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Sermons on the Mound : Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth Preaches About a Clean-Cut, Drug-Free, Financially Sound National Pastime. And He Means Business.

July 13, 1986|JOHN J. GOLDMAN and ELIZABETH MEHREN | John J. Goldman and Elizabeth Mehren are Times staff writers based in New York.

High above the United States, Baseball Commissioner Peter V. Ueberroth, bound for Houston to promote this week's All-Star Game, stretched out in the small executive jet, collar open, tie loosened, feet up. Two nonstop days of meetings, lectures, press conferences, dinners and hand-shaking had dissolved into a welcome respite 29,000 feet in the sky. Ueberroth, trim at 48, pondered a turkey sandwich (no mayo) and sipped a Diet Coke.

In less than two years in office, he has faced some formidable challenges: an umpires' strike his first day on the job in 1984, the threat of a players' strike the following year and, most recently, one of the biggest drug scandals in sports history. Though he was hired by the major-league baseball team owners--including some of the most headstrong personalities in sports--he must weigh their interests against a powerful players' union and millions of devoted fans, with his every decision and pronouncement scrutinized by the media.

"You know, it's basically a very unpopular kind of position," he said. "You are in a disciplining role, you decide disputes, there's a governance factor to the commissioner, you try and assist in the growth and health and promotion of the game. And all those factors don't necessarily fit together."

In short, a complicated job for a complicated man. Hard-driving, tightly wrapped, Ueberroth defies easy analysis: Left in a room with Freud, Jung, Adler and Perls, he would most likely recruit the shrinks to a drug-treatment panel and franchise the couch.

He has brought the unmistakable Ueberroth touch to baseball, characterized by an almost missionary zeal, firm integrity, decisiveness and a remarkable knack for blocking the punches of his would-be critics. Ueberroth has been described as arrogant, aloof, abrasive, tyrannical, cold, warm, kind, gentle, caring. He can be all those things. The commissioner recently accepted the challenge of a 23-year-old appointments secretary who insisted she could outshoot him in basketball. At a suburban schoolyard late one Saturday, the pair shot it out. Ueberroth won. Sometimes, at home in Laguna Beach, master swimmer Ueberroth will tell his wife, Ginny, to start the coals for dinner while he heads out to the ocean to spearfish the main course. But in Houston the morning after his flight, it was Peter Ueberroth, baseball statesman and diplomat, very much on display.

They had gathered early and eagerly, awaiting him with the kind of excitement normally reserved for a major box-office hero. First was the Houston City Council. "You all have been very supportive of baseball, and it's very healthy here," he told the council in announcing plans for the All-Star Game. Then, seizing on a favorite theme, he reminded them, "Where government is not supportive of baseball, baseball does not do well." Next it was the Harris County commissioners, standing around in cowboy boots and string ties, shelving feuds and petty differences for their moment with the commissioner of baseball. "Let me just say," Ueberroth said, smiling and autographing baseballs, "it's fun to be in this city."

Ueberroth's mission was to build support for an expanded Dome for the Astros, to remind the city of the economic value of its team and to point out the benefits of a three-day All-Star festival. "You will have 100 million people stop what they are doing in North America and look at Houston," he said, and around him heads nodded in agreement. An old-timers' all-star game, featuring retired major-league greats, would be followed a day later by the regular all stars holding home-run-hitting contests and performing other feats for charity. To get into the stadium, fans would have to make a contribution to several of Houston's good causes. "It's baseball teaching larger lessons of citizenship," he said, another recurring motif. As an added bonus, Ueberroth said, "we have 40,000 people who have learned to donate."

In one neat package, Ueberroth had tied up his entire baseball philosophy: teamwork, civic responsibility, charity, a clean-cut family atmosphere, broadening the game's audience and establishing a sense of give-and-take between players, management, fans and the city. Ueberroth has become baseball's leading ambassador: part lobbyist, part living embodiment of the clean-cut values associated with baseball's better days. To him, baseball is not just a game or a business, it is a model for the nation's youth, an incubator of heroes, a vital part of a city's financial health and a living monument to traditional American values.

"Baseball has a responsibility to teach a value system," Ueberroth often says. "It is the national pastime. Baseball players are the idols of millions of kids."

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