SB Nation

Greg Jordan | May 31, 2013

The most exquisite game

An interview with former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent on the never-ending steroid era, umpires, replay, Pete Rose and what still makes baseball great

Commmissioners of professional sports leagues clearly work for the owners of the teams in the leagues. That’s their job — the owners sign their checks. But not too long ago, there was a Commissioner who worked for the game — safeguarded it, stood up for it, raised hell for it even if it meant standing up to the league’s owners and players. Meet former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent, an original Mad Man, a steadfast antidote to today’s company men.

What was the best thing about being commissioner of MLB?

No one ever sat in front of me.

What was the worst thing?

One freezing night in San Francisco when I decided I had to go inside to stay warm, the fans started yelling at me for leaving. One drunk guy shouted, “Hey commish, it’s a nine inning game.” He thought I was leaving. I’ve never left a game early in my life!

You wrote a famous memorandum to all MLB clubs in 1991 warning about steroid issue. It stated, in part: “The possession, sale, or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance by major league players and personnel is strictly prohibited. Those involved in the possession, sale, or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance are subject to discipline by the commissioner and risk permanent expulsion from the game.” Your whole basis for the memorandum was the violation of federal law. You’re a lawyer. And yet it was utterly ignored. Why? And, had it been heeded, how would the sordid history of the past two decades be different?

The letter was ignored because it didn’t affect the players. They were thoroughly protected by collective bargaining. But I wanted to make a moral statement to them and legal one to everyone else. The union told them to ignore it. The only way a change could be made was through collective bargaining. The union argued that testing violated players’ civil liberties. The union had strong, bright lawyers who concocted a bulletproof legal argument.

I knew the memo would be ignored. But even more surprising was that no one in the press covered it. It turned out to be right, though. Federal law, much later, would assert itself.

When I left baseball, there was no written policy on drug activity in baseball. It was pathetic, inept. MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent looks on during the 1991 Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on July 21, 1991 in Cooperstown, New York.
So what compelled you to issue it if you knew it would be fruitless?

I wanted to put pressure on the union to recognize I was correct. I failed; we tried and failed at the bargaining table, too. When I left baseball, there was no written policy on drug activity in baseball. It was pathetic, inept.

Where were you when the congressional hearings took place? What did you think as you watched?

I watched on television like most fans. I was stunned by the ineptitude of the baseball representatives, but more so by the absurd conduct of Congress. The ignorance by the Congressmen was almost matched by the arrogance of the union and the stumbling by baseball. It was not a good performance, but it led to good actions being taken.

Last month, it was reported that Commissioner Selig is so fed up with the cheating that he is considering even stiffer penalties, possibly lifetime bans. Why did it take this long?

In my immodest way, I want to believe something of what I have been saying finally resonated. If a player is caught gambling, one mistake and you’re out for life. Gambling thoroughly undermines the rules of the game. But so does chemistry. Chemistry is a massive threat to organized sports — football, baseball, swimming, and track and field — all sports run the risk of becoming a form of entertainment like professional wrestling. Perhaps in part because of my little bleeping in the night, I’m agreeing with him and he with me. Selig at last realizes this problem is a major threat to his sport. He had said the steroid era was over. He now gets it.

Until recently, the American public seemed to say that all it cared about was performance on the field. We have not educated the public that chemistry is an existential threat to all of competitive athletics.

Money, you have said, is not the root source of all evil, but at least of the steroid fiasco.

It is a huge problem because of the economics of, for lack of a better word, sports labor. How do you persuade young athletes, that, despite some modest medical threats 30 years down the road, the money chemical assistance can bring you is not incredibly attractive. I’m not optimistic there is a good answer. It requires a massive war, somewhat similar to the war on nicotine, but at all levels of sports, from professional down through youth sports.

The NCAA kids playing Division III football are taking drugs and weighing 290 pounds at age 18. I see it. I watch the DIII games. You don’t get to be 290 at age 18 having cheerios for breakfast.

It’s coming down to which team has the best chemistry department.

Elaborate on your nicotine analogy — the type of war this would take.

