Baseball may deal harshly with Marge

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bud Selig's public image is one of paralysis. The big problem with baseball's acting commissioner is that he refuses to act.

He is a consensus-builder in a job that calls for conviction, a lobbyist miscast as a leader. He is as cautious as a teen during a driver's test, and no more decisive than a daisy. He bends with the prevailing breeze.

''He's a mystery,'' a seasoned baseball associate said of Selig. ''He'll waffle and wiggle and waver and bend in the wind and not do anything until he has to. Sometimes, his decisions are based on who he talks to last.''

The man charged with protecting the best interests of baseball would form a committee to fight a fire. Even then, you might not know where he stood. After a month of ''monitoring'' Reds owner Marge Schott, Selig has turned her open-and-shut-up case over to baseball's executive council.

Schott stands accused of continuing ignorance, of confounding insults, of costly mismanagement and of violating the terms of her 1993 suspension. She is guilty on all counts, of course, and several others, but it remains to be seen if baseball has enough resolve to remove her.

It remains to be seen if Bud Selig is an empty suit or merely malnourished.

Embarrassment to game

Down deep, the Bud Man is steamed. He is embarrassed by Schott's stream of ethnic slurs and exasperated that he has been unable to stop them. Despite his awkward silence since Schott's infamous ESPN interview, Selig has privately been telling people he still intends to confront the issue in due course.

That time has come today.

Baseball's executive council meets this morning in Philadelphia, and Marge Schott is among the major items of business. She has been ''invited'' to address the committee - invited being a gentler word than ''summoned'' - in deference to due process. Probably, the members' minds are already made up.

Selig has not spent the last month evaluating Schott's statements, but considering what penalties would be most appropriate and most likely to withstand litigation. USA Today reports Schott will be told to relinquish day-to-day control of the club or face a lengthy suspension.

Given Selig's management style, one would expect the meeting to be mainly for show. If Selig did not already have the votes necessary to sanction Schott, she would probably not have been included on the agenda. Bud Selig may be slow, but when he finally moves it is with a purpose.

Baseball's overriding aim is to end Schott's management role with the Reds. This could be achieved by forcing her to sell her interest in the club, but a forced resignation or a suspension are better bets. Whatever personal feelings they might hold concerning Schott's suitability to run a franchise, millionaire owners can always be counted on to protect one another's property rights.

Losing proposition

The overriding fear is that by permitting Schott to retain her team, other teams will be devalued. Because each visiting team shares in the gate receipts at Riverfront Stadium, they all have a stake in Schott's customer relations. Every time she offends a fan, another club loses revenue.

Other owners might allow Schott to ruin the Reds, but they aren't about to lose money for her. Not for long, anyway.

Do not be fooled by specious talk of the First Amendment. Freedom of speech is not at stake here and never was. Marge Schott faces no criminal action over her careless remarks. The only real issue involves what's best for business.

Baseball is a franchise operation, like McDonald's or Jiffy Lube. If the behavior of an individual franchisee causes customer boycotts, he is bound to forfeit his franchise. Just as a corporation must have recourse to defend itself against renegade operators for the common good, so major-league baseball must maintain policing power over its membership.

''One thing I don't think baseball understands is this gives them a black eye,'' a former major-league executive said. ''Baseball plods away, very careful. They're like the U.S. Senate. They don't get anything done.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published June 5, 1996.