The next commish?

He brought American ballplayers to Cuba and beat back the umpires' union. Now some say he is the natural to take over the helm of major league baseball -- someday.

Topics: Baseball,

Baseball is back. Last year’s heart-stopping home-run chase proved to be no
single-season fluke, as fans once again got to watch Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa fight for the home-run title down to the last weekend. Now New York is
dreaming of another Subway Series, and Red Sox fans get to worry about “the Curse of
the Bambino” — a silly name for something as real and painful and scientifically
proven as Boston’s postseason troubles — into October. With new
stadiums open or on deck in Seattle, San Francisco, Detroit, Milwaukee and
Boston, the game is enjoying better health than it has in decades.

But maybe the best news of a good-news season was Major League Baseball’s victory
against its out-of-control umpires’ union. Although the fight isn’t over,
baseball’s handling of the umps’ disastrous August “ultimatum” — under the
brilliantly destructive leadership of Richie Phillips, the umpires “resigned,”
then tried to withdraw their resignations, only to have baseball officials
selectively accept the goodbyes of those they’ve been trying to bring to heel –
might have been its best move yet under controversial Commissioner Bud Selig.

It’s no accident that the showdown with the umpires was the result of another
smart move by Selig: hiring former Oakland A’s general manager Sandy Alderson as executive vice president
for baseball operations.
The Harvard-educated ex-Marine’s instinct for hand-to-hand combat made him a
stellar addition to the commissioner’s office this year — and makes him a popular choice for commissioner-in-waiting among those in the know.

“I’ve always been a fan of Sandy’s — until it comes to dealing with him,” said
future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, who has negotiated contracts against
Alderson. “He’s tough. He’s just so sharp. And he has that poker face. I think he
would be great as commissioner. He has the passion for the game. When baseball
hired him, I thought that was a great move.”

Many in baseball echo Eckersley. Although Bud Selig is a nicer guy than his
detractors allow — many depict him wearing horns, a pitchfork and a tail –
there is no denying baseball has lived through some tough times under his
watch, most notably the tragic 1994 strike, which truncated the season and
canceled the World Series.



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Anybody waiting for a sign that things had changed got one in August, when
Alderson handled the umps’ ultimatum like the nerves-of-steel veteran he
is. You did not have to be a Alderson admirer to enjoy his quote on the July day
when Phillips incited his umpires to resign.

“This is either a threat to be ignored, or an offer to be accepted,” Alderson told
reporters. You knew right there the fight was over before it started.

Alderson combines self-control with the passion of someone who truly loves
baseball. Despite his self-discipline, he has been known to blow up at times, as
I discovered first-hand over the years I covered his team for the San Francisco
Chronicle. He also has a sense of humor so sharp, and occasionally so cutting,
that when it strikes, people don’t know what hit them.

“It’s one of those senses of humor that’s so sharp, you’re laughing even as your
head is tottering because he’s cut it right off of you,” said San Francisco
Examiner writer and columnist Edvins Beitiks, a former A’s beat writer. “To think
that there are people who believe they are sharper than he is just makes me want
to fall over and grab my sides.”

He also inspires a fierce loyalty. A’s manager Tony LaRussa let loose with one of
the best tirades in baseball history when one of his players, the clueless
Ruben Sierra, made the mistake of saying he would like to see Alderson step into
the batter’s box and have a 90-mile-an-hour fastball thrown his way. La Russa
reamed Sierra memorably:

“Every time he opens his mouth he makes a fool of himself,” La Russa said.
“There’s a term players use, V.I., when a player starts believing fantasy. He’s a
village idiot … Sandy has put together some winning ballclubs. And then you
have a guy like Ruben who has yet to win his first ring. The arrogance. He’s got
to be an idiot. The more I think about it, the madder I get … In this one
case I’m going to say how full of shit he really is. He gets on Sandy because he
never played. Here’s a guy who went to Vietnam. If Ruben ever went to Vietnam,
he’d alternate between vomiting and shitting his pants. He’s trying to intimidate
a guy who did two or three tours in Vietnam.”

Alderson, of course, does not intimidate. During a pickup basketball game with
sports reporters a few springs back, Mike DiGiovanna of the L.A. Times muttered
to a teammate, “Easy, soldier.” The comment was not directed at Alderson, but
even so, the next time down the court, Alderson bent his knees, planted his feet
squarely and set a pick that sent DiGiovanna flying into the wall of the small
gym.

