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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

(continued from page 3)

The welcome isn't much better among baseball owners. Baseball is a fractured political landscape that is also a battle for turf, a struggle between diverse personalities with colliding interests. There are shrewd businessmen such as the Marlins' Wayne Huizenga of Blockbuster Video fame and Little Caesars Pizza founder Mike Ilitch, owner of the Detroit Tigers. Freewheeling spenders like Yankee boss George Steinbrenner contrasted sharply to the Angels' tightfisted Jackie Autry.

Except for the bruised feelings of owners left out of the Bud 'n' Jerry power loop, Reinsdorf is generally respected, if not liked, by baseball's lords. (After suing NBA commissioner David Stern over Chicago superstation WGN's rights to televise Bulls games, he admittedly has few friends in basketball.) But he won over most of the baseball owners long before the strike issue surfaced when he led a concerted assault on baseball commissioner Fay Vincent. Praising his grasp of labor issues and his "working tirelessly" throughout the baseball strike, baseball owners indulge Reinsdorf at meetings. No one complains about his smoking. Not to his face.

"Jerry's the one guy I'd have in the trenches with me," exulted Steinbrenner. "He's principled, a man of his word, a quick-minded negotiator. But those stinking cigars. The smoke always burns and waters my eyes."

Bursting into laughter when told of these remarks, Reinsdorf countered, "The owners are a fun bunch. Here we are, months into a strike that's costing us tens of millions of dollars, and yet we're wisecracking all the time at meetings."

Reinsdorf can't say the same for the union. "I don't think the other guys ever laugh. They're ideologues on a mission with a pathological hatred for us. The union doesn't like me because they can't run over me. They have always run over baseball owners."

Dismissing the popular conception that he was out to "bust" the union, Reinsdorf said a players' association is necessary to represent people who had been "treated like slaves." But, unlike old-line owners who were long terrified of strikes and quickly caved in to player demands for salary arbitration and free agency, Reinsdorf welcomes the challenge of squeezing rollbacks from the union.

"Don Fehr has no interest in doing good for his members and is driven by a psychopathic hatred of baseball owners," insisted Reinsdorf, his voice rising. "He's not a baseball fan, he just wants to beat us. I respect Marvin Miller (the former union head) for getting players mobility and good wages. But Fehr is a dangerous ideologue, and there comes a point when the union has to be stopped, or else we'd be put out of business." (Despite repeated requests, the players' association refused to respond.)

Groomed for this fight on the mean streets surrounding Ebbets Field, home of his beloved (and lamented) Brooklyn Dodgers, Reinsdorf is well-suited for the pit bull role. Bluntly speaking his mind with little use for suave corporatese, he's in the rough mold of baseball's union bashers, men like the Kansas City Royals' David Glass (of Wal-Mart) and the San Francisco Giants' Peter Magowan (of Safeway). These hardballers had wrung huge concessions from unions at their companies, and they are now increasingly influential in baseball's power circles. They aren't accustomed to losing.

Many of the hawks have also invested over $100 million to acquire franchises, only to see the strike talks go nowhere for months. The owners were an angry lot at the Breakers, flirting with the idea of "blowing things up"--meaning calling their bullpen for a negotiator throwing heavy heat. It was either a fast settlement, or Reinsdorf would do management's talking.

"While I really respect these new, sharp-thinking guys--as opposed to the orgiastic spenders of the past--it won't happen, I won't be negotiating," demurred Reinsdorf. But the doomsday scenario still makes sense. Forget Trump. Jerry is the man when it comes to leveraging, cementing a deal. All you have to do is look at how he engineered the Bulls' three-peat (they followed the 1991 championship with two more in '92 and '93). After the first championship, Bulls Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant were all under contract, advancing Reinsdorf's reputation for lowballing--signing players to long-term deals at bargain prices. "This is good business," he declared. "I won't lose money to win games."

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