Fay Vincent Gets The Last Word
This week marks the 25th anniversary of a 6.9 magnitude earthquake that hit the Bay Area just as Game 3 of the World Series between the A’s and Giants was set to begin at Candlestick Park. Erik Malinowski’s profile on Fay Vincent, the commissioner who led MLB through a difficult time as the area tried to reconcile the importance of baseball amid tragedy, is the second in JABO’s two-part series on the anniversary of the quake. Part 1 was Ken Rosenthal’s first-person memories as he covered the series and the quake’s aftermath in San Francisco.
In 1989, he led baseball through the biggest natural disaster to strike a major American sporting event. By 1993, he was out of a job. Even now, 25 years after his finest moment, MLB’s eighth commissioner can only wonder how it all went wrong.
Fay Vincent doesn’t get up for anybody.
It’s not born of some pretentious sense of self-entitlement or laziness or anything of that sort. If, before turning into his private den just beyond the threshold of his summer home in the woods of New Canaan, Conn., you paid attention to the waist-high rack of canes that stood near the front door, you’d know that Vincent isn’t much of a walker these days. It stems from a freak accident he suffered during his freshman year in college almost 60 years ago. An initially harmless roommate prank led to Vincent (a skilled athlete in both track and football) climbing out of a window, which led to a 40-foot fall. He broke his back and was left with a permanent limp that has always required a little third-party support. So he doesn’t much leave the house, either this one or his preferred residence in Vero Beach, Florida. Nowadays, if and when Vincent agrees to meet with you, it happens here in this room and from his large, leather, brass-button-lined recliner, a makeshift throne for a 76-year-old man who was once baseball’s closest thing to a king.
It’s an impressive yet cozy space, enveloped by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on two sides. High-brow reads such as The World Is Flat and To End All Wars are side by side with pictures from his days as Major League Baseball’s eighth and most accidental commissioner. Following the September 1989 death of his close friend A. Bartlett Giamatti, who served for only five months, Vincent was thrust into a position for which he couldn’t possibly have been prepared. And a month later, just when he was settling into the job, the most severe and unexpected natural disaster to ever strike a major American sporting event came to pass.
At 5:04 pm local time on Oct. 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake, registering at a magnitude of 6.9 on the Richter Scale, shook the Bay Area for some 20 seconds. Sixty-three people died, though initial estimates figured that to be many times higher, and 3,757 people were injured. The cost of damage to homes and businesses — some of which succumbed to unfit construction, others to fire caused by ruptured natural gas lines which would not be restored for months — went as high as $10 billion. More than a mile of the double-decker Nimitz Freeway in Oakland crumbled in on itself, killing dozens of people. A 50-foot section of the upper deck of the Bay Bridge collapsed. The vibrations were felt as far away as San Diego, 500 miles south.
And as the Pacific Plate slipped its way over the North American Plate — more than 4 feet up and 6 feet to the northwest, a mammoth jump not felt since 1906 — the third game of the first World Series to feature both Bay Area baseball teams was about to commence at Candlestick Park. A national TV broadcast on ABC had just gone live. Tens of thousands of fans had left work early — or just skipped it entirely — to make it inside by first pitch, and Vincent was standing at field-level. In the pantheon of crises, both in terms of severity and sheer unexpectedness, to strike a major American sporting event, the Loma Prieta earthquake and its effect on the 1989 World Series has yet to be equaled.
"You’re right, it was an incredible event," he says, as I settle in my own chair. "I would say when people see me or I’m giving a talk, the two things that they remember about me are the whole Pete Rose" — he pauses to find the right word — "mess and the earthquake."
The one truly memorable thing Giamatti was able to accomplish in his brief tenure as MLB commissioner was to effectively ban Rose from baseball for life, though it was really Vincent, with his keen, Yale Law-honed ability to negotiate his way through a confrontation, who orchestrated the terms and conditions of the high-profile exile. Giamatti, with his smoky baritone and roguish charm, was the public face of baseball’s leadership, but he and Vincent were a team. They were the same age and shared a lifelong love of baseball. In 1986, it was Vincent (then a high-ranking executive at Coca-Cola) who helped Giamatti, who’d grown unhappy after 10 years as president of Yale, become president of the National League.
"The thing about the earthquake that was so difficult was that it wasn’t the sort of thing you could ever prepare for or think about," Vincent tells me, that day’s Wall Street Journal still lying on his chest from when I interrupted the morning reading. "I’m from Connecticut, as you know. I’d been commissioner maybe about a month. Not only did I have to deal with the earthquake, but I had to deal with the fact that I was relatively new in the position. Bart had died."
Vincent starts telling me about the challenges and quick thinking that such a moment required. “Willie Mays was going to throw out the first pitch. Oakland had won —”
The phone near his chair rings. "This is going to be a problem."
It’s the morning of September 11. I assume it’s some reporter calling since he’s one of the few sports commissioners who’s ever had to deal with the chaos of a major disaster in real time.
"Fay Vincent!” This is how he answers every call; it’s as loud as he ever gets. "I’m great. I’m talking to a sports columnist from San Francisco. He’s sitting here with me now. … Well, I’m a polite fellow, so I’m going to talk to this gentleman. Would you call me back in an hour or so, and I think I’ll be finished here? … Thank you."
Vincent turns back to me before the phone is even back in its charging cradle. "Now, how about that. He says, ‘Would you rather talk to me or to this fellow from San Francisco?’ ” He’s from The Philadelphia Inquirer. Screw him, that’s rude!"
I ask if the reporter was calling about 9/11. “No, Goodell," Vincent says. "They’re all calling about what would I do.” At this moment, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is embroiled in the ever-growing controversy over Ray Rice’s assault of his fianceé-now-wife in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino. Video showing a more complete account of the February confrontation was made public only three days ago, and journalists everywhere have been looking for comment from the last sitting commissioner of a major sports league to be forced out of a job. His phone line is never free for long.
