WASHINGTON — In Los Angeles attorney Mickey Kantor's life, baseball came before big league politics and law.
As he works, he seldom sits still, prowling restlessly like the first-string shortstop he was three decades ago at Vanderbilt University, which he attended on a baseball scholarship. He once owned a piece of the Stockton Ports, a California Angels farm club.
And when his son Doug played high school ball, the hyperkinetic elder Kantor stalked the sidelines, privately second-guessing the coach's strategy, mentally moving the players around, questioning the umpires.
"I can't stand to lose," Kantor, 53, told an interviewer earlier this year. "I am the worst loser you ever met in your life. I get mad."
Kantor had to wrestle with that emotion shortly after the election when a transition plan he engineered, and in which he was to play a leading role, was cast aside by President-elect Bill Clinton. Clinton reportedly was not pleased to have a prepackaged arrangement thrust upon him, and campaign staff members, particularly younger ones, voiced unhappiness with Kantor's style as campaign manager.
Clinton looked elsewhere for top leaders to help forge his new team, and, although Kantor was given a fairly significant role in the transition, many thought his prospects had dimmed for a choice job in the new Administration.
But the discreet and disciplined Kantor won a first-team job in the end--although he's certain to find frustration and occasional defeat in the lightning-rod position as chief U.S. trade negotiator.
"Mickey is extraordinarily well-suited to this position," said Los Angeles lawyer John Phillips, a longtime friend and occasional legal foe of Kantor's. "His skill is negotiating. Mickey is tenacious but very disciplined, an extremely effective advocate. He'll do very well."
For a guy who hates losing, Kantor has seen plenty of defeats in politics and a few in high-profile legal matters.
He worked for Sargent Shriver when Shriver ran for vice president in a losing effort with Sen. George McGovern in 1972. He ran Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.'s unsuccessful campaigns for President in 1976 and U.S. Senate in 1982.
Kantor had a key role in Walter F. Mondale's losing presidential bid in 1984, after which he was ready to swear off politics for good. "You get to an age you can't do it," he recalled telling himself after Ronald Reagan's landslide reelection that year. "Unless Bill (Clinton) runs. If Bill runs, that's one last thing I want."
Kantor and Clinton's relationship goes back 14 years. He met the President-to-be through Clinton's wife, Hillary, with whom Kantor served on the board of the Legal Services Corp. during the Jimmy Carter Administration.
He is one of a handful of advisers to whom Clinton turns in a crisis; one of a very few who can tell the President-elect no.
That's why, when Clinton was facing allegations of marital infidelity during the New Hampshire primary, he sat down with Kantor to devise a counterstrike. The result was a limited \o7 mea culpa \f7 on "60 Minutes" that resurrected the faltering campaign.
Kantor has known his own difficulties, including two personal tragedies: his first wife's death in the 1978 PSA plane crash over San Diego and his teen-age son's death in a Santa Monica car accident 10 years later. Kantor has since remarried, to former NBC News correspondent Heidi Schulman.
Kantor, the oldest member of the Clinton campaign team, saw his role as a steadying figure when some hotter-headed youths were exploding like cheap fireworks.
"I thought my only role was to be as calm and as quiet and as supportive as possible and make sure decisions were made, and by making decisions, allow Bill Clinton to go out and campaign unfettered by worries of what comes next," he told The Times in a May interview.
There is little in Kantor's record that can be used to predict how he will approach the difficult trade issues he will face in his new job. In addition to trying to bring to conclusion the high-profile and controversial trade pact with Mexico and Canada and the six-year Uruguay Round of global trade talks, Kantor will have to devise trading strategies with Japan, China, the European Community and the developing world.
His law firm, the prominent Democratic firm of Manatt, Phelps, Phillips & Kantor, has represented U.S. multinational corporations like Lockheed and Occidental Petroleum and a number of foreign clients, including financial institutions, but there is no record that Kantor worked on behalf of any foreign firms. According to legal journals, he once represented Suzuki of America in a false advertising case brought by seven state attorneys general.
Although long associated with liberal causes--he started his career as an advocate for migrant workers in Florida--Kantor surprised some allies when he took the side of the tobacco industry in arguing the case of Beverly Hills restaurateurs fighting that city's ban on smoking in restaurants.
He also crossed swords with environmentalists in the late 1980s when he represented Occidental Petroleum's efforts to win permission to drill for oil off Pacific Palisades.
Although Armand Hammer's oil company spent millions of dollars on a ballot initiative to open the coastline to drilling, Kantor's client ultimately lost.
Kantor alienated some longtime liberal friends with that case, but others defend him.
Phillips, who won the initial ban on the oil drilling in 1974, says that Kantor was an effective spokesman for the Occidental cause but was never devious or dishonest in his dealings with opponents of oil development.
"There was nothing sinister about Mickey's work. His cause wasn't real popular with the West Side elite of Los Angeles, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with representing them (Occidental) as best he could," said Phillips. "They lost. But having been a former adversary, I can say that Mickey conducted himself fairly and honorably."