Baseball: The Congress factor affects appointment: Politics the key for new commissioner

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The Independent Online
IF THE major league owners manage to elect a new commissioner at their meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which starts today, they will be more concerned to see how the new figurehead goes down in Congress than among the game's officials, players and fans.

Ever since Fay Vincent was drummed out of office in September 1992 for daring to act against the owners' interests, several congressmen have threatened to revoke baseball's anti-trust exemption - which enshrines the game's monopoly rights - unless a strong person, independent of the owners, were elected as the sport's supremo.

So when the name of Arnold Weber, the 64-year-old president of Northwestern University in Chicago, was leaked last month as one of the final shortlist, his status as an academic, distant from the game, was held in his favour. An economist and expert in labour relations, Weber served as an adviser to five US Presidents. While his White House clout would be useful in fending off unfriendly moves in Congress, his labour relations skills would be at a premium with plans for an extra round of play-offs this season stalled over players' union demands, and the owners trying to persuade the players to accept a salary cap as part of a new labour agreement.

However, upon closer examination, Weber is not quite the impartial outsider. As a director of the Tribune company in Chicago, he was intimately implicated in the controversy surrounding Vincent's removal. Tribune owns both the Chicago Cubs and the cable superstation, WGN, whose interests were threatened by Vincent's unilateral order to realign the Cubs into the National League West in 1992. The Cubs won a restraining order and shortly afterwards the owners passed the fatal vote of no confidence in Vincent. Furthermore, Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the other Chicago team, the White Sox, and an anti-Vincent ringleader, is on the board of trustees of Northwestern University.

The other leading candidate is thought to be Harvey Schiller, executive director of the US Olympic committee, which lists George Steinbrenner, the dictatorial owner of the New York Yankees, among its members. Also shortlisted, are George Mitchell, the Democrat senator for Maine, and Paul Kirk, the Democrat's former national chairman. The new commissioner needs approval from 21 of baseball's 28 owners.