Bowie Kuhn is on the hot seat, and rightly so, for the hash that baseball has made of its split season.
Nevertheless, amid the sand that has been raised in baseball within the last week concerning "the integrity of the game," it's possible that a significant part of the reason for this brouhaha has been overlooked.
We've all seen the smoke, but what is the real source of the fire?
Let us start with a provocative question: Doesn't it seem that, suddenly, a lot of people in baseball wouldn't cry if Kuhn lost his job ?
Isn't there a whiff in the air of opportunistic conspiracy to weaken further the already damaged commissioner of baseball?
Seldom, if ever, in his 13 years as commissioner has Kuhn taken as much direct personal criticism and as much veiled ridicule -- all from within management's own traditionally close-lipped house -- as he has absorbed in the past week over the embarrassing loopholes in his disastrous split-season format.
Why has this whole issue, which might almost be considered a debate about a baseball footnote, awakened within the game such strong feelings, such inflammatory quotes, such gleeful eagerness to come forward and bear witness to Bowie's blunder?
"An awful lot has been made out of not very much in the last few days, it seems to me," said Marvin Miller, the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association yesterday. "I suppose the word that comes to mind -- though I have no proof -- is 'orchestrated.' Look at the teams that are doing the yelling."
Miller's an odd fellow to come to Kuhn's aid. For two days, the commissioner's been hung out to dry while waiting for the union to okay his "adjustment" in the playoff format.
For instance, callers to the commissioner were told yesterday: "The situation is just like it was Monday and Tuesday. We could have an announcement within the hour. But it could also take until late tomorrow."
Nonetheless, Miller's point is valid.
The correspondence is almost complete between the clubs that were most unhappy about the strike and those that have decided to give Kuhn two black eyes for his playoff-format boo-boo. It's an odd alliance of National League hawks and American League doves that has combined to lambaste Kuhn.
Only five teams did not ratify the strike settlement two weeks ago: Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago (AL), Minnesota and Philadelphia. Also, the most vocal antistrike owners have been from Baltimore and Texas.
Now, which folks have blasted Kuhn?
White Sox Manager Tony (Forfeit) LaRussa, Cards' Manager Whitey ("I'll Activate Myself") Herzog, Texas General Manager Eddie Robinson, Cincinnati President Dick Wagner and Baltimore GM Hank Peters have led the insurrection.
The most obvious interpretation of events is that baseball's owners are in greater internal disarray following the strike than the players. It is the various owners who are searching for leverage so that their particular viewpoints can hold sway in the coming years.
Why, then, would this take the form of undermining Kuhn? Isn't he now, and hasn't he always been, the perfect owners' man?
That's the point. Kuhn always has been squarely in the owners' corner -- but which owner? No one knows.
One of the least-mentioned aspects of Kuhn's reign is his adamant refusal to take sides within the ever-changing factions of the owners' fraternity. Some might attribute this to naivete, or a lack of taste or talent for political infighting, but Kuhn always has tried to remain above the fray -- even when that fray is in baseball's own boardrooms.
For 13 years, this has served Kuhn fairly well. He always claims to be the game's "good ear," its compromiser and voice of reason, and, sometimes, that's what he's been. The reason that Kuhn has been so surprisingly successful (and unchallenged) over the years at disciplining particular teams, owners or players is that, within his management world, he is seen as genuinely neutral, unbiased and all those other good things.
It has also simplified Kuhn's job that in league-wide matters and labor-management wars he has, in effect, abstained from any action.
For 13 years, that has been good enough. Owners did not demand a commissioner who would take sides within their own private counsels.
Now, perhaps, there are a growing number of teams -- some hardline, some soft -- who think they'd like to take their chances with a commissioner who, on the game's most vital life-and-death labor-money issues, was not so aristocratically disposed to keep his hands clean.
That's why, in this odd week, clubs that normally are in complete disagreement, like arch-conservatives Cincinnati and St. Louis and ultramoderates in Chicago and Baltimore, have come together to chip away at Kuhn's remaining strength, leading, as it were, to a nationwide orgy of snickering at the commissioner.
Neither side knows who the next commissioner might be if, in 1982, when Kuhn's contract can be bought out, baseball changes bossmen.
However, in these hardball times, it appears that an increasing number of clubs may be willing to take a chance on an era when the impartial, hands-off, gentlemanly rule of the reasonable, sometimes ineffectual Kuhn is a thing of the past.