Peter Ueberroth has the moves, the patter, the look, the book and even the denial.
"No, I am not running for the Senate," the baseball commissioner is saying over his tuna melt, with that crooked smile that captured millions during the 1984 summer Olympics. "I don't know . . . I have some attributes . . . One thing I know would be very unattractive would be to ask people to pay any money for me. It would be totally repulsive. I couldn't do it."
But wait. Watch him move: He's acquired the stylized body language of a man-who-might-be-something, traveling with groups of other pin-striped men who talk in serious-sounding mumbles. After he addressed the National Press Club here recently, a dozen people stopped him for autographs. One woman said she drove from New Jersey to see him. Said another: "I don't know anything about baseball, but he's as cute as he can be."
Read his new book, "Made in America," about his experiences as chief of the Olympic games, all full of patriotism and sweetness: "The United States of America is the greatest country in the world and every one of us knows how lucky we are to live here."
Listen to him talk: "Constant bad news is getting boring and wearing out the psyche of the public, so a little good news is refreshing . . . I don't know, maybe I have something to offer."
And find solace in modesty. Ueberroth -- baseball commissioner, Olympics mastermind, Time magazine Man of the Year, self-made millionaire and frequent recipient of The Mention (presidentially speaking), is fond of saying he's just an "ordinary" guy.
"Well, why not?" he is asking. "Let me make a case for it. I come from a middle-income background, I was a C-plus student in high school, C in college at San Jose State University -- the record will tell you I had a 2.12 grade point average . Uhm, I think I if took an IQ test I wouldn't rank very high. I'm good in math. I had a father who really did help me to look at things from many different angles. But that's that -- I mean, I'm really ordinary!"
Well, let's make another case.
There are many who believe that since 1979, when he became president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, Peter Ueberroth has been gearing his every move toward running for political office -- U.S. senator from California, or maybe even president. In the past seven years, he has gone from being the unknown owner of a travel business to one of the most important figures in sports. Time singled him out for Man of the Year for transforming the 1984 games from a charity affair into a profitable, multimillion-dollar corporation. As the new commander of baseball, he has been screaming loudly about drugs in the sport -- which has made him rather wearisome to the players and team owners, but has raised his profile as your basic law-and-order guy.
He can be seen in Washington these days, in and out of the corridors of Congress, or riding around in chauffeured limousines with Tom Korologos, a well-known Washington lobbyist with Republican ties. Although a long-time registered Republican, Ueberroth says today he is not aligned with any political party.
" Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole has talked to him about running in California, so has Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson," says Korologos. "These guys are serious about it . . . He is a very attractive candidate and they are afraid of losing the Senate."
"I think he's interested, and if he announces, I wouldn't be surprised," says Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "If I were in his position I would do just what he is doing -- maintain strongly that I am not interested."
Clearly, Ueberroth is far from ordinary. But part of his charm is that he comes off as the boy next door transplanted to power.
His father was a traveling salesman of aluminum siding. His mother died when he was 4, and by the time he was 15, he had moved out of the family house to work at a children's home as a coach and all-purpose handyman. In college he "fell in love with water polo" and tried out for the 1956 Olympic games. He married Virginia Nicolaus in 1959, and describes their first apartment as so small that "you had to stand outside the door to photograph somebody inside."
His entire pre-Olympics career was spent in the travel business where, with smart acquisitions, he built a small business into the largest travel corporation in the country next to American Express. When he took over the Olympics, he sold First Travel Corp. for $10 million.
Part of Ueberroth's national appeal -- like Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca's -- seems rooted in his results-oriented image, and the fact that he always appears to accomplish what he promises. At 47, he has a low-key, self-effacing demeanor and boyish good looks that belie his reputation as a clever, behind-the-scenes operator. He once described himself as both shy and ruthless.
His critics portray him as a media manipulator and grandstander. His relationship with baseball's owners and players has been less than smooth.
Last May he announced, with much fanfare, that there would be mandatory drug testing for everyone involved in baseball except the major-league players who were protected from the program under a previously negotiated agreement. The players, nevertheless, objected to the plan; Atlanta Braves star and noted straight arrow Dale Murphy said it was like "making somebody prove their innocence without knowing he's guilty." And when Ueberroth sent letters to all major-league players in September asking them to submit to voluntary testing, the players' union responded by filing an unfair labor practice claim against the commissioner.
During labor negotiations last August, he also lost points with the owners -- who hired him and pay his $400,000-plus yearly salary -- when he pressured them to drop demands for wage concessions.
"I think that Peter has a great sense of timing, of public relations and press relations that he uses to benefit the organization he is promoting," says Harry Usher, who was Ueberroth's general manager for the Olympics and is now commissioner of the U.S. Football League.
Ueberroth says he wrote his book "to show that America can work." And in so doing, he took a few shots at the current management, complaining of red tape and an overall lack of interest in the Olympic games on the part of the government.
Of a meeting he had with President Reagan right before the Soviet pullout from the games, Ueberroth wrote:
"I suggested that the president perhaps ought to invite Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko to attend the games as a personal guest . . . It was my impression that the idea appealed to the president, but I noticed deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver stiffen. He immediately excused himself and left the room. When Deaver returned Secretary of State George Shultz was with him. Shultz immediately vetoed the idea . . . saying it would complicate other existing issues."
Ueberroth's book serves as a celebration of the games, and of himself as well. But another Olympics book, to be published next spring, will offer a little more vinegar. Ken Reich, a Los Angeles Times reporter who covered the event, portrays Ueberroth as a volatile and often inconsistent manager who made unreasonable demands on his staff. In well-documented detail, Reich shows the Olympic chief publicly embarrassing his staff over petty mishaps, relentlessly quizzing them on Olympic history and generally demonstrating a quick temper.
Writes Reich (in an excerpt published by the Times): "Intimidation and inspiration were not Peter Ueberroth's only ways of challenging Olympic employees. He had a whole series of tests, ranging from classroom-like examinations to more subtle exercises designed to check the ability of staff members to function under pressure and their loyalty to him." According to Reich, Ueberroth once cornered a staffer in an elevator and asked him to name the five provinces of Yugoslavia (the man could only name four).
In response, Ueberroth says he didn't even know many of those to whom Reich attributed the stories.
"I tend to be demanding, and I tend to be critical. I know that I am also fair," he says. "In the Olympic games you have to add another layer, and that is that there was no time for niceties, no time for patience, because we had a project we had to have done correctly. We couldn't say if it doesn't work out the first time, we'll do it better the next time. We only had one chance."
Says Usher, who has said in the past that Ueberroth likes keeping people off balance: "I think that when Peter deals with people he will alternate moods, often in the opposite way you think the mood swing will be, and that has an unsettling effect. I happen to think it's effective. It drives people to work harder."
Usher says he can't see Ueberroth actually campaigning for office, but thinks that his old boss would make a great Cabinet member. Ueberroth, however, won't speculate on any political future, elective or not.
As for his current job in baseball, he joked to the National Press Club that "the ownership will not likely reelect this commissioner. He's not getting along well with the owners." But later he said he'd like to keep his job when his contract expires in 1990.
Oh come now, Mr. Commissioner. 1990?
"It's a lot of fun," he insists. "You have to remember, I was 17 years in the travel business and wasn't leaving . . . I have a pattern of roots."
But isn't he a different person today?
"Well, if I'm not challenged, I won't stay -- you can say that," he concedes. Here comes the grin again. "I've never been one to design. I am not a designing person."