NEW HAVEN — Blending his traditional values with historical perspective, former Major League Baseball Commissioner Francis T. (Fay) Vincent captivated a capacity crowd at Southern Connecticut State University and a small group of students from England via a trans-Atlantic simulcast Thursday with topics that focused on leadership.
The lecture, sponsored by SCSU’s Recreation and Leisure Studies Department, was part of the Dr. Joseph Panza Sports Management Lecture Series. It primarily attracted sports management students.
While the lecture was billed as, “The Sociocultural Impact of Baseball on American Culture,” it strayed well off topic. Vincent, 77, shared the stage with ESPN pioneer and MLB broadcaster George Grande, but the lecture evolved into a forum on what makes a good leader and how developing the requisite traits leads to success.
Grande referred to Vincent as “the conscience of Major League Baseball” in an introduction that referred to the Waterbury native’s stance on the issues of Pete Rose’s bid for reinstatement after being banned from the game for gambling, and the players’ use of performance enhancing drugs.
“I’m not sure if you can be taught how to be a leader,” said Vincent, who guided MLB from Sept. 13, 1989 until Sept. 7, 1992. “It’s an elusive commodity that involves character, presence, the ability to speak well and clearly, and even, if I may say it to this audience, grammatically. Little things make a very big difference in leadership.”
Vincent noted that character is the most important facet, followed by intelligence, curiosity and discipline.
“Building character is a function of how you adjust to failure,” Vincent said. “One lesson in life is that leadership may be more the function of failures, not successes.”
He corroborated the statement with the story of his greatest failure.
While at Williams College in the December after serving as captain of the undefeated freshman football team, his roommate locked him in their dorm room as a prank. When he needed to relieve himself, he stepped out onto an icy ledge, suffered a fall and shattered two vertebrae in his back. He spent six months in Waterbury Hospital and remains relegated to a wheelchair.
“I became much more mature. I immediately realized that sports were important, but not that important,” said Vincent, who also served in such leadership positions as president and CEO of Columbia Pictures (1978) and later a vice chairman at Coca-Cola. “I was stuck, but I could read and listen to music. I had a brain. I decided I had to do things a little differently. The accident wasn’t a good thing, but out of it came some traits and sensitivities that I’m sure were beneficial.”
Vincent was selected by MLB owners to replace dear friend A. Bartlett Giamatti a week after Giamatti suffered a fatal heart attack. Vincent still feels strongly that Rose, banned from baseball by Giamatti after a special counsel to the Commissioner’s office released a lengthy report that found Rose guilty of wagering on baseball while managing the Cincinnati Reds, should remain on the outside looking in.
Rose has applied to current MLB commissioner Rob Manfred for reinstatement and has been promised a verdict by the end of the year.
“I’ve always thought the issue is not Pete Rose and whether he deserves mercy. The issue is that gambling in Major League Baseball does not exist because the deterrent is so draconian,” Vincent said. “If you gamble on any game in which you have an interest, you’re out of baseball for life and nobody’s every been reinstated. For Manfred to reinstate Rose would be an enormous act of courage and I think it would be wrong.
“My prediction is that Rob Manfred will not reinstate Pete Rose and I would be astonished if he does.”
Vincent took an equally hard line on honoring players accused of using steroids.
“[Taking steroids] is clearly a form of cheating and it’s a criminal act because steroids are prohibited substances. I don’t think baseball should be honoring people who are doing criminal acts,” he said. “Barry Bonds surely got an enormous advantage. I don’t think Barry Bonds deserves the recognition that Babe Ruth and others that performed without steroids deserve. I’m an old-line romantic and I don’t have any sympathy for people that take drugs.”
He said proving steroid usage is difficult, thus making any decisions on how MLB should handle perceived abusers difficult.
“Eventually, we may have to have some junior varsity basement facility at Cooperstown where there’s no elevator and people have to go down three flights of stairs,” he said. “There’s no good answer to that problem.”
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