A Rhubarb at Home Plate

ALTHOUGH major-league baseball is entering the last month of the 1992 regular season with tight races in three of the four divisions, the biggest baseball story is unfolding off the field. On Thursday most of the owners of the 28 big-league teams will meet in Chicago to talk about firing the commissioner of baseball, Fay Vincent.

Mr. Vincent says the meeting is illegal because its purpose - sending him to the showers - is not authorized by baseball's governing agreement. He has vowed to stay in office until his term expires March 31, 1994, and to fight any attempted ouster all the way to the Supreme Court.

It hardly needs to be said that the issues dividing baseball's ruling circle come down principally to money. But the bill of particulars being drawn up against Vincent by his critics is oddly nebulous. While a majority of the team owners now seem bent on removing him, their reasons vary.

How did Vincent get at cross-purposes with so many of the panjandrums of baseball? He was a sympathetic figure when he suddenly became commissioner in September 1989 after the death of his predecessor, A. Bartlett Giamatti. Within weeks Vincent won high marks for his sensitivity and judgment when the 1989 World Series was interrupted by the San Francisco earthquake.

Baseball is being shaken by lots of other tremors today, however. Vincent soon was embroiled in one controversy after another. His critics say he hasn't dealt with them as adroitly as he did the '89 quake. To his supporters, Vincent has been making hard calls "in the best interests of baseball."

The building opposition to Vincent came to a head with his recent decision to realign the divisions in the National League: He decreed that Atlanta and Cincinnati would move into the Eastern Division, while Chicago and St. Louis would join the Western Division. That brought a lawsuit from the Tribune Company, which owns both the Chicago Cubs and TV superstation WGN. The company fears that WGN, which carries Cubs games nationwide, will lose viewers owing to scheduling changes.

The Tribune Company's claim that Vincent had exceeded his authority struck a chord with other owners who believe that he is not sufficiently accountable to them in other matters as well. Vincent's opponents also worry that the commissioner will tilt toward the players when baseball's collective-bargaining agreement is renegotiated next year.

Baseball's commissioner is in an anomalous position, as he is hired by the owners and yet has a responsibility to and for the game itself. It's not surprising that over the years tension has often existed between team owners and successive commissioners. Rarely has the tension grown so bitter and personal, however.

Let's hope that on both sides anger gives way to cool-headedness and self-interest yields to respect for the game. We all will lose if, in a front-office brawl, baseball's governing hierarchy takes actions that ultimately harm the national pastime.

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