"That’s one of the problems of being — I think I’m reasonably polite," he says, "screw him" still bouncing around my head. "What I should say to them is, I don’t want to talk about it. All I can do is get in trouble."
I ask Vincent if he’s close with Goodell. Maybe there’s some kind of secret Commissioners Club, where all the past and present members hobnob in private. He’s not amused.
"The problem is that most of the guys who were commissioner, I think, really don’t want to say anything because they’re inhibited," he says. "Because I’m older and I don’t really give a damn, I am willing to take a point of view on it and tell you what I think. I’m not running for office, and I don’t particularly care what people say about me in the papers anymore."
He looks at me, still reclined back and with his left leg now crossed over his right, two white Reebok orthopedic shoes pointed directly at me, and his focus returns.
"Anyway, the earthquake … "
Before the clock hit 5:01 pm, ABC’s telecast of Game 3 of the World Series had invoked the words of two poets. The first was Bart Giamatti, who stood before a TV in the Austin, Texas, airport in 1978, watched his beloved Red Sox fall to the Yankees in a one-game playoff and wrote the following (which was narrated by James Earl Jones and presented in a Star Wars-ian bottom-to-top scroll):
Baseball is about homecoming. It is a journey by theft and strength, guile and speed, out around first to the far island of second, where foes lurk in the reefs and the green sea suddenly grows deeper, then to turn sharply, skimming the shallows, making for a shore that will show a friendly face, a color, a familiar language, and, at third, to proceed, no longer by paths indirect but straight, to home.
The second was another son of New England, James Taylor. His song "Hello, Old Friend," played during a slow pan down of the San Francisco skyline and the as-yet-still-functioning Bay Bridge:
Hello old friend, welcome me home again.
Well, I’ve been away but that’s all over now.
Say I can stay for October, now,
Stay a while and play.
In three minutes, everything would go straight to hell.
Fay Vincent had already made his way down to a specially constructed box down on the field level. Since you certainly couldn’t take any seats away from paying customers, the Giants filled in a bit of foul territory up the line from their dugout to accommodate Vincent and other baseball executives and special guests, including the greatest Giant of them all, Willie Mays, who was ready to head out to the mound for the ceremonial first pitch.
Mays stood alongside soon-to-be Hall of Famer Joe Morgan (then an on-field commentator for ABC) in the foul territory by first base. Then they both looked up and to their right as the ground started shaking. The stadium clock read 5:04.
Vincent was holding on to the railing in front of the box. His then-wife, Valerie, sitting behind him, was the first to suggest the possibility of a quake. It was the sound that struck Vincent. He looked to the sky almost as instinct, expecting to see Air Force bombers flying by. Instead, he saw pieces of the upper deck falling. Then the lighting stanchions went out. The Giants had no backup power on site and, amid this growing confusion, night would soon come.
Both teams rushed out of the dugouts and onto the field, fans started heading for the exits and emergency vehicles began coming in from the center field entrance. For Vincent, it felt like a slow trickle of information that grew in magnitude. But where could he go? What could he actually do?
A San Francisco Police Department squad car rolled up near the Giants’ dugout. Out jumped Commander Isiah Nelson, who introduced himself to Vincent.
"Commissioner, we have a major problem here," he remembers Nelson saying. "There’s been a big earthquake in this area. Roads have collapsed. There are fires burning. We have a major crisis on our hands. I think that the game should be postponed, canceled. If you think about it, we have 50,000 people here. The lights are out. This is a major event with roads down. I think we should get them on the road and get them out of here before it gets dark because we have no emergency light system."
"What is your name?" Vincent asked.
"My name is Commander Isiah Nelson. I’m in charge here of the police detail."
Vincent corrected him. "No, you’re in charge here of everything."
The commissioner explained that the game was postponed, which Nelson relayed to the fans still in attendance through his squad car’s speakers. He had only one request for Vincent. "Stay right here," he said. “Do not go inside. Do not leave the box. It’s really important that you be visible. I know you’ll be calm, but don’t go inside. As long as you’re here, everybody’s looking at you. If you remain visible, people will be calm. We’ve got to get them out of here, and I don’t want any panic."
And so Vincent stayed on or near the field for the next five hours. Nelson would come by and periodically update him, but by catching glimpses of the local telecast, thanks to the little screen on a broadcast camera near his box, Vincent could tell that matters were grim. Even the TV stations were on backup power.
Around 10 pm, some emergency lighting had been set up for a command center out of the stadium beyond center field, but Vincent was antsy to get back to his hotel in San Francisco, assess the damage and start planning for the possible resumption of the series, whenever that might be. Nelson offered to shuttle Vincent and other baseball executives as part of a police convoy that was heading north into the city.
Vincent, who was too young to serve in World War II, felt like he was being driven through London during the blitz. It was pitch black, the only light coming from headlights and the fires burning afar in the city’s Marina District, and volunteers stood at every intersection to direct traffic, hopeful that the oncoming cars would not run them over. But Nelson got Vincent back to his hotel, the swanky Westin St. Francis, without further incident. (One final note on Nelson: He and Vincent became close over the months that followed, keeping in contact from across the country, but their friendship was short-lived. Nelson died in a motorcycle accident in April 1990, and Vincent wrote a 1,000-word remembrance of him that was published in The Washington Post. It read, in part: "This man simply knew what he was doing. He was a professional. All of us quickly learned that he was better at what he did than we could ever be at our duties.")
