Baseball: Vincent the victim of owners' power-play: Richard Weekes and John Lichfield in Washington report on the vanishing point for a baseball commissioner

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The Independent Online
FAY VINCENT, who resigned on Monday, may go down in history as baseball's last independent commissioner. The group of owners who staged their power-play by passing a vote of no-confidence in his leadership last week plans to restructure the sport to bring it much more under their thumb.

The executive committee will meet in St Louis today to decide what to do next. They are expected to appoint a caretaker commissioner, at most. There will be pressure from the clubs to, in effect, abolish his job and replace it with a weaker position. Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox and a prime instigator of the owners' coup, has said he would like to see a chief executive officer answering directly to the 28 owners.

Carl Pohlad, owner of the Minnesota Twins, said: 'Baseball is a big business. And when you have a big business the person in charge . . . assumes the responsibility of operating the business under guidelines in force. Fay Vincent did not always do that.'

In other words, the man who runs baseball must obey the instructions signalled from the sidelines by the game's owners. This is a fundamental rewriting of the commissioner's job description and suggests further vicious battles ahead.

Vincent's first reaction to last Thursday's vote was to fight on 'to the highest court of this land'. But after a weekend spent pondering his position, he resigned to save the sport from a protracted legal battle.

A shy man, the 54-year-old Vincent showed little aptitude for political horse-trading. He believed the commissioner was somehow above the fray, that he could tread on any number of toes without need to maintain his political base. 'The commissioner cannot keep the best interests of the game in sight,' he once said, 'if he consistently has one eye on his popularity rankings among the owners.'

The immediate pretext for last Thursday's 18-9 vote of no-confidence was his decision on 6 July to order the realignment of the National League from next season, overriding the Chicago Cubs' right of veto. The NL clubs had voted

13-1 for the change, with only the Cubs against, but many were angered by the way Vincent ignored the National League rulebook, citing his right to act, according to the Major League Agreement, 'in the best interests of baseball'.

Behind the Cubs' veto lay the fear of the team's Tribune Company owners that its TV station, WGN-TV, would lose advertising revenue if more Cubs away games were played in the Pacific region, outside East Coast prime-time. The Cubs gained a temporary injunction blocking realignment in a Chicago court on 21 July.

Vincent upset American League clubs, too. In July, he carpeted two New York Yankees officials who had dared to criticise as too harsh his lifetime ban on Steve Howe, the Yankees pitcher, for his seventh drug offence. Later, Vincent admitted his mistake.

But what brought the majority of owners into the anti-Vincent camp was their growing feeling that he, their employee, was not defending their interests. His oft-stated remark that his job was to protect fans' and players' interests as well as owners' stuck in their gullet.

Many owners have been hurt by the recession. With gates down, CBS losing money on its current dollars 1.5bn television contract, and the prospect of a much lower sum for the next one, the owners are in a mood to take on the players in the winter to halt the salary spiral.

The players' union believes the owners are set on a long lock-out in the spring. Richie Phillips, the head of the umpires' union, said: 'I think it's a signal to the players that the owners have a very strong intention to close this game down for a long time and they were afraid Fay would stop them.'

Vincent's removal was universally mourned by baseball players. Unlike any previous commissioner, Vincent often strolled into dressing-rooms and dug-outs before games, chatting with players, managers and umpires.

Thomas Boswell, respected columnist for the Washington Post, said Vincent's removal was 'profoundly unjust'. 'What sort of men would force a man like Fay Vincent to resign from office?' he wrote. 'What sort of people would disguise their selfish motives so they could create a curtain of spurious slanders behind which to do their work?'