The Emperor Has No Clothes, part 4

When John Harrington assumed control of the Red Sox in 1992, Major League Baseball was poised on the brink of its most turbulent era since the Federal League war of 1914-15. Seven years later Harrington, a close ally of Commissioner Bud Selig, serves on every important MLB committee. What has he done with his power?

Harrington kept a low profile during the first crisis of his tenure. In late August 1992, a group of hard-line owners led by Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox sought to oust Commissioner Fay Vincent midway through his term. Haywood Sullivan, not Harrington, spoke for the Sox during this battle, casting one of the nine votes against a resolution asking Vincent to resign.

It’s reasonable to assume that Harrington also supported Vincent, since he ultimately controlled the club’s vote. When the next major issue arose, though, Harrington stood front and center.

In one of his first moves as Acting Commissioner, Bud Selig named Harrington to chair a new schedule format committee. Harrington’s committee oversaw the leagues’ realignment from two to three divisions per league; the creation of a wild card playoff berth; interleague play; and the Milwaukee Brewers’ switch to the National League. In short, Harrington’s committee has done more to change the structure of Major League Baseball than anyone since Ban Johnson established the AL as a major league.

Before turning to these controversial issues, though, let’s give Harrington credit for one lonely, unequivocally correct decision: opposing the ill-fated Baseball Network TV deal which irritated fans across the country in 1994 and 1995.

Remember The Baseball Network? It was MLB’s panicked reaction to the end of its contract with CBS, on which the network lost $500 million in four years. Desperately grasping for every available dollar, MLB agreed to eliminate the Saturday Game of the Week and prohibit the telecasting of local games opposite national telecasts on weeknights. To maximize the total audience for each telecast, MLB scheduled all four first-round playoff games and both LCS for the same time slot, thereby preventing fans from seeing more than one game per night. Boston and the New York Mets were the only two clubs to vote against this idiocy, on which MLB and the networks mercifully pulled the plug after the 1995 season.

Harrington’s committee took a more rational approach to restructuring. It began by surveying over 12,000 fans to learn what they wanted. In March 1993, Harrington announced that a majority of respondents favored interleague play and another round of playoffs. Significantly, in light of future developments, the survey found no support for radical realignment of the two leagues.

That June, the schedule committee recommended a two-division, two-wildcard format in which the top two teams in each division would play one another for the chance to compete in the LCS. Assuming that another round of playoffs was inevitable, the committee proposed the worst possible structure.

Any postseason format is a compromise between two goals: maintaining fan interest in the pennant races, while also ensuring that the best teams ultimately qualify for the playoffs. The committee’s proposal did neither. By providing two automatic bids for each division, it rendered the pennant races irrelevant, while splitting the wild-card bids between the divisions increased the chances of a sub-.500 club reaching the playoffs.

But when the MLBPA said it favored three divisions with one wildcard, Harrington promptly assented. In September, the owners ratified the three-divisions, one-wildcard format by a vote of 27 to 1. Only the Texas Rangers voted No, and with good reason -- the Rangers had been assigned to a division with three West Coast teams. Credit Harrington with the flexibility to accept the MLBPA’s correction of his committee’s mistake.

The schedule resolved, the owners could concentrate on economic issues. Their first task: develop a revenue-sharing formula acceptable to three-fourths of the clubs. In August 1993 Harrington aligned the Red Sox with nine other large-market owners against the small-market owners’ proposal. In light of the current “small markets can’t compete” lament, it’s interesting to note that six years ago, the clubs voting with the large-market Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Orioles and Red Sox included the Blue Jays, Rockies, Marlins, Rangers and Cardinals – but not the Indians or Braves.

Five months later, Texas and Florida had defected, but Harrington retained just enough large-market support to block the revenue-sharing proposal favored by small-market clubs. The owners then unanimously adopted compromise revenue-sharing proposal with an ominous provision: revenue sharing would not take effect until the players had accepted a salary cap.

We all remember what happened next. Shortly after the players went on strike, Bud Selig once again leaned on Harrington, naming him chairman of the owners’ negotiating committee. In this capacity Harrington told the press: “We have to bring about some fundamental change to the player compensation system in order to insure the future viability of the game.” The owners won no significant changes in the player compensation system, yet their franchises are now worth more than ever.

Harrington was more accurate in anticipating how some small-market clubs might abuse revenue sharing. "If large- and middle-market clubs are going to move money to the smallmarket clubs," he said, "we want to insure that that money is spent on player salaries so that the competitive level of those teams that are receiving that money is improved." This comment was made in connection with the salary floor proposed by the owners to accompany the salary cap. When the salary-cap proposal was dropped, the owners lost interest in the salary floor -- yet without it, last year the Expos’ total player payroll was less than their revenue sharing income.

Originally counted among the moderates at the bargaining table, Harrington’s stance hardened over time. Following a last-minute court order which blocked the owners’ plan to use replacement players and induced the players to end their strike, the 1995 and 1996 seasons were played without a labor agreement. When Randy Levine, who had replaced Harrington as the owners’ lead negotiator, finally struck a deal with the MLBPA, Harrington was blamed for a series of press leaks critical of Levine.

While Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox led the public opposition to the agreement, Harrington worked behind the scenes to persuade the owners to repudiate their own negotiator. By an 18-12 vote, they did so, only to reverse themselves three weeks later after Reinsdorf signed Albert Belle to a recordbreaking contract. The Red Sox were among the switchers.

Several reporters speculated that Harrington was angling for the AL presidency, or even the Commissionership if Bud Selig stepped down in the wake of the labor agreement. But Selig stayed on – and Harrington was appointed chairman of yet another committee, this one charged with realigning the major leagues.

Realignment was a solution to a problem the owners had created for themselves. They had voted to add two more teams for 1998, but hadn’t decided where to put them.. Placing Tampa Bay and Arizona in different leagues would create two 15-team circuits. This, in turn, would require either idling one team in each league most weekends or scheduling interleague games every day of the season. Logically, Arizona belonged in the AL West, but the Diamondbacks had already been promised a berth in the National League. The NL could take both expansion teams, but it had just added the Marlins and Rockies in 1993.

Rather than simply focusing on the problem at hand, Harrington’s committee decided to start from scratch. Disregarding both the four-year-old divisional alignment and the 98-year-old structure of the American and National Leagues, Harrington asked what the major leagues "should" look like.

Under his dream proposal, more than half of all teams would have changed leagues. Every team in the Eastern Time Zone would play in a 14-team American League; everyone else in a 16-team National League. Each league would have two divisions and two wildcards. The plan was scuttled after several of the affected teams announced they would veto any move – but even today, Bud Selig periodically hints that radical realignment is not dead. If not, it should be. And if Selig wants John Harrington to chair all of his committees, he should move Harrington into the Commissioner’s office.

Next issue: How Harrington’s attitude toward Fenway Park has changed.

Copyright © 1999 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the July 1999 issue of Boston Baseball.

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