The St. Francis was, like practically all of the city, without power and water. None of the toilets worked, and there was only one working elevator. Vincent’s suite was on the 15th floor, so he had no choice; his wife took the stairs. When he got to his floor, emergency lights made the hallway barely visible and Vincent had to walk even slower than usual. The experience was both unsettling and frightening.
While Valerie Vincent stayed up all night in the suite’s living room, her husband slept for as long as he could in the bedroom, awakened and somewhat startled only by the 3 a.m. knock at the door of a close friend who’d tried to fly out of SFO only to be turned away and forced back into the city. The only other sounds that night came from the falling of broken glass. The quake had caused windows all over the city to break, and the remaining shards were cascading to the ground from all heights throughout the night.
When Vincent awoke to do a live remote TV interview, the power was still out, the toilets were still broken and he’d barely slept. He couldn’t shower or shave; that he forgot to put on a tie, amid his myriad other concerns, would seem understandable.
Not to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who somehow phoned him at the hotel immediately after his live spot. "You were a disgrace," the Boss told the big boss. Vincent had no idea to what he was referring.
"You looked like a bum. Don’t ever do that again," he said. "You have an important position. You were on television. I saw you! You looked awful."
"George, where are you?" Vincent asked. Steinbrenner was in Florida at the time, enjoying his offseason. "You have no idea what’s going on here. This is third-world. There’s been a terrific problem. There’s no water. I couldn’t shower. I couldn’t shave. I don’t want to be indelicate, but there’s no toilet facilities. I didn’t sleep, and I didn’t put a tie on."
"That’s it!" Steinbrenner interrupted. "When you’re out on television representing baseball, you ought to wear a tie."
"George, thank you," Vincent said, "but this is really a tough environment. Why don’t you come out here and help me? I need some help." Steinbrenner declined.
Vincent, still tie-less, held a 30-minute news conference in the basement of the St. Francis later that morning. Candles were lit and spread about Vincent, who was advised by a confidant that he should be assertive and forceful, not to let anyone else speak and show that he — the commissioner of Major League Baseball — understood the pain of the city and that baseball would do its part. Vincent looked to history as his guide, like when FDR encouraged Kenesaw Mountain Landis to keep the sport going during World War II and how Churchill kept the theaters open as the Nazis bombed London. In his view, what MLB owed to San Francisco was to stick around and prove that the city would come back. There was little reason to act fast, and he figured that, with time, he would have a better chance of making a principled decision regarding the fate of the World Series. A quick decision would only be an emotional one.
In what ESPN’s Chris Myers later described as an "almost surreal atmosphere," Vincent announced that Game 3 of the World Series would be indefinitely postponed but that no further announcements would be imminent. Once the engineers had done their work and the city weighed in, then talk of resuming the series could begin again in earnest:
It has become very clear to all of us in Major League Baseball that our concerns, our issue, is a modest one in this tragedy. Baseball is not the highest priority to be dealt with. We want to be very sensitive as to the state of life in this community. The great tragedy is, it coincides with our modest little sporting event.
Unscripted and unrehearsed, Vincent had won over most everyone with his calm and reassuring demeanor. There were a couple of notable exceptions — The New York Times’ Dave Anderson was a particularly vocal critic, writing six days after the quake that the series had lost all "credibility" and that any resumption would amount to "just another television show fulfilling the ABC network’s baseball contract" — but the public and press were near-unanimous that the series should resume in San Francisco at the earliest appropriate time.
One man who was not supportive of that plan was Art Agnos, the mayor of San Francisco. Every other principal player was willing to defer to Vincent’s judgment — including Giants owner Bob Lurie, A’s owner Walter Haas and Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson, once a Negro League pitcher for the Oakland Larks back in 1946 — but Agnos was adamant that MLB was moving ahead too quickly. He was offended that bodies were still being removed from the destruction while Vincent lobbied for something so (in his mind) inconsequential.
While Agnos dragged his heels, rumors started circulating that Vincent was preparing to take the series out of San Francisco. The options were to go back across the Bay — for all the destruction of the nearby freeways, not a blade of grass was out of place at the Oakland Coliseum — or south to either Los Angeles, Anaheim or San Diego. The sod has just been redone at Dodger Stadium, and Jack Murphy Stadium was a longer jaunt. Angel Stadium was, by far, the best option.
But Vincent never had any true intention of moving the series, especially once it became clear Candlestick Park had emerged almost completely unscathed. (The falling debris from the upper deck? A desired result of the stadium’s ability to absorb the jolt from a major quake.) He also quietly maintained a close relationship with SFPD brass, who relayed to him that they could handle the World Series, even with resources stretched as they were.
Armed with this intel, Vincent set up a meeting at the San Francisco apartment of Giants general manager Al Rosen. He specifically instructed Lurie to keep quiet and let him do all the talking.
"Look, if the park is available, and the police are going to be free, if you make a decision that this is a reasonable priority, the message will be a huge one," Vincent told Agnos. "It will go out across the country to everyone who’s thinking about coming here in the next six months with their convention, and they’re going to see that the message is, ‘San Francisco is going to be fine. It took a real bad shock and it’s down, but it’s not dead. And we are coming back.’"
Agnos didn’t show any signs of relenting, so the commissioner played his best hand: "Mayor, you don’t understand. If you stand in the way, I’m going to have to take the game to Anaheim." Lurie, standing behind Vincent, could barely keep his mouth shut.
The bluff worked. Agnos begrudgingly acquiesced, and the series was promptly scheduled to resume Oct. 27. (Agnos has written that Vincent "threatened me with bad publicity" and that he only wanted to wait "until the last body was recovered from the rubble." To this day, the two men have never made peace over the issue.)
