As Bowie Kuhn stood and chatted after the commissioner's All-Star Game lunch today, his feet got precipitously close to the back edge of the high dais. "Watch your step, commissioner," said someone.
"I'm not worried about where I step. There's more danger that I may be pushed," said Kuhn, wryly.
Since November, when five National League owners thwarted his reelection as commissioner, Kuhn has been a lame duck. His term expires Aug. 12.
In the next five weeks, baseball will have to choose a new commissioner or find a way to keep its old one.
Former commissioner Happy Chandler, 85, spoke for the majority of baseball owners, as well as many others in the game, when he said today, "Now Bowie knows something of what I felt in 1951 (when an angry minority of owners threw him out of office) . . .
"This man (Kuhn) is well-educated, well-trained, experienced and a splendid gentleman. I know he has many supporters, but I think the others ought to look at their hole card and reelect him commissioner.
"If they don't, I'll feel sorry for the American public and for the game," said Chandler, "but not for him, 'cause he'll make it through the winter if he doesn't make another cent." Chandler ended his purple defense of Kuhn with a flourish of quotations, noting that, "Truth is always on the scaffold and evil is always on the throne."
The stiff-necked Kuhn turned red during Chandler's speech and hugged the jolly old man after it was over.
This All-Star Game may go down as the last great baseball shebang over which Kuhn presides. But he doesn't think so. He thinks he's won his long fight to keep his job. You can see it in his bearing and almost hear it between his lines.
Asked if he thought he would be back to run next summer's luncheon, Kuhn said, "Yes, I'm optimistic that I'll be back here next year (as commssioner). I'm too much of an optimist by nature not to think that. A baseball commissioner needs two things. Optimism and a sense of humor . . .
"I'm available (for reelection) if the votes are there and if the powers of the commissioner's office are not deminished," continued Kuhn, who maintains that his job is not worth keeping if he must accept the sort of diluted powers that were part of a compromise offered him at the last winter meetings.
For the past two weeks, baseball's search committee has been trying to narrow its list of candidates for commissioner from five to one. Kuhn says he does not believe the committee has decided who to recommend at the owners meeting in Boston on Aug. 3.
"All the people who've said publicly that they're 'not in it' any more for the commissioner's job are all still very much 'in it,' " said one source close to the search committee. That might put former secretary of the treasury William Simon back in the center of the picture. The feeling among management sources here is that no current candidate has a fraction of the firm support Kuhn still commands.
Asked if it were true that no alternative candidate could match him in support (Kuhn had 18-to-20 "yes" votes out of 26 for election in November), Kuhn gave his biggest grin and said, "That could be true."
Kuhn has never looked better in his job, or more suited to continuing in it, than in the eight months since his employers gave him the boot.
This spring, Kuhn was at the center of negotiations that brought baseball a billion-dollar multiyear TV contract. Kuhn's NL detractors--like Nelson Doubleday of the Mets, Ted Turner of the Braves and John McMullen of the Astros--are left to answer a difficult question: If Kuhn has done such a poor job in his 14 years, why is the sport so healthy on the field and (thanks to that billion) doing so nicely at the bank, as well?
In recent months, one of baseball's major Kuhn-era problems may have become less tortuous. Ken Moffett and Lee MacPhail are exactly the men Kuhn hoped would replace Marvin Miller and Ray Grebey as head labor negotiators for the players and owners, respectively.
"I sense the potential for greater harmony now," said Kuhn. "Neither side went out and got a militant. Both of them (Moffett and MacPhail) served as conciliators during the strike (of '81). Those two may have done as much as anyone to reach a settlement."
Even within the last week, Kuhn, who suspended Yankee owner George Steinbrenner this spring for criticizing umpires, took another strong stand. He endorsed the largest fine in baseball history ($54,000) for Steve Howe after the Dodger pitcher had to be admitted to a drug rehabitation program for a second time.
"He had complete amnesty the first time he went in the program. This time, he cost the Dodgers a month's services. The $54,000 was his salary for that month. It seemed like a fair solution," said Kuhn, admitting that he didn't see how Howe could have expected a less stringent penalty.
If anything, Kuhn says, the docking of Howe's salary may encourage players to enter the drug program since they now know that one relapse will probably not result in their suspension or expulsion from the game. "I think this precedent may actually help the program," said Kuhn.
"But next time (for a third offense), watch out. It could be very severe," said Kuhn. "We have to draw a line somewhere."
"Let your imagination soar," said Kuhn.
Is it possible that the old wishy-washy Kuhn of caricature has gotten tougher since the owners started kicking him around? Is he acting more on principle and less out of concern for politics?
"Well, you can't help but think that way, but, since I've been under fire, I don't really think I've done anything differently. I think I'd have done the same things, anyway."
If these two days do turn out to be the last for Kuhn in baseball's spotlight, then he has concocted his own ideal farewell scene. He is a nostalgia buff whose goosebump threshold seems to rise in direct proportion to the number of great players in his vicinity. He's been in heaven here.
Before Tuesday's Old-Timers game, Kuhn spotted two former Washington Senators who were among his boyhood heros--Sam West and Mickey Vernon. A fan was taking their picture together when Kuhn jumped between them. "Can I get in this picture, too?" Kuhn said, asking the fan to "please send me a copy."
"This has been a superlative three days for baseball," said Kuhn. "Having 41 Hall of Famers at our Old-Timers game was the greatest gathering of Hall of Famers ever."
Staid, stiff, emotionless Bowie Kuhn looked out at the audience of legends and said, "I'd like to give you all a hug."