Ueberroth makes quick transition from Olympic to baseball boss
Before taking office Oct. 1, rookie baseball commissioner Peter V. Ueberroth ran the most financially successful Olympics in the history of the Games. He's still following other people into revolving doors and coming out first. Ueberroth's first 41/2 months in office have been marked by a tightening of baseball's entire operation, a feeling of increased security among owners, and a lot of personal action in the area of problem solving. Even more important, the people who run network television like him. And as most everyone knows, baseball annually derives millions of dollars from network contracts.
When Ueberroth voluntarily attended the Baseball Players' Association yearly meeting in December to learn more about the players' goals, it was the first time a commissioner has ever shown that kind of interest. In fact, one of Ueberroth's biggest pluses is that he is considered a good listener.
The first thing he reached for after taking office with his problem-solving glove was baseball's designated hitter (DH) rule, which has been in effect in the American League since 1973. Ueberroth, in his desire for uniformity in all areas of baseball, would like to either get rid of the designated hitter or make it part of both leagues.
The American League adopted the DH as a means of bringing more offense into the game. The rule prevents pitchers, most of whom are notoriously poor hitters, from having to bat. Instead they are replaced by a hitting specialist who doesn't have to perform in the field.
The National League has never been inclined to adopt the rule. To an owner like the Los Angeles Dodgers' Peter O'Malley, anything as untraditional as the DH chips away at the game's purity.
However, the designated hitter rule is used every other year in the World Series and quite often when the American League club is the home team in spring training exhibition games.
While no final decision will come for perhaps two more years, Ueberroth is planning to find out what America's millions of baseball fans prefer by polling them on the subject.
Ueberroth isn't unaware of the complex problems facing the big leagues in the next decade and he is moving simply but firmly to deal with them. Since some of the answers involve shoving tradition to one side, like moving a favorite statue in the park, Peter has already begun to get into some sensitive areas.
A case in point is a letter the commissioner recently sent to the Chicago Cubs asking management to look into lights for Wrigley Field, the only major league ballpark without them.
If the Cubs, who play only day games at home, were to get into any future National League playoffs or the World Series, there could be no live, prime-time TV coverage, thus costing the rest of baseball millions of dollars in shared revenue.
Because of legal problems caused by Wrigley Field neighbors, who object to both the lights and traffic such a move would generate, this is one battle that could make Chicago's front pages indefinitely. Until the Cubs settle this, they will probably risk having all their future post-season games moved to a site where lights are available.
Meanwhile, Congress reportedly would like baseball, which has 14 teams in the American League and 12 in the National, to add two more NL franchises by 1990.
Although Ueberroth has made no pledges yet, he has mentioned to the right people that he would someday like to see two 16-team leagues. It is expected that Washington, D.C., would be one of the first two cities to receive an expansion franchise, the other probably going either to Phoenix or Miami.
Only recently Ueberroth dissolved a problem of relatively long standing when he convinced three big league teams that beam their games nationwide on so-called TV superstations to share some of that revenue with other clubs.
So from now on the Atlanta Braves, the New York Yankees, and the Texas Rangers will be turning over approximately $7 million a year to colleagues. This was done because so many owners complained that the showing of Braves, Yankees, and Rangers games on cable systems in their areas hurt attendance.
However, Ueberroth's biggest test is still ahead, lounging like a wide-awake cobra sunning itself on the only path leading to the well. Working out new salary and fringe benefit agreements between the owners and players could be tricky. In the recent past, differences have been resolved only after a strike. Talks have already begun quietly, but they could make headlines before any kind of a resolution is reached.
Often the tone of these negotiations has been likened to two shoppers in a bargain basement each holding onto the same article of clothing. If Ueberroth is able to solve problems like that, he should be traded immediately to the United Nations.