The Oakland A’s won Games 3 and 4 without much trouble. The unintended crime of the long delay was that it allowed both clubs, in effect, to reset their pitching rotations, much to the Giants’ detriment. Dave Stewart (a masterful five-hit shutout in Game 1) and Mike Moore (seven innings of one-run ball in Game 2) were able to each replicate their winning efforts one more time, and with Rickey Henderson (.474 batting average), Carney Lansford (.526 on-base percentage) and Dave Henderson (.923 slugging percentage) leading Oakland’s offense — to say nothing of the mere presence of the Bash Brothers, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire — the Giants never had a chance.
About the only remaining series highlight came late in Game 4, when San Francisco’s Will Clark went flying into the stands — and, by extension, Vincent’s lap — to catch a popup skewing foul. Clark caught the ball, the commissioner caught Clark, Willie Mays came darting in from who knows where to help out, and everyone came away with a good story to tell. (Clark later autographed a photo of his lengthy leap that ran in Sports Illustrated. It hangs in Vincent’s office in Vero Beach.)
"I was proud of what happened,” Vincent tells me, "partly because I wasn’t sure whether I was making a good set of decisions. You never know." In the days following the World Series, he was able to better absorb some of the reality that he had just led baseball through an all-timer of a catastrophe. The odds that a major earthquake would strike during a World Series that involved both Bay Area teams? There’s no plan for that. Everything had to be done on the fly, left only to instinct and the counsel of those he trusted.
"I think as people wrote about it, I got higher grades publicly — the David Anderson note early on was a footnote," he says. "There were people who criticized me. They said it was rude to the public and to the people who died and that I ought to have been more sensitive to the public tragedy. I was reversed. I thought the thing that was more important was Churchill’s example, don’t close the theaters.
"You have to recognize that, in a crisis, there are some institutions that have to survive."
I want to know, in those darkest hours following the earthquake and the ensuing recovery efforts, between backroom tussles with politicians and backed-up hotel toilets, if Vincent ever thought to himself, What would Bart do?
"I didn’t," he says flatly. "Bart and I were so close. Had Bart been there, I would have been there, too, and I suspect that everything that I wanted to do as the No. 2, he would’ve already thought of ahead of me. He would have been more of the professor, in the best sense. He would have tried to put the event in a historical teaching context. And some of the things he would have said, had he lived, would have been memorable because he had great gifts. And my little statement about how baseball knows its place, Bart would have done that and he would have said something similar, but it would’ve been more elegant."
"I don’t know," I say. "That was a pretty good line."
"It was a good one." Now he’s smiling. "But Bart was better than I was."
Francis T. Vincent Jr. took the name Fay from his father, the son of a Connecticut factory worker. Fay Sr. grew up poor in the working-class, Irish Catholic town of Torrington, some 40 miles west of Hartford, but he became a star athlete who went to Yale and was captain of both the baseball and football teams. He was elected to the mysterious Skull and Bones club, had a deep love of history and sports and rooted for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, rocking back and forth on the family’s screened-in porch with the radio on, a 10-cent cigar smoldering in his hand.
There are really only two points where Fay Jr. — himself a gifted and imposing athlete, standing 6 feet 3 and some 230 pounds by the age of 14 — differed from his pop: The son rooted for the New York Yankees, a lifelong love that grew from their annual pilgrimages to Yankee Stadium, the father pointing out unseen details, like the fundamentally poor footing of a first baseman, to the son. And the younger Fay, less than thrilled about the pressure of standing in his father’s still-lengthy shadow, didn’t go to Yale.
Fay Jr. entered Williams College in the fall of 1956, played out the freshman football season and had eyes on making the varsity team in his sophomore year. But then came the afternoon of Dec. 10, when his suitemates locked him in his room. This, in itself, wasn’t so bad except that, after having awoken from a nap, Vincent had to hit the men’s room. He could’ve just relieved himself in his tiny garbage can, but Vincent, thinking as invincibly as any college freshman, carefully stepped out of his window four stories up and tried to edge his way back into the suite through an opening a few feet away.
The ledge was more slippery than he assumed.
As he fell to earth, Vincent had the good fortune, it turns out, to slam into a steel railing about halfway down. The impact smashed two vertebrae in his back but, he’s convinced, ultimately saved his life. He survived but was paralyzed from the middle of his chest down. He eventually regained some use of his legs as the nerves began to regenerate and graduated from Williams with honors in 1960 (and, later, Yale Law School), but Vincent never again played sports.
After graduation, Vincent all but left sports behind. He made partner at a law firm in D.C., worked for a spell with the Securities and Exchange Commission and even became (thanks to an old college buddy) the president of Columbia Pictures in 1978.
It was that fall that he met Bart Giamatti, through a mutual lawyer friend named Peter Knipe, after the annual Yale-Princeton football game. The two men were of the same age — still only 40 — and enjoying their own respective rises to fame. Giamatti had became president of Yale only two years earlier, and Vincent would preside over some noteworthy releases at Columbia, including The Deep, Tootsie, Gandhi and Kramer vs. Kramer (the latter two winning Oscars for Best Picture), before becoming a high-ranking executive at Coca-Cola when it bought Columbia in 1982.
The two men bonded that fall night, and during many more that followed, over their New England roots and deep love of baseball, though Giamatti was a hopeless Red Sox fan. They were, in essence, perfect complements: Giamatti’s personal charm and gifted use of language, matched with Vincent’s nerdy mannerisms and analytical judgment. They were instant friends, a buddy comedy for the boardroom set.
Inevitably, no matter the setting, such as when Giamatti would fly out west and have breakfast with Vincent and some other film executives, the conversation turned to baseball. Giamatti, meanwhile, had grown restless at Yale after nearly 10 years on the job. Vincent, too, was itching for a change.
