A One-Man Error Machine

This summer a suburban Washington dinner theater is putting on the 1955 musical Damn Yankees. At first I thought, what fun, I'll take the children. Then, pulling myself up from the time warp, I had second thoughts. The children would not get it—would not understand the role played by the Yankees. The evening would just confirm them further in their view that their father is a fossil.

You may dimly remember the Damn Yankees story. It is Faust for the modern age. The protagonist is a middle-aged, unathletic but ardent fan of the Washington Senators. (Remember your ancient history, from back when the saying was, "Washington—first in war, first in peace and last in the American League.") The fan sells his soul to the Devil for one sensational season as a major-league player—a perfectly reasonable transaction, I think. In that season he (I am leaving out a lot) leads the Senators to victory. Over whom? Who else? That irresistible force, that Leviathan of the diamond, that Cadillac (another anachronism; today we would say Mercedes) of major-league franchises. The Senators beat the perennially mighty and therefore universally detested Yankees.

That was then, this is now. Then Whitey Ford was pitching and Yogi Berra was catching and Mickey Mantle was belting the ball out of Yankee Stadium's ZIP code (oops! that was pre-ZIP codes) and the memory of man ranneth not to when the Yankees were other than awesome. Now the Yankees are the worst team in baseball. Look to your non-laurels, Atlanta Braves. The Bronx Bumblers have captured baseball's booby prize. And the Yankees' owner, George Steinbrenner, is the worst problem on the plate of the Commissioner of Baseball, Fay Vincent, who must think the Devil is plaguing him.

An earthquake messed with Vincent's first World Series, a lockout delayed his first Opening Day, it rained on his first All-Star game, and this summer he has the migraine-inducing duty to sift through Steinbrenner's wonderfully imaginative and glaringly incompatible and completely unconvincing stories about why he gave $40,000 to an unsavory character who gambles. Steinbrenner is almost certainly innocent of gambling. And that about exhausts his innocence.

Steinbrenner is, shall we say, an acquired taste. He can be charming when his interests are not engaged and he is dealing with people not in his employ. The rest of the time, which means most of the time, he is hard to take in even small doses. Vincent, having engaged Steinbrenner in long discussions about rules and laws and ethics, must wince when he reads the title of the book his predecessor, Bart Giamatti, wrote about Americans and their games: Take Time for Paradise. If this is paradise, Adam and Eve were smart to leave.

Steinbrenner is a boor and a buccaneer, overflowing with the animal spirits that fuel capitalism in its rawer forms. Such spirits sometimes seek additional outlets in the ownership of sports franchises. Vincent is a gentleman and a scholar.

He is a graduate of Yale Law School. (Pete Rose on Giamatti: "He's an intellectual from Yale, but he's very intelligent.") It is said that the study of law sharpens the mind by narrowing it However, Vincent is a voracious reader. Trying to find a biography he has not read is like naming, say, the St. Louis Cardinals catcher in 1912: it is possible, but requires research. (By the way, the Cardinals catcher was Ivey Wingo.) Vincent carefully measures the words he selects to explain his measured responses to problems. In his delicacy and disdain for fiamboyance baseball's eighth commissioner is utterly unlike the first.

The Commissioner's office is one of those institutions that is (in Emerson's words) the lengthening shadow of man. The man was Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a Chicagoan with a shock of white hair over craggy features and a mail-slot mouth. His was the visage of an Old Testament prophet who has looked around and is not amused by what he has seen. Landis was a judge, and looked like one. (Big deal. Has anyone ever looked more like a President than Warren Harding did?) Landis was a grandstanding judge—in baseball lingo, a hot dog. The Supreme Court overturned his $29 million fine of Standard Oil (in those days that was serious money). He tried to extradite the Kaiser because a Chicagoan died when a German submarine sank the Lusitania. Landis enjoyed stiff drinks of whisky but handed out stiff sentences to people who violated Prohibition. But he was just what baseball needed in its hour of maximum need—the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal, the fixed World Series of 1919.

Landis delivered rough justice, perhaps more rough than just. Eight players, some more dumb than dishonest, were banned from baseball for life; nothing happened to the gamblers. Then baseball picked itself up, dusted itself off, built Yankee Stadium, put Babe Ruth on center stage, and rollicked through the 1920s. That decade was the dawn of broadcasting and hence of hoopla. It was the Golden Age of American sport—Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Red Grange, Knute Rockne, Bobby Jones, Bill Tilden, Man o' War.

A right: Landis became (with assists from Ruth and the lively ball) baseball's savior 70 years ago. From the owners he extracted an extraordinary empowerment for his office. A Commissioner may (note well: may, not must; it is a right, not a duty) take remedial measures against any "act, transaction or practice" that is "not in the best interests" of baseball. That clause is a huge grant of discretion. Like any such grant, it is a mixed blessing for the recipient.

