Bowie Kuhn's supporters have concocted one final compromise proposal to try to save the commissioner's job at today's owners meeting in Chicago.
Even this plan, which would weaken Kuhn's authority and hand over all day-to-day operational functions to a new "president of baseball," probably will not be sufficient to prevent a group of National League owners from getting the four votes necessary to fire Kuhn.
Sources in the save-Kuhn camp feel that Atlanta, Houston and, perhaps even, Cincinnati are firmly against the commissioner, but that the closely tied "swing" votes of the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets will determine his fate.
Even Kuhn's staunchest supporters are uncharacteristically pessimistic. After all, in mid-August, when an owners' vote on Kuhn was tabled at the last minute, the Cardinals and Mets were the clubs ramrodding the anti-Kuhn drive.
"It's a dark picture," says Baltimore owner Edward Bennett Williams, a Kuhn backer.
"There's a chance that the Cardinals and Mets could come around if there's an assurance that the new 'president' would have a strong business background and be given the freedom to operate that side of the game," said another save-Kuhn owner.
"What we are in danger of seeing is a tyranny of the minority," says Oakland President Roy Eisenhardt, who is one of a minimum of 17 owners adamantly in Kuhn's corner, not to mention two or three others whose qualms about Kuhn are mild. "What surprises many of us is that a man could hold that job for 13 years, make so many tough decisions, and still have so many teams firmly on his side."
According to ownership sources lobbying for the latest Kuhn compromise, this 11th-hour plan would create a new baseball position -- a chief operating officer or "president of baseball" -- to whom all departments within the game would report directly.
That president, who would have a strong business background and concern himself primarily with economic questions, would then report to Kuhn. Thus, the commissioner would still be at the top of the game's executive pyramid.
In effect, Kuhn would retain his absolute authority on all questions concerning the integrity of the game. This was, after all, the function for which the commissioner's job was created in 1920, after the Black Sox scandal. And, it's Kuhn's strongest suit.
Under the compromise, Kuhn would continue to represent the sport before Congress. And he would retain his role as public spokesman for the game.
However, in the words of one pro-Kuhn owner, the commissioner would have "no real day-to-day operational duties."
Kuhn supporters say they are now convinced that today will be the commissioner's last stand. Since the summer meetings adjourned with a postponement, it has been speculated that Kuhn, whose contract doesn't expire until August 1983, would try a backdoor ploy to stay in power.
Kuhn might wait until baseball's restructuring program comes to a vote in December at the winter meetings. One proposal is that all future major issues -- including election of the commissioner -- require a three-quarters majority of both leagues voting jointly. Then, Kuhn might have the 20 votes he'd need.
Now, that scenario seems almost impossible.
"They're not stupid," said a pro-Kuhn owner this weekend. "The same owners who are against Kuhn now are going to have the votes to block any restructuring idea that would get Kuhn back."
In some ways, Kuhn illustrates the sardonic quip: "No good deed goes unpunished." In almost every case, those ready to vote against Kuhn are doing so because they don't like the tough best-interests-of-baseball decisions that Kuhn has made.
"In politics, people seem to be able to avoid developing bad blood over decisions that are part of the job," says Eisenhardt. "We don't seem to have that political gift. We (in baseball) take everything personally."
Atlanta and Houston are most intractably against Kuhn. Atlanta owner Ted Turner, the cable TV mogul, opposes Kuhn because the commissioner favors restricting the number of games on pay TV. Houston owner John McMullen says he blames Kuhn for the dramatic escalation of player salaries in the last five years. It's perhaps just as likely that McMullen, who owns an NHL franchise, doesn't like Kuhn's opposition to cross-ownership of franchises in different pro sports.
Cincinnati and the Chicago Cubs probably would vote against Kuhn if the four votes for firing were already in the hat. However, neither would be willing to cast the deciding fourth vote. Why? Because, in both cases, novice owners have team presidents with long-standing dislike for Kuhn; Dick Wagner of the Reds loathed the 1981 Kuhn-approved split-season and Dallas Green of the Cubs acquired his distaste for Kuhn in his years with the conservative Phillies who thought Kuhn was too middle of the road during the strike.
The Reds and Cubs owners would like to please their presidents, but it's hard to see them doing it at the cost of antagonizing two-thirds of their fellow owners by casting the vote against Kuhn. They'll probably topple whichever way the wind blows.
That leaves the Cardinals and Mets who, for months, have been in a firm anti-Kuhn alliance. The Mets, with their rich TV market, know Kuhn favors that new-fangled revenue-sharing idea. The Cardinals, the ultrahawks of the '81 strike, still want to punish Kuhn for declining to be a strike leader.
Lou Susman, the behind-the-scenes lawyer who does the decision-making for the Cardinals, now that Augie Busch is 86 years old, may be the crucial power broker. "Susman's got the Mets, Reds and Cubs in his pocket," says one pro-Kuhn owner. And Susman, as befits a power behind the throne, hasn't talked and isn't talking on the Kuhn subject.
"The Cardinals' position, all along, has been that they are rational and persuadable," says one pro-Kuhn owner.
Despite his slim prospects, Kuhn has, in one sense, already won a victory. Even in his final compromise this weekend, he hasn't wavered in his belief that "the commissioner must be at the top of the pyramid."
Some thought that, in the last 10 weeks, as his chances dwindled, Kuhn would agree to the creation of a president who did not report to him.
But, sticking to his principles, he -- as yet -- hasn't.
If Kuhn loses his job, he will have done so in his own typically high-minded, perhaps impractical, Wilsonian way.
Those who have opposed him have done so because they thought it to be in their own self-interest.
Kuhn, however, has refused to bargain away the powers of his office just for the sake of staying in that office.