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ANALYSIS : The Peter Ueberroth Principle: It's Do Some thing

March 01, 1986|BILL DWYRE | Times Sports Editor

VERO BEACH, Fla. — One thing that should be said about Peter Ueberroth's action Friday is that he took some.

In a world of sports that seems to crave an activist, the John Wayne of the jockstrap set once again rode in on his white horse, six-shooters spitting.

One could almost see him, standing over the wounded bodies of Joaquin Andujar, Dale Berra, Enos Cabell, Keith Hernandez, Jeff Leonard, Dave Parker and Lonnie Smith while squinting into the camera, jaw set firmly, and saying: "The bad guys had to pay."

This is exactly how Ueberroth wants to be perceived. He is a master at it. In a sports world filled with dozens of decision-making pebbles, he would love to have us think of him as the rock.

And there is much supporting evidence.

First, it was the Olympics, the job that couldn't be done successfully. He turned that into an American dream show and a $225-million moneymaker.

Next, it was a baseball strike that threatened to further alienate fans. It took him a day to solve that problem and get the players back into their spikes.

Finally, there was the nastiest problem of all, the dreaded drug problem that had swept sports so thoroughly in the last few years that it had begun to make American sports pages read like medical journals. Professional football, basketball and baseball were besieged with the problem, and the national pastime was becoming the national joke.

So Ueberroth, the commissioner of baseball, acted. He did something. He did it publicly, loudly, in front of as many pens and notepads and microphones and TV cameras as he could attract. His desire was to make sure that nobody who buys tickets to baseball games or watches them on television and buys the products advertised could miss his doing something. It was his way of shouting from the rooftops.

As in all decisions of this magnitude and public nature, the reaction will vary greatly.

The hard-liners will say that there should have been no escape clauses in the one-year suspensions, no ruling allowing the offending players a season in player purgatory.

The more liberal will say that fines totaling well in excess of half a million dollars were too heavy a penalty and too deep an intrusion into the private medical misfortunes of those involved.

Ueberroth knew of both these arguments going in. He also knew that, for the sake of public perception--always a large consideration in his modus operandi --the general sports climate was hungry and thirsty for action.

So he gave it food and drink.

While his counterpart in the National Football League fiddled and huge chunks of NFL credibility burned, Ueberroth appeared on everybody's 6 o'clock news, looking tough and talking tough.

"This is an emergency time for baseball," he said. Later, he called the drug abusers "our sad cases," and put forth some Marine sergeant imagery by talking about dealing with the offenders by "whacking them."

But how much of what Ueberroth did Friday was sound and fury, signifying nothing? Where did the substance end and the show begin?

Is taking parking-meter money from men who drive Mercedes enough to deter them from putting expensive white substances up their noses? Or is only the loss of one's livelihood for an extended period the kind of lost time that tries men's souls?

Were Friday's highly publicized penalties little more than hefty tax deductions, since Ueberroth has targeted the money to drug rehabilitation centers?

Is the public willing to live and let live and forgive--not to mention heap adoration upon--men who have engaged in felonious activities and been penalized for this by losing pocket change?

And was the most significant part of Friday's announcement--Ueberroth's new centralized drug-testing program, obviously triggered by anger over the recent abuses--lost in the buzz of speculation over whether the penalized players did or did not get off too easily?

The answer to those questions won't be known for a while. Maybe not for years.

If the sports pages move from stories of spoons and needles and rehab centers back to stories of games and winners and losers, then perhaps John Wayne Ueberroth has cleaned up the town with nary a fatality.

If not, if the real game of baseball continues to be played in doctors' offices and drug centers, then he has merely shot himself in the foot.

Ueberroth has a history of getting his way, of getting things done, of riding into town and gunning down all the guys in dark hats.

So, the guess here is that, despite all the naysayers he stirred up Friday, Peter Ueberroth will continue to ride high in the saddle in the eyes of American sports fans.

And his formula is so simple. He did something.

ONE-YEAR SUSPENSION OR DONATION OF 10% OF SALARY TO A DRUG-PREVENTION PROGRAM

These players must also submit to random drug testing for the rest of their careers and contribute 100 hours of community service in the next two years if they want to play.

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