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Playing Hardball

Jerry Reinsdorf got Michael Jordan back playing basketball, but the federal courts stymied his assault on baseball's economics.
Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

Drinking and dousing each other with cheap American sparkling wine, the Chicago Bulls were a happy bunch that 1991 night in Los Angeles. They were NBA champs for the first time, and amid these frenzied giants, screaming trash about a dynasty in the making, team owner Jerry Reinsdorf seemed strangely out of place navigating through bursts of bubbly. But as usual, Reinsdorf was on a mission. Armed with a box of Davidoffs, and feeling charitable that night, he felt compelled to introduce his superstar Michael Jordan to premium cigar smoking.

"Cigars are symbolic of celebration, and since Michael was new to smoking, I had to offer him the best," recalls Reinsdorf, 59, lighting a Partagas and sitting in a Palm Beach, Florida, hotel, his feet propped on a satin lobby chair. "He never became much of a smoker, but that was a joyous night, and cigars are symbolic of male bonding. They're freedom, a way of saying [screw you] to the world."

In many ways, that championship night in 1991 was a turning point for Reinsdorf, who, as owner of both the Chicago Bulls and baseball's Chicago White Sox, was and may still be the most powerful man in professional sports. At the very least, the Bulls' victory affirmed that he was on the right track. Yes, he already had built the Balcor Co. real-estate group into a $6.5 billion concern. And, yes, the White Sox were already in a new Comiskey Park, built with taxpayers' money under a plan the Illinois State Legislature agreed to. And, yes, he would be building a new stadium for the Bulls with financing largely supplied by foreign banks. But despite a decade of ownership of the Chicago White Sox and seven years at the helm of the Chicago Bulls, a championship had eluded him.

So that championship night belonged to Reinsdorf. Jordan lit up at his urging, but after a quick hug of the Larry O'Brien championship trophy, the court superstar disappeared into the night. Reinsdorf remained, strutting around the locker room, hugging his players. The son of a Jewish sewing machine peddler, he savored the long journey from his childhood haunts in Brooklyn. Calling his mother and hearing praise showered on his Bulls, he had finally stepped into the winner's circle. The future seemed bright.

"It was my first championship, so of course it was memorable," says Reinsdorf, quickly adding a woe-is-me, Woody Allen-style touch between puffs on his Partagas. "Yet it wasn't baseball. If I'm driven at all, challenged, it's to win a World Series. That's the dream."

That dream was harshly interrupted, and maybe permanently sullied, by the nine-month long baseball strike, a player-owner confrontation (largely spearheaded by Reinsdorf himself) that lasted from August 11, 1994, to April 2, 1995. Crowned by the media as the strike's backroom Machiavelli, the genial yet ever-combative Reinsdorf was only doing what he does habitually--taking on the world, and usually winning. Reinsdorf's reasoning was simple: Baseball desperately needed some economic sanity if the owners were to continue making the big money. He badgered the owners into a unified block by championing a team salary cap and a revenue-sharing system whereby the rich, large-market clubs would help subsidize poorer teams--so "the alligator [players' union] doesn't swallow us."

His adamant stance never wavered. Even when President Clinton last winter demanded an end to the national pastime's labor war, Reinsdorf wasn't cowed. He remained defiant, hawkishly urging fellow owners to stay united in their attempt to restructure baseball's economics and to keep fighting the players' union, a group he derides as "humorless ideologues, driven by a psychopathic hatred" of ownership. Even after the March 31 federal court ruling that undermined the owners' position, Reinsdorf expressed disappointment, not relief, to what he termed a "pause" in the strike.

"We don't have a settlement or an agreement," he said a few days after the ruling by U.S. Circuit Court Judge Sonya Sotomayor. "We're just in a pause, a pause, a lull. We still don't have a deal. We still have to negotiate a deal...a contract. The strike has ended, but the parties still have to get together at the bargaining table. I just hope the union will finally negotiate in good faith. Nothing has changed....I still feel there has to be a significant restructuring of baseball's economics.

"I don't know if I am frustrated by the court's getting involved--but yes, I am disappointed. It just wasn't a constructive action on the part of the court, on the judge's getting involved. [The courts] normally stay out of most labor disputes. They should let the parties settle differences by themselves.

"We were very close to the players realizing they were being misled by their union," claims Reinsdorf. As a result, he believes the players would have eventually taken matters into their own hands.

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