Though Vincent went headhunting on his friend’s behalf, calling around to big shots like Jack Welch at General Electric, it was Giamatti who called him one day in 1986.
"What do you think of me as the president of the National League?" he asked. A small-market owner named Bud Selig, who’d bought the bankrupt Seattle Pilots in 1970, moved them to Milwaukee and renamed them the Brewers, suggested he take the post. Vincent knew that Giamatti had been approached about the commissioner’s job a couple of years earlier, but he wasn’t ready then to leave New Haven. Now, he was.
"Is it a real job?" Vincent asked.
"No, Giamatti deadpanned. "The league president is in charge of umpires and handles player fines and suspensions. There may be some interesting race issues, some drug issues. But there’s not much more to do." Also, they’d pay him $350,000 a year, about triple a Yale president’s salary.
Vincent had heard enough. "I think you should take it."
"Then I’ll take it."
Two years later, when Peter Ueberroth announced he’d be stepping down as commissioner, little did Vincent, who’d since gone back to work for his old D.C. law firm’s new office in New York before negotiating Giamatti’s new salary and benefits package as commissioner, realize that his good friend would ask him to become his deputy. The position didn’t technically exist at the time. But Vincent came aboard, and the two of them ruled baseball from Giamatti’s first day on April 1, 1989, until his death exactly five months later.
The Pete Rose debacle was really the only lasting decision Giamatti had the opportunity to decree, and it was Vincent who handled much of the behind-the-scenes negotiating with Rose and his lawyers. The eventual lifetime ban — born of the MLB-commissioned Dowd Report that found damning proof that Rose bet on baseball games, including some involving his own team, while he was Cincinnati Reds manager — was announced Aug. 24 at the ballroom inside the Marriott Marquis in midtown Manhattan. Giamatti had spent all night writing his speech, chain-smoking and sweating his way through the words. The stress of the last few months, all of the criticism and public fighting with Rose and his people, had taken its toll.
A week later, while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, one last getaway before the push to the 1989 playoffs began in earnest, Giamatti was out shopping for a wedding gift for Selig’s daughter, Wendy, when he started feeling pain in his chest and left arm. Instead of going to the hospital, he asked his wife to bring him home and let him rest. It was there that he had a massive heart attack. Giamatti, only 51, died in the ambulance.
Vincent, who didn’t cry when his own father died of cancer at age 78, was crushed, and it was with a still-heavy heart that he took the call from Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad on his way home from Giamatti’s funeral service in New Haven: "Do you want the job?"
Vincent consulted with Giamatti’s widow, Toni. "You should do it," she said. "Bart would’ve wanted you to continue."
Two months later, the earthquake and World Series had come and gone, and Vincent was on riding a wave of public support. But nothing about his tenure would be easy or enjoyable. Even the lifelong goodwill that you would think Vincent had engendered in the greater Bay Area quickly receded.
Vincent returned to Candlestick in the summer of 1990 during a Giants homestand. It was "parka-weather cold," he remembers. Vincent could’ve sat up high in the executive box, but he liked being down with the fans and saw it as part of his core responsibility as commissioner.
"That took a little bit of courage because when you’re down there, you’re fair game for everybody," he says. "I figured if they didn’t like me, they’d say so and I could talk them down."
But as Vincent sat down in the front row and grew increasingly numb, he finally decided to bail in the seventh inning. "Let’s go upstairs and have a coffee," he told his group. "We won’t leave, but I’m going to change venues." As he was slowly stepping his way up the aisle, a rather belligerent fan singled him out.
"You’re a bum! Commissioner, it’s a nine-inning game. You don’t leave in the seventh inning, you son of a bitch!" Vincent stopped and briefly considered saying something, but the crafty negotiator who’d gotten Pete Rose to sign his own death warrant couldn’t readily defend himself. He could only mumble back something about the weather.
"It’s the seventh inning, you bastard," the fan said. “You don’t leave in the seventh inning."
Vincent was not a baseball lifer, and upon Giamatti’s sudden death, the 26 team owners had to grapple with yet another new commissioner they barely knew. Even with Vincent’s skillful juggling during the events following the earthquake, he still dropped a couple of balls.
One had to do with the $1.3 million or so Vincent pulled directly from MLB’s general discretionary fund and donated to various relief efforts in the Bay Area. Vincent saw it as a show of good faith that baseball was willing to do its part in rebuilding the community, but several of the owners, such Peter O’Malley of the Dodgers, were instantly annoyed that Vincent never bothered to ask for permission.
"That’s outrageous," O’Malley told him over the phone upon hearing the news. "That’s going to be $50,000 from my club!"
"Look, what are you going to get if we finish the World Series?" Vincent said, alluding to the half million or so in revenue that each club stood to reap following the series. "We should be supportive of the community."
"I disagree," O’Malley said. "I’ve never given $50,000 to anybody as a charitable gift. You committed it without asking me."
The Texas Rangers’ newly minted owner, George W. Bush, who had long been a close friend of Vincent’s, told him flat out (and much more diplomatically): "I think you did the right thing, but you should’ve called around."
Vincent also managed to tick off the World Series umpiring crew. By making what amounted to an executive decision to postpone Game 3, the umps felt slighted that Vincent didn’t walk all the way down to the umpires’ room inside Candlestick Park, amid all the chaos following the quake and subsequent evacuation, and consult with them first. Union chief Richie Phillips told Vincent he was "embarrassed by our guys" but that they had to file a grievance.
