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Friday, December 02, 2005

Where is Bowie Kuhn? And, Do We Need Him Today?

Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and Guillermo Mota to the Red Sox.

Carlos Delgado to the Mets.

Luis Castillo to the Twins.

Cigar Smokin' Manager Jack out to the tomato patch (err, that was Earl Weaver) or wherever it is that old managers go after they leave the game.

Is there anything wrong with any of the above?

The Florida Marlins are holding a fire sale, lamentable only because they've won two World Series since their inception, which is as many as the Red Sox and White Sox have won in the past 80 or so years combined. Instead of building upon a proud tradition worthy of the elite teams in Major League Baseball, they're more reminiscent of Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's, who were very good in the early-to-mid 1910's and perhaps had the best assemblage of talent ever in baseball from 1929-1931, when they had Mickey Cochrane, Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons and Lefty Grove, among others. In between the first two great teams and thereafter -- until Mack sold the team and the A's moved to Kansas City from Philadelphia in the 1950's, the A's were plum awful. Mack didn't have another means of income, so, as a result, he was frequently strapped for cash. As, it seems, are the Marlins.

The A's, terrible in Kansas City and viewed then as a quasi-minor league team for the Yankees, who used to fleece them in trades, got a new burst of life after they moved to Oakland in the 1960's, when in the early 1970's they won three World Series in a row. Their owner was a flamboyant insurance executive named Charles O. Finley. From 1972-1974, the A's ruled. They fought amongst themselves and donned fancy mustaches, but they could really play. Among their stars were SS Bert Campaneris, 3B Sal Bando, LF Joe Rudi, CF Billy North and RF Reggie Jackson. They always had excellent bullpens, where Rollie Fingers was the mainstay. Among their starting pitchers were Jim "Catfish" Hunter, Vida Blue and Kenny Holtzman. Those teams were fun to watch, even if their uniform combinations -- green and gold -- were not always pleasing to the eye.

But then a funny thing happened after Charlie O. had built his dynasty. The Reds got very good in the mid-1970's, free agency was on the horizon, and the Yankees were starting to resurge. Finley decided he'd had enough after an arbitrator declared Hunter a free agent. Strapped for cash by 1976, he started unloading players and engineered sales to the Red Sox and Yankees -- for cash. No players in return, just cold, hard cash. Star leftfielder Joe Rudi and ace reliever Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox and, for good measure, top-drawer starting pitcher Vida Blue to the Yankees.

That's where Bowie Kuhn stepped in. Sometimes derided for being a lightweight, Kuhn voided the deals. Finley called him the "village idiot" publicly and no doubt worse things in private, but Kuhn stood his ground. He invoked the "best interests of baseball" clause out of the Major League Baseball constitution and held his ground. Finley ultimately had to deal his players the old-fashioned way -- for other players.

Today's baseball commissioner is Bud Selig, a product of ownership (Kuhn was hired by the owners but he wasn't an owner himself), and he hasn't been wont to reign in any owners on any topic. Yes, he took a belated stand against the players' union on steroids, but only after a groundwell of public opinion and legislative prodding gave him the confidence to do so. Even then, there are those who say that baseball's newly enacted steroids policy is too lenient. Where's Bud Selig on all of this, and what should he do?

Bud, of course, has said nothing publicly and done nothing about this, and I don't suspect that he'll do anything with respect to the Marlins. He already has enough trouble with the delay in the sale of the Nationals, whom the other owners have kept afloat for years. One team is holding a fire sale, while the other has been a fire under control for years. The former is crashing; the latter is ready to rebuild -- with new ownership. Is all of this in the best interests of baseball? Is it healthy to have the Marlins go up and down like the Duncan yo-yos some of us snuck into school when we were in grade school? Is it fair that the Red Sox get to fatten up on some key players in this fashion (put another way, will we ever hear about the prospects the Marlins go, because it's not as though the BoSox, or the Mets, for that matter, have a great reputation for developing talent)? Does this fire sale help achieve parity in MLB of an NFL kind that some fans of both crave, especially because we'd like to see some perennial doormats get better?

No, the fire sale isn't in the best interests of baseball. No, it's not healthy to have the Marlins' fortunes go up and down like one's favorite yo-yo. No, it's not especially fair that the BoSox got the benefit of this fire sale. And, no, definitely not, fire sales hurt the chance for a fun sort of parity; they certainly don't help it. Oh, sure, there's the Darwinism to this, that the best franchises survive and that sometimes fire sales are healthy because it's the system's way of regenerating itself (akin to the notion that turkey vultures are good for society because they clean up nature's messes), but if you're a Marlins fan you might not come back again. You were burned once, and now you're burned again. How much faith are you supposed to have in the franchise?

Sorry, Red Sox fans, but I wouldn't have let the trade go through. Then again, I would have taken harsher action with respect to the players' union with respect to the steroids' policy too.

And here's why.

I don't think that for the overall integrity of the game closing ranks and putting on a bold front or trying to downplay problems is in the best interests of the game. Letting bad ownership get away with franchise-destroying tactics only cheapens the worth of the entire sport. It lessens some of the noble efforts other ownership groups have undertaken to field competitive teams each year. If I'm a good owner, I don't want this to happen, period. It cheapens what I am all about.

The same can be said about the steroids policy. It's good that the union membership didn't permit itself to get hijacked by an overall union theory that says that union members must stick together against management on all issues no matter what. The bad actors, even if they were stars, were cheapening the reputations of the entire player body. If you're a baseball player, you don't want people automatically suspect that your good numbers came out of a bottle (which some fans had begun to do because the Lords of Baseball and the Players' Assocation hadn't done anything about the steroids problem for a while). Yet, at least initially, by stonewalling because they're the most successful union in the world, the Major League Baseball Players' Association let the pall be cast over their entire membership, instead of isolating the minority of bad actors and enhancing the reputation of those players who do things the right way. Thankfully, the membership spoke up and directed its leadership to take a stand -- for the good reputations of most players and, ultimately, for the good of the game. In the end, to a degree, it was the players who didn't want to yet old-time squabbling over ever issue -- from free agency to the last comma in a collective bargaining agreement -- overtake a fundamental principle of life -- one's reputation.

Baseball fans have stuck with the sport through a significant amount of bad or absent leadership over the past 10+ years. When making key decisions, owners and players alike should honor them more and should remember that they are trying to build future fan bases as well.

And the last time I checked, instead of running the bases, a significant amount of that future fan base is kicking a ball on a field.


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