Most 18-year-olds can’t ever imagine being 50. You can’t force that imaginative leap. But you can threaten their “employers.” The colleges, and perhaps even some high schools, are inducing these kids into this life. The federal government has to frighten the NCAA and these schools — DI, II, and III — into thinking that there is real liability accruing here. If I PERSUADED you, a college president or athletic director, that in 30 years there will be a major class-action suit against you and your university, well, the school’s board of directors might be inclined to make some adjustments. Just for example’s sake, is [Nick] Saban putting on the balance sheet at Alabama an enormous liability — will these kids organize 30 years from now to collectively come back and sue their “employers” if they suffer debilitating and life-threatening health issues due to steroid use in college?

That’s the nicotine argument. Juries didn’t buy the tobacco industry’s argument that these people who smoked knew it was going to kill them. That did not eradicate the nicotine liability issue. Think of a jury being told by a Harvard kid that on his team 50 percent of the athletes juiced.

And you of all people still insist on the unique beauty of the game despite these sordid decades. Why?

One night I went to Yankee Stadium with Eddie Lopat and Bobby Brown and sat in between them in the front row of a box on a beautiful night in June. They talked about every pitch, every aspect of the game, what I should watch for, why this guy was not doing a smart thing. That night I saw baseball at all sorts of new levels. Nothing else I was likely to do was ever to be as much fun as those three hours with those guys watching that game. It’s still, in my book, the most exquisite game.

But its beauty depends on the rules; in fact, it’s all about the rules. Chemistry undermines that precise characteristic. Without the rules there is no game.

It’s still, in my book, the most exquisite game. Fay Vincent looks on before a San Francisco Giants game in the 1991 season at Candlestick Park
We hear this congratulatory phrase -- the post-steroid era --being thrown about to explain lower ERAs and fewer home runs. How do you react when you hear that term? Do you think it is accurate? Has the war been won, at least in baseball, or merely a battle?

I do not believe there can be an end to the "steroid era." The problem will be with all athletics permanently because there is so much money at stake that cheating will always be worth doing. The chemists will figure out new ways to mask the drugs and the cops will continue to fight the losing battle. To me the sadness is the belief the problem has ended –whereas in truth it is flourishing beneath the surface. eg Melky Cabrera last year and Ryan Braun et al. I think a major effort has to be waged to get kids to avoid the drugs --but how can we do that when the use of HGH can result in such major financial benefits? This is the threat to sports and the ultimate challenge. To lose it is to lose the essence of fair competition and to become like professional wrestling. Entertainment but not sports.

What’s your biggest wish, your biggest hope for this game you love?

That people have the wisdom to leave alone the parts that should not be changed and change only the little stuff that should be changed, and that they know the difference. I think there should be video replay, but to go heavily into it so that every play at first is verified is preposterous. Football may be on the verge of going too far. Why are we going to waste five minutes on that?

I do not believe there can be an end to the “steroid era.”

You worked in show business and in the sports business. Compare your work as head of Columbia Pictures with your time as head of MLB?

I loved the movie business, but when I got into baseball I almost felt I shouldn’t be getting paid. I was managing a public trust. Movies are great, but I just didn’t feel that way at Columbia Pictures.

Sports more than any other form of entertainment transcend generations. Baseball and sports are in a different cultural category. Though there are some overlaps, not many kids can name the first movie their father took them to see. The thing that makes baseball so wonderful is that most of us were introduced by a parent. That generational transfer is different from rock music, cinema, and any other cultural form.

Mr. Goodell just earned $30 million from his employers, the owners of the National Football League. Any word of advice for him along those public trust lines?

He should take the chemistry and concussion issues as seriously as he can, and he seems to be, at least on the concussion theme. His sport is threatened most by the mothers who do not want their sons to play it.

Who was the best entertainer you ever saw on the ball field?

Bob Gibson. He was the most dominating player I ever saw. Rickey Henderson in Oakland in the ’89 World Series stole base after base, totally dominating and entertaining. The greatest I ever saw was Joe DiMaggio for his grace. He did everything so beautifully and simply.

