A Boss Deep In His Own Dirt

Please judge me on my record in the past," George Steinbrenner III said last week, seeking to explain his value to baseball. Could he be joking? The record is precisely why the beleaguered Yankees owner now stands on the brink of banishment from the game.

Steinbrenner is under investigation by Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent for paying $40,000 in January to Howard Spira, a confessed gambler. Spira alleges he got the money in return for "dirt" on Dave Winfield, then a Yankee with whom Steinbrenner was feuding. Steinbrenner says different things about the money: he paid it "out of goodness of my heart"; he paid it because Spira threatened to disclose damaging details about Yankee employees; he paid it after Spira threatened him and his family. Earlier this month the commissioner held what were intended to be private hearings to determine if Steinbrenner's conduct was "not in the best interests of baseball." But transcripts of the testimony were leaked last Wednesday, and the affair quickly became a media sideshow. TOSS THE BOSS and THE TIME FOR KNOCKOUT PUNCH, drooled the New York tabloids.

Vincent, who was at his Cape Cod summer home last week considering Steinbrenner's case, told NEWSWEEK that he will rule by July 27. As commissioner--a job with enormous disciplinary power--Vincent can fine Steinbrenner up to $250,000 for each offense he may uncover, and can suspend him or expel him from baseball. Vincent's only standard is the vague "best interests" language of the Major League Agreement that governs baseball. Steinbrenner knows all about it: he was suspended for two years in 1974 after pleading guilty to a charge of conspiracy to make illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon. Only twice before have owners been ejected for all time. In 1943 Bill Cox was forced to sell the Philadelphia Phillies after the commissioner ruled he had bet on games. Ten years later Fred Saigh of the St. Louis Cardinals was booted after a tax-fraud conviction.

Judging by the vitriol about Steinbrenner in the media, the public hopes that Vincent hangs him high. Steinbrenner, the object of scorn for much of his 17-year tenure, senses the mob mentality; he's even suggested (and then, of course, change his mind) that the commissioner lacks an open mind and has too much authority. Vincent says he will judge Steinbrenner only on the Spira-Winfield specifics, rather than on his "overall stewardship" of the Yankees. But with the public disgust for Steinbrenner, is that possible? Can a decision maker, however well intentioned, ignore that the man in the dock is widely regarded as a creep? That concerns even those with no sympathy for Steinbrenner. "I have no brief for George," says Norman Dorsen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union (and a Mets fan). "But is he about to be punished for the wrong thing?"

Paying $40,000 to Howard Spira was a monumental blunder--even Steinbrenner acknowledges that. From the transcripts, though, it's probably as clear that Steinbrenner did so for reasons unrelated to the dark world of gambling that so petrifies baseball. Stupid? Yes. A capital offense? Hardly. Steinbrenner's critics seem to be using the incident as an excuse to drive him away from the Yankees--maybe not the worst idea, given the team's sorry performance in recent years. Instead, they might consider the more honest tack of simply arguing that George himself is not in the best interests of the game. They might want to resurrect the proposal first raised in 1984 by Herbert Gans, the Columbia University sociologist. Gans suggested that the City of New York invoke its power of eminent domain and take over the Yankees. Unless Steinbrenner ran for mayor, the locals would never have to fret again.