it’s been five years since the lords of baseball, the 28 major league owners, ousted their commissioner, Fay Vincent. The league has fumbled and bickered its way through every crisis since, from labor strife and public disaffection to last year’s spit spat between Baltimore Oriole Roberto Alomar and umpire John Hirschbeck. At a time when the league desperately needs a strong, principled leader, it has instead “acting commissioner” Bud Selig, the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. Selig might be a nice guy — his many critics say he’s not — but as a commissioner, he really is just acting.
For the sake of the game, this nonsense must stop. The owners should hire a new commissioner immediately after the final out of the World Series. And the best man for the job is none other than George Will, conservative columnist, TV pundit and baseball’s biggest booster.
Naming Will commissioner is not a new idea. The Texas-Louisiana minor league did it in 1995, partly as a publicity stunt but also as a statement that it aimed to serve up a purer, better brand of hardball than the majors. Will took the job, but not before consulting with Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Angelos’ response: “Why would you want to do that when you could just be the major league commissioner?”
Indeed, why not? Baseball at different points in its history has turned to men of vastly different talents to lead. In the mid-1980s, for example, the league desperately needed an injection of entrepreneurship and found it in slick L.A. businessman Peter Ueberroth. Today, the league desperately needs a leader to restore the soul of the game. Thanks to player strikes, petty, greedy owners and high ticket prices, Americans now view their national pastime almost as cynically as they do their national government.
While his iambic pentameter is sometimes overwrought, Will’s passion for the game may be just the public relations antidote to do the trick. In his bestselling book “Men at Work,” Will manages to portray the millionaires playing the game today as blue-collar fellas who, in the words of “Bull Durham’s” Nuke LaLoosh, “just hope to help the ballclub.” Will’s nostalgia summons up gentler times when people on summer nights hunkered down in their living rooms, ears cocked to a radio, following the exploits of their favorite team.
He is also arguably baseball’s No. 1 fan. In fact, his obsession with the game borders on that of a stalker. In one of his numerous columns on baseball, Will confessed that he proposed to his second wife on the grass at Camden Yards — a gesture to show that “in my heart she ranks right up there with baseball.” He reportedly also asked for, and received, permission to emblazon the Major League Baseball logo — a batter awaiting a pitch — on his wedding ring.
Will’s nerdy glasses and predilection for citing Greek classics might not seem the ideal fit for baseball’s beer-and-bratwurst crowd. In 1985, when the league considered polling fans on whether teams should have a designated hitter, Will cringed at the idea that the people should be consulted on such high matters. “Perhaps public opinion must influence government,” he wrote, “but baseball should not be a plaything of that turbulent, hydra headed monster: the mob.”
But such Platonic elitism doesn’t seem to bother the die-hard fan. In a San Diego sports radio poll of listeners, Will runs second only to homeboy Larry Lucchino, president of the Padres, for the post of commissioner. Maybe they figure Will might be just the man needed to put an end to the antics of the major league owners. Many of those owners are his friends, but any time their greed has threatened to wreck the game, he’s taken them to the woodshed. Recently, he blasted their plans to “realign” the league in divisions based largely on geography, a move that would break up several long-standing, fierce rivalries. Responding to owners’ sneers that realignment opponents were “purists,” Will made it clear that most of them are so new to the game that they think Astroturf is a tradition.
I don’t nominate Will without some uneasiness. I’m a liberal who still thinks Mike Dukakis would have been a fine president. Will’s columns and their glorification of Ronald Reagan and everything Right regularly make me choke on my Wheaties. And I worry that putting a puckered pundit in charge might just sap the last ounce of spontaneous fun left in the game. Under Commissioner Will, it’s not hard to envision a ban on spitting and mandatory readings of the opinions of Justice Clarence Thomas during the seventh-inning stretch.
On the other hand, consider some of his stated views on baseball. While he advocates free-market solutions for just about anything from feeding the poor to educating children, in baseball, he argues, socialism is to be embraced. “America’s pastime is one place where Marx’s labor theory of value makes much sense,” he wrote in 1991. “The players are the central indispensable ingredients in the creation of considerable wealth.”
Indeed, Will believes that the game is really a “semi-socialized industry,” undergirded by the fans, but also dependent on government subsidies in the form of cheap rents at taxpayer-financed stadiums and exemptions from antitrust laws. Unleash the competing forces of the market on this “quasi-public utility,” he argues, and it would be ground to dust.
Will goes even further. To survive financially, he says, the game must maintain a competitive balance among its teams. But the huge profits that teams in large markets such as New York and Los Angeles reap from contracts with local television networks undermine that balance. Will’s answer: Share the wealth. “[Yankees owner] George Steinbrenner in New York gets $50 million,” he stated on “This Week With David Brinkley,” “Bud Selig gets $3 million … The obvious answer is revenue sharing that spreads out some of the wealth in this particular local disparity.”
Such liberal pap might shock his fellow conservatives, but baseball lovers should rejoice knowing that if Will were commissioner, his decisions would be based on what’s good for the game, regardless of their fit with his ideological leanings. Conservatism has been Will’s guiding light since he discovered free-market philosopher Friedrich von Hayek during his graduate school days at Oxford, but his love of baseball has even stronger roots, dating to his childhood in Champaign, Ill., cheering for the Cubs.
Liberals who would be hard-pressed to get behind a Will-for-commissioner bandwagon might still enjoy watching him trying to intellectually reconcile his twin passions. Consider his angst over the American League’s designated hitter rule. He once called it “the worst American scandal since slavery.” But in 1986, he did an about-face. The DH, he admitted, might be “a thing of beauty graven on the heart of mankind by the finger of God.” Why the change of heart? Will explained that he was tired of watching National League pitchers flail away at the plate. “Fidelity to conservative philosophy occasionally requires minor course corrections,” he explained, “and small perfecting amendments to policies touching civilization’s core values.”
Bereft of the safety he has been used to as a pundit, Will is likely to encounter more bouts of discomfort in the wilder, woolier world of baseball. What he once wrote of his political allegiance will be equally true as he takes on the administration of America’s favorite pastime: “Conservatism is a demanding mistress, and is giving me a migraine.”