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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.

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"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.
The owners, Reinsdorf insists, also emerged from the long fight as unified as they have ever been, and are perhaps closer than ever as a group to the position espoused by Reinsdorf and other hardline owners. "I don't see any anger rising in the wake of the judge's decision," says Reinsdorf. "The owners are terribly united. The moderates have moved into the camp of those who want substantial change. There will be no shift in our leadership. I don't see an internal battle." He still predicts that revenue sharing will become a reality.
At this point, Reinsdorf isn't ready to back down or seriously compromise with the players either. "The philosophical and financial differences that divided us are still on the table. But patience, patience. Changes still have to be made, and we're just in a pause. A temporary pause.
"I'll fight for what I believe in. I'll always fight for what I believe. I hope we get an agreement, but the owners have the resolve to do whatever is necessary to achieve a just result--that's a restructuring of baseball's economics."
There's no hint of any contrition or regret over what's come down already, and his strident comments even inadvertently lend credence to the media's elevation of Reinsdorf into the role of puppeteer, engineering every move and countermove made by the owners and interim commissioner Bud Selig. The gritty, anything-but-charismatic Reinsdorf likes to downplay his clout, chuckling "I'm not driven or powerful. I'm happiest at home with my cigars and poodles" (Pandora, Diva, and Little Guy). But even the owners' decision not to lock out the players, the only viable option left to them after Sotomayor's ruling, was apparently made based on a Reinsdorf analysis. "There was a significant risk of damages. We felt the risk was too great," says Reinsdorf, brushing aside a suggestion that such a move would have created a public relations nightmare. "Let's leave it at that. There were just too many risks that weren't worth taking." But he remains convinced that a solution acceptable to the owners will be reached. "We'll get there. The battle still goes on. We're not licking our wounds. We're just sorting things out. We might just come up with a new strategy. If we just stay the course, have patience, we will correct the economics. We'll eventually even have revenue sharing."
But a new, reflective Reinsdorf, still tinged with his standard don't-abandon-the-barricades mentality, only surfaced in the wake of the legal setback. Throughout the fall and winter, he was still driven by the dream: to create a World Series winner in a business climate that made sense to him. Throughout those long months, there were other components of the Reinsdorf empire to tend--like the sudden and unexpected return of Michael Jordan to the Bulls. But for Reinsdorf, they appeared to be distractions from the task at hand. In the midst of a mid-March owners' strategy meeting at the usually sedate Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, rumors of Jordan's return to the NBA shifted attention away from baseball. Michael had been seen at a Bulls' practice, and once Reinsdorf appeared before reporters, the feeding frenzy began.
"Jerry, have you heard that Michael was at the Bulls' practice today?"
"I haven't talked with anybody about it," shoots back Reinsdorf.
"Would you like him back?"
"I just want for Michael what Michael wants."
"Do you have any indication of his future plans?"
"None at all."
In the glare of those TV lights, Reinsdorf looked weary, embattled--eons removed from his celebratory antics during the Bulls' 1991 championship. Already having lost over $10 million due to the strike, and spending 80 percent of his time on baseball labor issues, he seemed barely interested in Jordan's return.
He took the opportunity not to reflect on Jordan, but to go on the offensive. After attacking the baseball players' union chief Don Fehr for "preventing a settlement by not addressing the problems of the industry," he turned warm and fuzzy, praising acting commissioner Selig (nicknamed Bud Light) as "our wonderful, devoted leader."
That's the media's cue. They've heard it before, and as a group, they seem to prefer the picture they've painted of Reinsdorf as the villain, a "cancer" in baseball motivated only by self-interest (according to one players' association official). Reinsdorf admits that he's not comfortable with the press, and is prone to such broadsides as calling The New York Times a "house organ" of the baseball players' union. And, he's candid enough to concede, "I've made mistakes with the press." (Most notably, airing his hard-line demands for a new Comiskey Park.) "I have a lot to learn about PR."
But those lessons, much like his threatening to lose weight and play golf, will come later. Much later. After the impromptu, Jordan-inspired press conference, Reinsdorf was asked by real-estate partner Bob Judelson to "chew out" one of their business associates. Reinsdorf retreated to his hotel room, steeled again to play the heavy.
Countless phone calls later, Reinsdorf reappeared, carrying a mobile phone and an unlit Cuban cigar, and looking refreshed. A Chicago writer intercepted him to ask if he'd spoken to Jordan's agent, David Falk, but Reinsdorf ignored the question and moved through the Venetian-style lobby.
Finally settling into a seat near a dining room, he muttered, "Jordan, Jordan, Jordan," then added, "It was quite a meeting today, everyone rallying around Selig. There was a lot of laughing. I couldn't exist in anything where there isn't a lot of screwing around."
A playground for hard-driving businessmen whose egos have led them into sports and its macho camaraderie, these meetings are also Reinsdorf's secret pipeline straight to Havana.
"I usually sit next to my partner in crime, Toronto Blue Jays' president Paul Beeston, who brings me Cubans," said Reinsdorf with a grin. "They're very enjoyable, and while they can also be very inconsistent, I feel it's my patriotic duty to smoke lots of Cubans. They're contraband, so as a good American I have to light, smoke and destroy them."
Not everyone is amused with Reinsdorf's smoking seven cigars a day. Certainly not his wife, Martyl (married for 38 years with four grown children), who bans him from smoking inside their Phoenix manse. "She tolerates my smoking inside the house if she's in a really good mood, and that happens every decade."
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.
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