“I didn’t think he was talking to me, but I wanted to be sure,” Alderson said
afterward, laughing along with everyone else.

The last time I saw Alderson, he had the look of a victorious
general, as he sat down for a meal last March at a fashionable Havana restaurant full of
stunning young Cuban women paired off with middle-aged European businessmen.
Alderson was enjoying himself as part of the delegation that brought big-league ballplayers to Cuba for the first time in decades.

But there was more going on than just that. Alderson loves a good fight, and he
knew he had one brewing with the out-of-control umpires’ union. He also seemed to
have a clue just how fun — and easy — the battle was going to be.

In a recent phone interview, he expressed some surprise at the acclaim his
handling of the umpires’ showdown brought him, and laughed off the notion he knew
how it would end. “The degree to which it generated coverage was surprising to
me, but it probably shouldn’t have been,” he said. “It wasn’t clear where it was heading in mid-July. The commissioner’s intent was clear, and what we hoped to accomplish was centralization of umpires. But the means by which we got there certainly wasn’t. It was a surprising series of events.”

Alderson hopes to come up with some creative ideas to help make a difference.
Nothing has grated on ballplayers and fans in recent years more than the
day-to-day and ump-to-ump variations in the strike zone. Baseball tried directing
the umpires to call the rulebook strike zone — basically from the armpits to the bottom of the knees — and met with limited success. Now it may try developing a kind of virtual-reality simulator that umpires can use to sharpen their abilities.

“Their response has been mixed,” he said. “I think when people understand that
this would be used for training and not for evaluation, then we get a much better
response.”

And he had this message for the umpires themselves, some of whom left the field
teary-eyed toward the end of the season when their careers ended because of
Phillips’ offer: “What I’ve told umpires, when I’ve had the opportunity, is we want to make them the most respected group of officials in any sport, professional or amateur, in
the world,” he said. “They may be very good at what they do, but they are not
perceived that way. There are some great umpires. In fact, most are very good. To
some degree, to change perceptions, you have to change reality. That’s what we
will try to accomplish.”

Asked about the state of baseball, Alderson brought up one of the
biggest problems facing the game right now — the declining participation of
African-American players on the field, and their continued low representation in
management. Baseball has been criticized not just for ignoring black coaches and
managers, but for failing to develop homegrown African-American baseball talent
– not putting the resources into domestic scouting and recruiting that it
does in Latin America, for instance. ESPN sportscaster and former player Joe Morgan and others have urged baseball to
put some money into a baseball academy for inner-city kids, one that could
produce as many future big-leaguers as similar facilities in the Dominican
Republic.

“We’re talking about creating new programs,” Alderson said. “In the
international area, what we’re doing is convincing the clubs that it’s an
important part of the future. And I think we need to make sure we’re developing
quality players from within the United States as energetically as we are outside
the United States. I’m very interested in making sure that baseball is appealing
to diverse people over the next few years, making sure that we reflect that in
our organizational and management structure.”

Clearly, baseball needed Alderson, and he needed the challenge of moving up.
As general manager and then president of the Oakland A’s, Alderson had gone from
crafty genius to canny card player stuck with a bad hand. The clever moves that
made the A’s World Series champs back in 1989 were becoming ancient history. No
one remembers him as the man who in 1997 traded away Mark McGwire to St. Louis for
three guys you’ve probably never heard of, but he did in fact pull the trigger on that deal.

Not that it matters now. Alderson’s success as the behind-the-scenes creative
presence in the standoff with the umpires does more than ratify his new influence and
give baseball’s short-term prospects a much-needed boost. It makes it reasonable
to project that Alderson could eventually become commissioner — although Selig
will probably stay where he is for at least a few years, and no one in power will
touch the topic of Alderson’s possible ascension.

“Sandy is an exceptional fellow in a variety of ways,” said Baltimore Orioles
owner Peter Angelos. “I wouldn’t say that he shouldn’t aspire to such a position,
but that’s more of a political question. I certainly hope Bud will be around as
commissioner for quite a while.”

Alderson himself deflects such speculation — although it’s noteworthy that a man
who uses language with precision chooses the term “stance” in describing his
reaction to such talk: “My stance is I enjoy what I’m doing right now,” he said.
“I enjoy working for Bud and enjoy the people I work with here. And I have no
expectations beyond that. I’m a little uncomfortable when people start talking
about that.”

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