On the day the series resumed, Vincent hobbled into the umpires’ room before the game. "Let’s be clear," he said, "If the same thing happens tonight — if by some God-forsaken tragic coincidence, there’s another earthquake — let me tell you one thing that’s not going to happen: I’m not coming down here. I’m going to do exactly what I did. You may think you’re important — and you are important — but you’re not that important. And I can’t worry about you when there’s a crisis. I’m not going to do it." The umps got the message, and the grievance went away. (Vincent likes to point out that the umpire most on his case about the grievance, Al Clark, was fired by MLB, when he was caught downgrading his first-class tickets to coach and pocketing the difference, and later went to prison as part of a memorabilia scheme in which he falsely authenticated baseballs that he claimed were noteworthy. "Obviously," Vincent says, "some of his judgment was not terrific.")
The next big test for Vincent came in the spring of 1990, when the owners locked out the players, effectively pre-empting a player strike. Vincent, who strongly urged the owners to work with the players union rather than try to break it, got the two sides to eventually agree on a deal — raising the minimum player salary to $100,000, among other concessions — but the entire process both doomed Vincent’s tenure as commissioner and set the stage for a more inevitable (and damning) strike in 1994. Vincent had been marked by owners such as Selig and Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox as being too accommodating to the players’ wishes, whereas they wanted to smash the union beyond repair.
"Reinsdorf and others were very bitter because they viewed each time that they had made a deal with the union as a loss, and they really wanted the war. They wanted Armageddon," Vincent says. "They wanted the absolute final, explosive, decisive win. The thing that everyone missed is collusion."
Vincent maintains that the owners, both in 1990 and 1994, overplayed a hand that had been weakened by the collusion scandal of the mid-1980s. Owners were found guilty of conspiring with one another to keep player salaries down, and they were later forced to pay $280 million to players as a penalty.
"Now when you try and break a union, and you’ve done that, and it’s the same people," Vincent says, "the union is going to bring out [former MLB Players Association chief] Marvin Miller and all those guys again that were around when collusion occurred, and they’re going to say, ‘You guys stole their money and you’ll do it again, so why would they ever trust you with their business?’ "
Either way, Vincent was long out of baseball by the 1994 strike. There were countless memories that he looks back on with joy — becoming close friends with Joe DiMaggio, sitting at a ballgame in Baltimore with the first President Bush and Queen Elizabeth II, and so forth — but he also presided over numerous high-profile scandals. He issued a lifetime ban to George Steinbrenner, after the Yankees owner was caught paying off a sketchy, mob-connected informant to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. (Steinbrenner was reinstated two years later.) He kicked Steve Howe out of baseball after he was caught using drugs for the eighth time. He even shot down Reinsdorf’s attempt (Vincent has called it a "silly stunt") to have Minnie Minoso, then in his mid-60s, suit up for the White Sox for one game late in the 1990 season and become the first man to play Major League Baseball in six different decades. (Seattle’s Randy Johnson, wrapping up his first career All-Star season, was slated to pitch that day, so Vincent may have also saved Minoso’s life.)
There was no single circumstance that directly led to Vincent’s exit, which was preceded by a majority no-confidence vote from owners. The relationship between the commissioner and the 26 owners had long since deteriorated into tatters. Vincent’s news conference on Sept. 7, 1992, in which he described his resignation as being "in the best interests of baseball," was only a formality.
Selig, who was instrumental in bringing Giamatti (and, by extension, Vincent) into baseball, became interim commissioner, a title he held for the next six years. In the time that followed, plenty of people called Vincent, claiming that they were being looked at for the top spot: U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, even Texas Rangers owner (and close friend) George W. Bush. Vincent tried to talk all of them down, convinced that Selig wanted the job for himself.
I read back to Vincent something from his 2002 autobiography, The Last Commissioner. He wrote about a conversation he had with Bush, who thought he had a chance to be named commissioner.
"He told me that I’m still his man," Bush said of Selig, "but that it will take some time to work out."
"George," Vincent replied, "he can’t tell you the truth because the truth is painful and telling painful truths is not his strength. He has never been able to tell people what they don’t want to hear."
A few weeks later, Bush, finally sensing the wisdom in Vincent’s words, decided to run for governor of Texas. Apparently, I tell Vincent, Bush finally got your message.
"He was exactly right."
The phone rings yet again. “Fay Vincent!"
He’s deflected the first two callers — the second one was my local NBC affiliate in San Jose, also looking to talk about Goodell — but this caller is important enough to take.
"OK, how much do you need? … Go ahead, shoot."
Twenty minutes later, beep, the phone goes back to charge. He looks back at me through those familiar glasses.
"So, what’d you think?"
Vincent is not shy about his failures. He knows that he was underwhelming as a commissioner — his deftness in handling the 1989 World Series notwithstanding — but Vincent is not haunted by these shortcomings. Ever the analytical law school grad, he’s reflective to the point of being professorial.
"The tragedy of my life — and there are a lot of them — but one of them in baseball is that I was a failure," he tells me. "If I had been able to convince the owners that you couldn’t break this union, that there was no way in ’93 or ’94 you were going to take the union on and break it — many of them thought their whole future in baseball was at stake. They thought the union had captured baseball, that they were stuck. They weren’t going to be able to survive, as they knew it. They were trying to roll back 20 years of disastrous negotiations with the union. Marvin Miller had taken their jock strap, and they wanted to do it all at once. And my great failure — and I’m sorry about it — was that I was right, you can’t do it, but they had to try. And I wish I could’ve talked them out of it."
Selig was formally elected MLB’s ninth commissioner in July 1998, after nearly six years with the interim title. Toward the end of his time as commissioner, Vincent got some prescient advice from MLB labor lawyer Chuck O’Connor, who was convinced Selig was pining for the top spot: "He thinks it would make him a great American, a historic figure."
I ask Vincent if he underestimated Selig’s cunning, if he could’ve done anything to avoid being overthrown by the same people who brought him into the game.
