In an industry of surly people, Jerry Reinsdorf might be the most evil. He’s an egregious example of a cold businessman who amassed power in sports, then was corrupted by his own clout. If you criticize him for his many joy-extracting misdeeds — none more damaging than what he has done to baseball, turning a beloved national pastime into a labor-bloodied, steroids-ravaged corporate blob that is closer to niche-dom these days than a real challenge to the NFL, college football and the NBA — he will place you on an enemies list and spend his days and nights plotting against you.
Not that I’ve ever been deterred by my inclusion on that list. It’s just that I’ve had no reason to point out his sins to national audiences since leaving Chicago on my terms nearly five years ago, having been fortunate to make a great living and an enormous impact in that city for almost two decades while fighting the good fight against Reinsdorf and his cronies. When I’d point out that he built an obsolete ballpark with public money or underachieved in what is now 34 years of major-market baseball ownership, he’d call me anti-Semitic or send lawyers into the Sun-Times newsroom, where pubishers and editors bowed at his feet. When I’d say he inherited Michael Jordan, chased him away prematurely and refused to re-do his contract or pay Phil Jackson what he was worth during a six-title dynasty that had nothing to do with Reinsdorf, he’d later try to have me removed from ESPN. Or call me “a piece of garbage’’ after his crazed manager, Ozzie Guillen, called me “a (bleeping) fag,’’ the same Guillen who would say he loved Fidel Castro and was fired from two managerial jobs in three years. Doing most of his work in the weeds, Reinsdorf created a power web unlike few others — the Obama White House, heads of media companies, prominent Hollywood agencies, the Daley and Emanuel mayorships in Chicago.
He’s a 21st-century sports mob boss, immune to criticism in America’s third-largest market because politicians and cowardly media fear him and his far-reaching tentacles. You don’t hear much about him nationally because his teams, the White Sox and Bulls, are only vaguely relevant in the bigger picture, and also because he has loyal, thug-like front men who do his dirty work.
But you’re about to hear a lot about Jerry Reinsdorf in 2014.
In what only will amuse those who remember how Reinsdorf and Bud Selig tag-teamed the last independent baseball commissioner, Fay Vincent, and took over Major League Baseball on Labor Day of 1992, it seems Jerry and Bud have had a monumental falling-out in their twilight years. They’ve worked in fiercely loyal tandem to grow baseball’s revenues to record numbers — not thanks to any of their business wizardry, mind you, but because television sorely needs live programming in the DVD era, realizes that baseball provides 162 live game windows in 30 markets each season and is willing to pay megadollars for the content. Selig and Reinsdorf should be eternally grateful that their complicit roles in the Steroids Era, and the nation’s subsequent loss of enthusiasm for the sport, hasn’t hurt the bottom line. With Selig nearing 80 and stepping down in January, and with Reinsdorf two years behind him, they should go away ASAP and let much younger and more dynamic men figure out why the game is too slow, analytical and boring for today’s fast lifestyle.
Instead, they’re at war with each other. What has been whispered about for months was revealed the other day in the New York Times, which reports that Selig is pushing his right-hand man, Rob Manfred, to be his replacement while Reinsdorf is bitterly opposing Manfred and pushing his own candidates, such as — surprise! — Bob Iger, president and CEO-elect of The Walt Disney Co., parent company of ESPN. With MLB requiring 23 of 30 owners to sign off on a new commissioner, an emerging division in the ranks is exactly what this sport does not need. Reinsforf is the most powerful name on a seven-member committee that is identifying candidates and, says the Times, would prefer any candidate but Manfred; Reinsdorf is concerned Manfred won’t throw stones or punches at the Major League Baseball Players Association in what has become, at least until lately, an improbably cozy relationship between Selig and the union. Reinsdorf always has preferred to fight the union than play nice, recalling his “I’m going to be a hawk’’ speech in the days before a devastating impasse that shut down the 1994 World Series — with the White Sox in first place.
In one sense, Iger might have a few answers for baseball’s ills in that he knows good TV and what attracts the widest demographic range of viewers. But riddle me this: What the hell does he know about baseball? And until the game implements radical changes to lure younger audiences — a 20-second time clock between pitches, perhaps a seven-inning framework — then no fountain of media acumen will help. Iger seems to be the prince of Hollywood, with wife Willow Bay as the princess, and just as I’m concerned that Bay became the director of USC’s school of journalism because of this marital connection — I don’t think co-hosting “Inside Stuff’’ with Ahmad Rashad got her the gig — I wouldn’t want Iger running baseball as some frilly figurehead who never leaves Beverly Hills. The sport is in trouble, regardless of sizable annual revenues. If fresh leadership blood doesn’t inject a new way of selling and marketing the game and its stars, baseball will keep losing audience, and eventually, the fat TV deals will shrivel up. It’s not just about giving Mike Trout a Subway ad, or having Yasiel Puig do an appearance at the MLB Fan Cave.
Baseball needs a revolutionary leader who will function much differently than the leaders of the last two decades — and any era before. Assuredly, the next commissioner is not Iger or Manfred or anyone else high on the lists of Selig or Reinsdorf. According to the Times, Reinsdorf even suggested that he run the sport with two other owners in a triumverate. God, no.
In fact, the only chance to save baseball from continuing erosion in America is to remove Bud and Jerry completely from the process. In Reinsdorf’s case, we must ask if he is emotionally able after recently losing a son amid mysterious circumstances in suburban Chicago. Unfortunately, even beyond them, the sport is run by an exclusive club that doesn’t want outsiders. It’s tough to expect a revolution when the more progressive leaders, such as Milwaukee Brewers owner Mark Attanasio and MLB digital guru Bob Bowman, also are caught in the ancient Selig/Reinsdorf web.
This is the moment in time where baseball, for its ultimate survival, needs a reformist commissioner with new visions and missions.
All we’re getting, I’m afraid, are two of the coots from the Muppets show, arguing aimlessly and growing older by the week.