I still know a fair number of the umpires. They’re the hidden heroes of baseball. The hardest working men in the game. Vincent stands on the field before Game One of the 1989 NLCS
When and where do you watch ballgames today?

In my den. I seldom go to a game. I’m so handicapped now I need a lot of help. Nor do I get many invitations from anyone in baseball. I haven’t been to a game in three years.

I have the baseball package. On any given night I may watch three or four teams. Red Sox, Mets, Yankees, the same teams I watched as a kid in Connecticut.

Can you describe the events that led to your handicap for our readers?

When I was 18 and a freshman at college, my roommate locked me in my room in a prank. I climbed out on the window ledge to swing to the next window and get free, but slipped and fell four stories to the ground. I crushed two vertebrae and was paralyzed for months. As a result I walk badly and am limited. But I was fortunate to survive and to have had a good life. No complaints.

How did that change you as a person, as an intellect, and as a baseball fan?

I was a jock who became a good student. Because I was no longer able to play any sports, I grew to love the skills and admire the beauty of a well-played sport.

What does it say about the ethic of the game that people aren’t reaching out to you every spring training to bring you to a ballgame? Do you think your consistently firm and unpopular stance on steroids has something to do with your not being invited more often?

Life is all about today and seldom about yesterday. I am persona non grata in baseball, but understand how my enemies feel. I am OK and so are they.

In your writing and speaking, it seems like you are as much a fan of umpires as ballplayers. Tell us about your singular respect for umps?

My Dad was a football and baseball player of note at Yale and later an NFL referee and baseball ump in college and high school games. I remember him coming home from football games after he had missed or blown a call and it would ruin his whole week. One time in Baltimore, they had to smuggle him out on the floor of the team bus after he had missed a call. The fans might have killed him they were so irate. I grew up understanding the role of officials, and so I came naturally to like and admire the ump in baseball. Many are friends today. I went out of my way to include them in the baseball family.

I still know a fair number of the umpires. They’re the hidden heroes of baseball. The hardest working men in the game. And, along the lines of my conviction that the beauty of the game ensues from its rules, the umps are baseball’s sacred enforcers.

What’s your favorite ump story?

I asked Bruce Froemming, a senior umpire in my day, one time, “Bruce, when a player gets thrown out of a game, what does he have to say to get ejected?” Bruce looked at me without even a pause, “Anything with a ‘you’ in front of it!”

I remember when Lou Pinella and Gary Darling had a big fight in Cincinnati. Pinella complained about a foul ball he thought Darling had wrong. He said he thought Darling was on the take. The most severe accusation you can make toward an umpire. The union sued Pinella, and I ended up resolving the dispute. I thought the resolution was Solomon-like. Pinella paid money for the union to go buy a tombstone for former Commissioner Bart Giamatti, whom they loved. His tombstone at Grove Street Cemetery at Yale stands to this day as the witness to that resolution.

Who was the smartest ballplayer you ever talked to?

I did a series for the Hall of Fame in which I interviewed 55 great players. Of all of them, Warren Spahn was the brightest baseball person I ever spoke with. Enormous intelligence that he used to figure out how to be a great pitcher. I asked him who taught him how to pitch. He looked at me as if it were the dumbest question ever asked. He said, “Commish, hitters taught me how to pitch.”

In 2010, the Reds honored Pete Rose on the 25th anniversary of his 4,192nd hit. You commented on Rose's lifetime ban (which your boss at the time, MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti, imposed based on your findings) at the time by saying, “When the keeper of the Rules does not enforce the Rules, there are no Rules.” Yet the stadium was raucous with love for the man. Does the punishment still fit the crime? Say Rose calls you up for a beer one day and suggests you publicly forgive him?

The draconian punishment is totally effective and Rose cannot be excused. I will not be available to him. Ever.

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About the Author

Greg Jordan's most recent book was Safe at Home, a biography of Willie Mays Aikens, the fallen slugger who became the face of mandatory minimum sentencing reform. His screenplay about the first circumnavigation of the globe was recently optioned by Mono Films in Spain. He is at work on a book about the troubles in Juarez, Mexico.