"I probably could’ve done — I made a lot of mistakes," Vincent says. "One mistake I made was to think that if I got the issues right and made good decisions, everything else would take care of itself. That’s not true. I made some decisions that were absolutely correct, in my world, by my standards, but they were politically difficult."
And though Selig has stumbled through countless problems — the 1994 player strike, the rise of steroid use in the late ’90s, the infamous 2002 All-Star Game tie in his hometown of Milwaukee, the death of the Montreal Expos in 2004, even the Alex Rodriguez/Biogenesis debacle more recently — MLB has also enjoyed substantial economic growth (annual revenues have skyrocketed from $1.5 billion under Vincent to nearly $9 billion) and attendance and TV ratings are as healthy as ever.
For all this, Vincent does not hesitate to hand Selig every bit of credit he deserves. "He got the point, which is that little clubs cannot push for a confrontation with the union, and there hasn’t been one since 1994 and there won’t be one, if I’m correct, for a while," he says. "That’s a huge transition from my day."
Selig’s tenure will end this winter after 22 years, making him the second-longest serving commissioner behind only Landis. I’m curious how Vincent thinks history will consider the man who both forced him out and replaced him. "His legacy is going to be, I think, quite ambivalent," he says. "Some of them were very good moves, which was not to fight with the union. And for managing the growth and economics in baseball very well, not letting anybody make a stupid move."
Some of that, Vincent can appreciate, is due to Selig’s natural propensity for private victories over high-profile squabbles. "He doesn’t like public speaking, but he’s a terrific small-group politician, much more than I was," Vincent says. "He knows how to maneuver the owners. He kept the dissident group down. And although he had a fight with Reinsdorf toward the end that became public, he really led baseball well for almost 25 years, and I think the record is pretty good."
Then Vincent cracks a smile. "He was willing to do things I could never have done, but he got away with it."
I’m a bit surprised that Vincent doesn’t seem to hold any ill will toward the man who helped force his resignation. How do you get over something like that?
"I felt disappointed that — look, anybody who has a job, when they retire, you’d like the ceremony to involve at least a tepid applause," he tells me. "I don’t need a standing ovation, but I would have liked to have gone out with people saying, ‘There were some things the old guy did that were really quite good and we appreciate it.’
"The problem with my time in baseball is, I can only see it as a failure. I was not a successful commissioner, and that bothers me because nobody likes to fail. Now, you and other people of goodwill might say, ‘Well, you couldn’t have succeeded. It was impossible to keep them from trying to break that union. They wanted to get rid of you. They wanted Selig and they had to have him.’ Well, I say that if I’d been more articulate or more able to explain —"
He interrupts himself, now more resigned than frustrated: "I should’ve been able to sell my case."
MLB chief operating officer Rob Manfred, by virtue of his (eventual) unanimous election by the owners this past summer, will become MLB’s 10th commissioner when Selig’s contract expires on Jan. 24, 2015. Vincent knows him well, from Manfred’s start as a labor lawyer at MLB, and says he’ll be a fine successor.
"He’s a good guy," Vincent says. "He came into baseball with me, under Chuck O’Connor. He was his associate, so he’s been around."
One of Manfred’s strongest assets, according to Vincent, is that he’s been the behind-the-scenes architect of baseball’s most recent labor deals. He’s known for working well with the players union; unlike with Vincent, this is not seen as a weakness.
"He has a huge advantage in that he’s figured out that the game is really determined by the relationship with the union. He’s the expert. And he knows what Selig now knows, which is that you can’t fight them," Vincent says. "So the essence of his leadership will be, can he keep these five-year agreements going? What it really means is, can he negotiate two of them in 10 years? In that 10-year period, he’ll be a very comfortable commissioner."
Vincent doesn’t think the players union — now under the command of former first baseman Tony Clark, who succeeded the late Michael Weiner last year — will give Manfred much of a hard time despite the players’ share of revenues steadily dropping over the years. "I’m assuming that the union doesn’t want to upset things too much either because they’re still getting 40 percent of the overall revenue. Without a salary cap, their players are making a lot of money."
Even long after his exit, Vincent has often made his thoughts known on various baseball-related issues — the rise of team-owned regional sports networks, for example — but Vincent remains mostly a fan these days. He doesn’t make the 3.5-hour commute to Cooperstown anymore for the annual Hall of Fame inductions, though they still invite him. It’s just too tiring.
But he still watches baseball almost every day. Ever the Yankees fan, Vincent was mesmerized by the emergence of Masahiro Tanaka, though he says it’s only a matter of time before hitters adjust to that splitter. He’s also deeply bothered by the offensive drought affecting the game. "It’s tragic," he says. "I can barely find a .300 hitter on a major league roster."
Suddenly, we have a visitor. "Hi, Christina. What are you doing?"
Christina, who became Vincent’s second wife in 1998, walks into the den. She’s redoing the room a little and holds up this rectangular, wicker-like tray. "Is this too big for the desk?" she asks.
Vincent bristles a bit, but then he utters the only joke I ever heard from him: "Mine’s fine. I kind of like a worn-out — I need something that’s not perfect. Other than myself."
It was a pretty good line. I wish I’d laughed.
The clocks in the den strike noon. We’ve talked for almost two hours, and he’s antsy for me to go. I only have a couple more things to ask him. Pete Rose, for example. The All-Star Game next year will be Cincinnati, and the Reds-rooting public is already gearing up for what could be a very public celebration. Due to his banishment, you’d guess Rose would be persona non grata to MLB — except that hasn’t exactly been the case. If he shows at Great American Ball Park next July, it will mark the fourth time in 25 years that MLB has allowed his participation in an official event.
Selig, who has the option to pardon Rose on his way out the door, has shown no inclination toward doing that and has, thus far, said that any role Rose may play in relation to the All-Star Game will be up to the Reds.
