- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

One of the more lasting memories of Bowie Kuhn is in a suit coat, trying hard not to shiver during a 40-degree nighttime World Series game. Kuhn was an easy baseball commissioner to poke fun at. As officials go he was, well, fairly officious. Still, he knew when something wasn’t in the best interests of the game, and he wasn’t shy about using the power of his office to squelch it.

I find myself thinking about Bowie these days as I follow the gradual dismemberment of the Washington Capitals. First Steve Konowalchuk, then Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra, and now Robert Lang — with Sergei Gonchar, Olie Kolzig and Brendan Witt reportedly also on the auction block. A sell-off like this, with the season still in progress, hasn’t been seen in sports since 1976, when Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley peddled Vida Blue to the Yankees and Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox in deals that brought him $5million.

Or, at least, he tried to peddle them. Kuhn stepped in and vetoed the deals — as well he should have. They weren’t good for the competitive balance of the American League, and they certainly weren’t good for the A’s fans. Later, Finley attempted to trade Blue to the Reds for $1.75million and a player, but Bowie blocked that move, too. And when Finley sued, the courts sided with the commissioner.

Kuhn acted the way a sports leader is supposed to act. One of the duties of commissioners, though not expressly stated, is to keep their games from becoming a joke. And by dumping stars he didn’t want to pay big money to — or perhaps couldn’t afford — the tightfisted Finley would have reduced the A’s, winners of three straight Series, to laughingstocks. (Indeed, they did become laughingstocks after Blue was dealt to San Francisco and Fingers and Rudi signed as free agents with other teams. By 1979, they were a 54-108 club.)

Bowie may have been too stubborn to wear an overcoat during Game2 of the 1976 World Series, but he understood when an owner was making a mockery of the sport. And Ted Leonsis is doing exactly the same thing with his Trading Deadline Sellathon. If Leonsis unloads any more players, the Caps should rename themselves the Portland Pirates.

To borrow a line from Red Smith, none of this would have happened if Gary Bettman were alive today. But the NHL commish is too immersed, it seems, in the league’s impending shutdown to concern himself with the last place team in the Southeast Division. Granted, the Caps aren’t in any more dire straits than the Pittsburgh Penguins, but at least Pens didn’t stiff their ticket holders by dismantling their club in the midst of a season.

For Caps followers, it must be like watching the demolition of USAir Arena — a big ka-boom followed by a large cloud of dust. “My wife’s out of town,” one says, “and I’m not even going to watch the game tomorrow night. It just makes me sad. I don’t even want to watch the Rangers, now that Jagr’s with ‘em, or the Senators and Bondra. Maybe I’ll feel differently when the playoffs start, but right now it’s just depressing.”

The thing that really astounds him is that “Leonsis has gone from being the most benevolent owner in Washington sports in the last half century all the way to the other end [of the spectrum]. I mean, even Clark Griffith didn’t decimate a team like this.”

Griffith didn’t even come close. He might have clipped coupons to keep the Senators’ expenses down, but only once did he sell off a major star. (That would be his son-in-law, player-manager Joe Cronin, and then only because Griffith owed the banks a ton of money during the Depression. “I can do more for your son-in-law than you can,” Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey told him, and Clark had to agree with him.)

No, this everything-must-go sale of Leonsis’ is practically unprecedented. You’d think the guy was wearing a barrel to Caps games instead of a silk suit. You’d think he was renting out the Zamboni on prom nights. That’s hardly the case, though. The man may have lost millions on the team, but you aren’t likely to bump into him in any soup kitchens.

My friend the hockey fanatic wonders if he’ll ever feel the same about the Caps again. All they’re getting in return for these players, he grouses, is borderline prospects and draft picks — “and George McPhee hasn’t drafted well.” Next year, he predicts, “they’re going to be worse.

But that’s not even his worst-case scenario. The Caps are staging an old-timers game later this month to celebrate their 30th anniversary — talk about bad timing — and my friend is convinced it’ll be the franchise’s last. “They’d better enjoy it,” he says, “because there won’t be a 35th.”

It’s enough to make you long for Bowie Kuhn.

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