The Commissioner's power is unconstrained, other than by the Commissioner's prudence. And it is unappealable, unless the Commissioner acts more capriciously than any Commissioner ever has. The sweep of the "best interests" clause generates pressure to use the power. The pressure often comes from people impatient to use fiats to cut through complex problems, sweeping like a scythe through procedural niceties. Nothing matches the impatience of a baseball fan fed up with his team's owner. No one is as fed up as Yankee fans.

The remedies available to the Commissioner acting in baseball's best interests run all the way up the escalation ladder to the expulsion of an owner from the ranks of ownership. But this power is like a nuclear weapon. Its only satisfactory role is as a deterrent. Using it today probably would involve unacceptable collateral damage.

Consider another analogy, from Constitutional law. The "best interests" clause of baseball's constitution resembles the "equal protection" and "due process" clauses of the Constitution. A willful judge can do almost anything he wants with such language—if he is indifferent to the damage done to the texture of the law and the stature of his office. But a judicious judge will exercise self-restraint. He will be a strict constructionist because judicial power is best preserved by being used reluctantly and economically.

The "best interests" clause has been invoked some 70 times in 70 years. It has been used to suspend a manager (the Dodgers' Leo Durocher in 1947, for consorting with gamblers). It has been used to bar two retired stars, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, from any contact with baseball as long as they were employed at an Atlantic City casino. It was used in 1976 to stop an owner, Charles Finley of the Athletics, from conducting a fire sale of players, a sale that would have instantly degraded the franchise. (Finley was furious about the coming of free agency. Blocking the sale did not prevent Finley from wrecking his team. The law has limits. The Athletics have risen from the ruins, several times. Nothing is forever, not even ruination.)

Now, would it be in baseball's best interests were Steinbrenner to sell the Yankees? Hey, ask me a hard one. Baseball is a game of inches but this is not a close call. Of course Steinbrenner is bad for baseball's grandest franchise, and hence for the game. But that fact does not entail the conclusion that Vincent should hurl Steinbrenner into outer darkness forever. A mere monetary fine would be derisory; permanent expulsion would be disproportionate; a substantial suspension—say, through 1991—would be about right.

Steinbrenner's sins are manifold and manifest. There is the scarlet sin of his transaction with the gambler. And there are the scores of mundane sins of stupidity which have reduced the Yankees to rubble. No one of these sins seems to warrant the nuclear weapon of forcing him to sell, however much that might make Vincent the toast of the Bronx (and, truth be told, of Steinbrenner's fellow owners). But there are precedents that should make Steinbrenner nervous, and it is in baseball's best interests that he should be nervous.

In 1943 and again in 1953, owners of the Phillies and Cardinals respectively, were forced to sell their teams, the former because he bet on games, the latter because he was convicted of tax evasion. But back then a franchise was an economic entity akin to a corner candy store. Today it is more like Neiman-Marcus. A difference in degree becomes a difference in kind. To force one of today's owners to sell, even at a fair market price (the Yankees would bring at least $200 million), might trigger judicial sympathy for any Steinbrenner claim that he was being deprived of property without due process. Courts traditionally have been wary about intervening in the internal governance of private associations. But in the current climate of judicial hubris, a judge can almost always be found who will try to fine-tune any controversy.

(Here is a pretty judicial pickle. Imagine trying to assemble an impartial jury of New Yorkers to hear Steinbrenner's case. "Tell the court, Mr. Prospective Juror, do you have any strong opinions about the owner who masterminded the trade of Fred McGriff from the Yankees to the Blue Jays in exchange for a couple of no-names? Stop snarling, Prospective Juror.")

It is baseball's double misfortune that Steinbrenner is not just an owner, but the owner of the Yankees. Damn them to your heart's content, they have been important to the game's health.

From 1926 through 1964 they had 39 consecutive winning seasons. (The longest current streak is the Blue Jays' seven.) In those 39 years the Yankees finished first 26 times. From 1949 through 1958 they won nine pennants. They finished second in 1954, when the Cleveland Indians (yep; you can look it up) set a League record with 111 wins in a 154 game schedule. If the Yankees' 103 wins had been, as such a total usually is, enough to win in a walk, the Yankees would have been in 10 consecutive World Series.

Competitive balance has been excellent in the last dozen seasons. Balance is better for baseball than the sort of dominance the Yankees enjoyed. But baseball benefits from occasional mini-dynasties. The Athletics and Reds were such in the 1970s; the Athletics are today. The Cinderella story of the 1990 White Sox is especially fun because they are challenging Oakland's gang of forearms: Ozzie Guillen against Jose Canseco—Peter Pan meets Godzilla.

