of a commissioner's powers might lead to an attack on its superstation, WGN-TV, which broadcasts Cubs games across the country. 'And they were right,' Vincent reveals.

'Teams with superstations make it very hard for baseball to develop a coherent national television package. A lot of other sports around the world are going to have these problems.' Silvio Berlusconi's dream of a breakaway European Superleague showing on his Canale Cinque springs to mind.

It is hard to square this figure in an armchair puffing contentedly on a cigar with what certain owners said of him last year. 'Egotistical, power-hungry and untrustworthy,' Jackie Autry, of the California Angels, said. Perhaps he agrees with what one of his sacked predecessors, Happy Chandler, said of the owners: 'The hardest-headed set of ignoramuses you'd ever want to meet. . .greedy, short-sighted and stupid.'

Vincent swims past the bait: 'I like the line of Stanley Baldwin, 'When you're no longer captain of the ship, you don't spit on the deck or give instructions to the helmsman.' It's a pretty good motto.'

Nevertheless he draws satisfaction from seeing that the strategy of the hardline owners like Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox - getting rid of the commissioner to give the owners a free hand to 'go to war' on the union - has failed. 'The owners say they are losing money, but four new owners paid around dollars 100m each to buy franchises last year, and then spent a fortune on players. So the players' union will say, 'Look, if any of you are sick, just find four more guys like those.' It's hard to disagree with that.'

Positions of power seem to have sought Vincent, rather than the reverse. Fifteen years ago he was summoned from his job as a Washington lawyer to run Columbia Pictures, riven at the time by a fraud scandal. Four years later the cleaned-up firm was sold to Coca- Cola for dollars 692m, and after six years with the new owners, Vincent was invited to join the Yale University president Giamatti in the commissioner's office.

The following September Giamatti died of a heart attack, so it was the domed forehead of Vincent that became the focal point of candle-lit press conferences after the San Francisco earthquake World Series, and whose order of a 10-day interregnum for 'our modest little game' won wide respect.

Today his English interregnum ends. But as he returns to America, his love for the game appears to have survived the events of last year. 'One of the joys of being in England is its history,' he says. 'They say the green here has been the centre of the village for 1,000 years. Baseball, too, will be around for a long time, but this may not be one of its better moments.'

(Photograph omitted)

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