Vincent, more than happy to praise Selig’s understanding of baseball’s economics, feels his successor has erred big time on this point. "The rule is, if you’re on the ineligible list, you cannot participate in a baseball event," he says. "Selig said to me one day, ‘My wife gets very upset because I get booed in Cincinnati.’ I said, ‘Hey, Bud, you’re not running for office. You think I liked being booed out there? It goes with the territory.’"
Vincent, who wrote a scathing op-ed in January to mark the publication of a new (somewhat sympathetic) Rose biography, certainly hopes Manfred toes a harder line than Selig. "Maybe I’ll have a chance to be involved with that," he says. "I would like to think that I’d get an opportunity to talk to Manfred and say, ‘This is not smart.’
"It has to do with being a deterrent. The Rose case does not simply involve Rose. It’s all about being a perfectly effective deterrent. If you steal a wallet from a car in Saudi Arabia, they’re going to cut your hand off. Nobody steals! Now, the reason nobody gambles in baseball is because the penalty is so draconian. You’re out. And you don’t come back."
I don’t see Rose ever being allowed into the Hall of Fame, I tell him.
"He doesn’t think he did anything wrong! He thinks it’s worse to do performance-enhancing drugs. He doesn’t get it," Vincent says. "The sad fact is, Pete Rose is not very smart. A good ballplayer but not anywhere near as good as he thinks he was. Tell me, what you think his lifetime batting average was?"
I say the first guess that pops into my head: .320.
Vincent smiles and stretches out the real number. "Three-oh-three, because he pinch-hit. He stayed around to break the hit record, but the batting average suffered. Nobody will ever break that record because you’d have to be a manager and put yourself in the game."
Vincent has talked so much about Rose over the years. It’s become part of his own legacy, but that’s old news now. Really, it’s time to go; lunch is almost ready.
Before I split, Vincent shows me an old photo someone mailed him from the Yale archives. It’s his father, in a Yale baseball uniform in 1931, standing next to his coach, former Red Sox pitcher Smoky Joe Wood. Vincent then points out a couple more photos on the wall above the recliner. There’s one with his father’s Skull and Bones class. (The actual skull and bones in the center of the photo is a dead giveaway.) Another is Vincent steering a golf cart around spring training some years ago with Ralph Branca, who served up Bobby Thomson’s "shot heard ’round the world" in 1951. Two of the game’s great "failures," sons of Connecticut and dear friends to this day.
The New England winters are too much for him anymore, so Vincent and his wife will head back to Florida on Oct. 15, in time to watch another World Series that (one can only hope) will be free of the kind of drama thrust on the Bay Area 25 years ago.
Ever the negotiator, Vincent, still in his chair, has a last request as I head out his front door.
"Just edit out all grammatical mistakes," he yells. "Thank you!"
An hour after leaving the self-proclaimed "last commissioner," I’m standing in front of the next-to-last.
Bart Giamatti, being the former president of Yale he was, gets afforded the privilege of being buried in Grove Street Cemetery, alongside other notable Yalies of history as Eli Whitney (he of the cotton gin), Noah Webster (he of the dictionary) and Charles Goodyear (he of the vulcanized rubber we depend on for our commutes).
You can’t find Giamatti’s burial plot in the cemetery’s online directory because his surname is spelled wrong, but you can find his wife, Toni, who died in 2006 when she was 67, and that’s all you need to find your way.
I thought of Vincent, a man whose life has turned on so many unforeseen and pivotal moments. Hell, one of them involved whether to pee into a wastebasket. Another involved his best friend dropping dead of a heart attack.
Vincent thinks the 1994 strike — the mere specter of which was but one reason for his ouster — was inevitable, no matter whether he or his deputy, Steve Greenberg, or Selig were in charge. I asked him if Giamatti could have prevented it, or was the strike truly in baseball’s destiny?
"I think Bart had even more of a restrictive view," he told me. "His view was, ‘I’m going to stay apart from the labor matters.’ You know what I said? ‘You know, Bart, the last Italian that went up on the hill and fiddled around while his city burned is not treated well in history. And you are going to be Nero II.’"
Vincent went on. "But the commissioner can’t go up on the hills while baseball is burning. It can’t be done. Bart, to the extent he tried it, would’ve come down immediately because Dave Anderson and you and other people would’ve been writing, ‘How can you sit up there, you silly son of a gun? You got to get down here and solve this problem.’ And the minute he started to solve it — now, Selig loved Bart. I think he really had great affection for him. But they would have come apart because what Selig wanted to do and what Bart would’ve done — Bart could not let baseball fall apart. And he wouldn’t have permitted that strike."
In other words, Giamatti would’ve been forced out, too, and then maybe Vincent would’ve been allowed to ascend to the throne, but maybe not. At any rate, revisionist history isn’t Vincent’s deal.
The last thing I wanted was for Vincent to tell me what baseball truly means to him. How would you explain it to a kid? My son just turned 1, I said. He’s going to have any number of sports he can possibly love. Why baseball?
I thought about Vincent’s answer as I stood before his friend’s gravestone, a man who once wrote how the baseball is "designed to break your heart."
"Don’t oversell it," he told me. "In the ultimate scale of things, it’s not that important. It is a game. It is entertainment. It’s not the same as homework, learning how to write a good sentence, being able to speak properly."
"Baseball is important," he added, "and baseball knows its place, but it’s important to know the place of baseball. So although it’s important for a kid to have a sense about athletics and being fit and enjoying sports, it’s also important to know that they’re not that important. Other things are much more important."
I walked back to my car and thought — coming from the man whose greatest moment in baseball had very little to do with the actual sport — that made a lot of sense.