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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 5)

Illinois taxpayers also got the short end of the deal. While Reinsdorf innocently insists, "I didn't get into baseball to make money. Baseball is my religion. I'm happy to break even," the Comiskey deal gave him free rent for up to 1.2 million in attendance each year. The Sox pay the state $2.50 for every ticket from 1.2 to 2 million, yet the team also gets back $5 million a year for stadium repairs and maintenance. In addition, the state buys 300,000 tickets if attendance drops below 1.5 after the year 2001, so in actuality, Reinsdorf got public funds to build his stadium and subsidies to guarantee its profitability.

That deal, which is now a model for other so-called "public-private" sports ventures, spotlights Reinsdorf's talent for drawing on other people's money and his near-absolute insistence on protecting himself financially. It's a formula he employed again in the building of the United Center in Chicago (the new Bulls stadium that opened in 1994) as he schmoozed Japanese bankers into joining a $140 million consortium comprised mainly of foreign bankers. "The Japanese bankers came in not knowing the first thing about hockey or basketball," recalls a Chicago investment banker, referring to Reinsdorf's turning on the charm when it really counts. "But after an evening with Jerry they got a very fast, higher level of comfort."

Comiskey is still Reinsdorf's monument, his pushing all the right buttons in personal, mano-a-mano meetings with legislators. Surviving this bruising fight--plus others like his leading the charge against baseball's Fay Vincent (for "interfering" in labor matters) and the NBA's David Stern--he's one uncompromising hombre, truculent and resilient, with a knack for surrounding himself with the best management people he can get. For unlike the very hands-on Steinbrenner and baseball's other good old boys who are in the game because of their egos, Reinsdorf is quick to delegate authority to subordinates. He treats his teams purely as a business, and that makes him the prototype for sports owners of the future.

Just a few days after sitting for the interview in Palm Beach, everything looks much, much brighter. Jordan is back, and is getting ready for his first NBA game since June 1993. After 17 months of self-imposed soul searching, struggling to find "challenges," Michael "Superman" Jordan generates an excitement worthy of the Second Coming by announcing simply, "I'm back."

Suddenly, the baseball strike generates some good news for America. Jordan abandons his dream of appearing in the White Sox outfield, blaming the strike for his slow "development" as a baseball player. A collective shudder of fear runs through the NBA--the Bulls again champs--while the ever-provocative Reinsdorf goes for his own slam dunk.

"What Donald Fehr did was make it impossible for Michael to play in exhibition games," says Reinsdorf, "which retarded his progress to the point where Michael felt it wasn't worth it."

Jordan as pawn in a labor dispute. Leave it to J.R. Reinsdorf to exploit a new role for his superstar. Now Jordan could be pictured as a victim of the strike, forced to prove himself all over again--and with all of America watching, this promises big dividends for Reinsdorf (an increased demand for Bulls tickets, paraphernalia, etc.). In the very cyclical world of pro sports, his life is sweet again.

"I'm thrilled to have him back," says Reinsdorf at home in Phoenix. "We exchanged lots of phone calls, yet there was no negotiating, no demands for new money. I just talked to him about [personal] things he should think about. I didn't want him to make the decision on the rebound, from disappointment with the baseball strike.

"Yeah, he feels bad about baseball, but now he's comfortable with playing basketball," says Reinsdorf. (Within a few days of his return, Jordan showed just how comfortable he was to be back--he scored 55 points in a 113-111 victory over the New York Knicks.) "He'll be getting $4 million a year, exactly what I paid him before. I'm excited, but I won't go to his first game. I have to be here to deal with the baseball strike."

There it is, the whole Reinsdorf package: excited sports fan; friend to players; concerned owner; shrewd negotiator; steadfast foe of unions; troubleshooter, ever loyal to The Cause. How neat and tidy! But there are the inevitable questions about Jordan's contract, that Reinsdorf could have kept him in basketball if he had renegotiated with Jordan in 1993. But that's not his way.

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