It was good for baseball when the most glamorous team, the Yankees, had glamour. To be blunt, Steinbrenner's mismanagement of the Yankees matters much more than the mismanagement of the Braves. The Yankees, the source of so much of baseball's most stirring history—Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle—are simply irreplaceable as carriers of a tradition that lends derivative glory to teams that compete against them.

Of course nothing lasts. The ravages of time are lethal, especially when assisted by the ravages of a Steinbrenner. The Yankees were once, it seemed, one of those rare institutions that could not be ruined. Wrong. Such institutions are not rare; they are, because there are Steinbrenners, nonexistent. The Yankees had a huge market, a vibrant farm system, a fat treasury, an inspiriting tradition. And vet they were brought low by the 10-thumbed touch of their owner.

Madcap misadventures: Some serious folks from the Harvard Business School have studied the Oakland Athletics' current management. They say it is a model of sound practices. Steinbrenner could serve as the reverse, as baseball's dumb-o-meter: study his decisions, do the opposite, and you will do well. There is no need to rehash here all the talent-squandering trades, the morale-shattering tirades and other madcap misadventures that have made Steinbrenner's regime resemble Mussolini's Italy—despotism tempered by anarchy. Suffice it to say you can cover your Yankee scorecard with a slew of "EO" notations—error by the owner.

Baseball is so hard to play, it is extremely difficult to judge baseball talent. Even professionals make misjudgments. (Three of today's players who probably are headed for the Hall of Fame, Roger Clemens and Jose Canseco and Ryne Sandberg, were not picked in baseball drafts until the 12th, 15th and 20th rounds, respectively.) Amateurs like Steinbrenner should butt out. Steinbrenner should have been a football owner. The NFL's farm system is run by big universities. And how hard is it, anyway, to judge the beeftrusts who become linemen? Weigh them, time them, sign them.

But Steinbrenner is not just error-prone, he is an error machine. He is because he lacks an attribute essential for baseball (and, not coincidentally, for democracy): patience. Baseball is an appropriate national pastime for this democratic nation precisely because it both requires and teaches what Americans often lack: patience. (The American prayer: "Lord give me patience—and I want it right now!") Democracy rests on persuasion, which takes time. Democracy involves constant compromising, which means partial failure to get one's way. Democracy is the politics of the half-loaf. And baseball? The best team is going to get beaten about 60 times this year, and is going to be hammered many of those times. Steinbrenner has a football temperament. In the NFL, your team only plays 16 games, so if it loses three games in the early going, it is rational—well, by football standards—to slit your wrists.

The late Edward Bennett Williams, the Washington attorney who bought the Baltimore Orioles in 1979, had been president of the Washington Redskins. He had a football frame of mind. But after he spent lavishly and futilely on free agents for the Orioles he learned a lesson. "There are, " he said, "three things money can't buy—love, happiness and an American League pennant." One cause of Steinbrenner's downfall is that at first he seemed able to buy success. His swashbuckling impatience seemed validated by spending (for Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, especially) that helped produce the 1977 and 1978 winners. But baseball is a great leveler, punishing the impatient who throw money rather than intelligence at problems.

(And yet ... Perhaps Steinbrenner should keep control of the Yankees. The Yankees get about $55 million a year in local broadcast revenues. Some other teams get only $5 million or less. Perhaps Steinbrenner's incompetent squandering of his money prevents the Yankees from disrupting the League's balance.)

Steinbrenner will be punished by Vincent for his association with a gambler. And the shipwreck of the Yankees is condign punishment for Steinbrenner's utter lack of baseball sense. Alas, Yankee fans, too, are being punished. But life is unfair and the Commissioner can do nothing about that defect in the universe. And he can not make baseball blunders punishable offenses.

Today baseball is better than ever, on the field and in the front offices. You might not think so, reading the sports pages. Recently they have read like refugees from The Wall Street Journal—money, contracts, labor strife—and police blotters—gambling, drugs. But there have always been dumb and coarse owners (and congressmen and senators and journalists and . . . ). They have to be lived with, and survived. Steinbrenner will be.

It is said democracy is a splendid thing that the people who run it do their level best to ruin. Baseball is like that. But listen to the levelheadedness of George Anderson, the philosopher of the Detroits. (That is how some old-time baseball people talk—never about the Tigers and Red Sox, only about the Detroits and Bostons.) Anderson, known as Sparky in his capacity as manager of the Detroits, says: "We try every way we can do to kill the game, but for some reason, nothing nobody does never hurts it." Still true, so far, but stay tuned.

Will, author of the bestselling "Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball," is a member of the Baltimore Orioles board of directors.

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