THE businessmen behind professional baseball in the United States are about to play their toughest innings ever.
In coming months, they face a likely players' strike, the potential loss of millions of dollars in television revenues, and a leadership vacuum. If baseball can still claim to be America's pastime, it is an increasingly uneasy one.
The leadership crisis has already begun. On Sept. 7, Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent resigned, saying he did not want to drag the game into a protracted legal battle over some owners' attempts to force him out. On Sept. 3, owners voted 18 to 9, with one abstention, on a resolution urging him to quit.
Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox and a leader of the anti-Vincent movement, told reporters he doubted that anybody would be appointed commissioner, at least immediately. Owners are scheduled to meet today in St. Louis to consider their options.
Most team owners are happy to wave goodbye to a commissioner who had snubbed them once too often. Observers say that if someone is appointed to fill the commissioner's post, he or she will not have the broad powers Mr. Vincent enjoyed.
Vincent's resignation "will change the course of baseball," predicts Bill Gould, a Stanford University law professor and author of an upcoming book on baseball.
He calls Vincent's departure the biggest change in the game's leadership structure since 1920. That was the year owners appointed the first baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, in the wake of the infamous Chicago Black Sox scandal.
The post has been strengthened and weakened since then, but this time the change could be fundamental.
"I think the owners are going to try to hire somebody who they can control a bit better," says James Dworkin, associate dean of Purdue University's graduate management school. The owners may even revert to the committee approach that existed before Judge Landis, he adds.
The struggle over baseball's leadership is a sign of how professional sports has changed. Once the showcase of prominent families, the big leagues are now big businesses run as such.
"The new type of owners in there ... wants a system where they have a little bit more control, just as in their own businesses," Mr. Dworkin says.
Vincent ran afoul of that conception. He opposed the expansionist dreams of large corporations that owned baseball teams and of regional television stations that broadcast their games. He angered some teams by his handling of the American League's expansion last year.
In July, he overrode the National League's constitution and ordered a divisional realignment of four teams. A strong commissioner
The commissioner's controversial actions did not win him many friends. But the moves fit in with Vincent's conception of an independent commissioner who looked out for the good of the game, rather than the interests of the owners.
"I can only hope owners realize that a strong commissioner, a person of experience and stature in the community, is integral to baseball," he wrote in his three-page resignation letter. "I hope they learn this lesson before too much damage is done to the game, to the players, umpires, and others who work in the game, and most importantly, to the fans."
"The commissioner's job is a structural impossibility," says Andrew Zimbalist, author of a new book, "Baseball and Billions."
Commissioners cannot stay above the fray when the owners do the hiring. The owners pushed out two previous commissioners who charted too independent a course: Peter Ueberroth and Bowie Kuhn.
Like Mr. Kuhn before him, Vincent's biggest faux pas was labor relations. He stepped in to help settle the long 1990 baseball strike in a way that many owners believed was too conciliatory.
Vincent's departure is a sobering event for the players' union, Mr. Zimbalist says. Now "the owners are preparing for a prolonged confrontation ... and they don't want a commissioner standing in the way."
Baseball's coming labor contract is an explosive issue. It runs out after the 1993 season - at the same time that the television contract also expires. The TV deal, a major source of the teams' revenues, is expected to shrink a bit. Both owners and players would like to find out how much the TV deal will be worth before doling out those funds.
But at the insistence of owners, the labor negotiations are likely to open before spring training next year. The owners are eager to clamp down on the current method of determining many players' salaries. Salary arbitration an issue
The process is called salary arbitration. It allows players with some seniority to submit their salary demands to an arbitrator. The arbitrator picks either the player's or the team's final offer. Arbitration, along with the ability to sell their services as free agents, has helped many baseball players to become millionaires.
The players are unlikely to give up salary arbitration unless they get expanded free-agency, Mr. Dworkin says. Owners may not be willing to make that trade, Professor Gould adds.
"I think baseball will get through this," Gould says. "But it's entering a period of great uncertainty."