The suits in New York had a problem. It was a problem involving players, including an icon of the game, circumventing the rules. A problem that might affect the outcome of games and the integrity of the game. A problem with the leather.
No, not this past January. No, not deflated footballs. No, not the NFL. This was Major League Baseball's problem 25 years ago, when players -- outfielders, mostly -- were openly ignoring the rule that restricted gloves to 12 inches in length, from tip to heel. Some of the gloves threatened 15 inches, and in a game of inches, oversized gloves were being used to make shoestring catches and prevent home run balls. The baseball commissioner felt that enough was enough.
"They were getting as big as jai alai cestas," says Fay Vincent, baseball's commissioner at the time. "We were all in agreement that we had to do something."
Those weren't easy times for Vincent. A baseball lockout had nearly wiped out spring training in 1990, Opening Day had to be moved back a week, and the umpires staged a brief boycott. "You'll forgive me if I don't remember much about the gloves," Vincent says. "But I do remember it was one of our few successes. That had a lot to do with our baseball operations people -- and the game's traditional respect for the rules."
In particular, Vincent credits deputy commissioner Steve Greenberg for getting all the parties together: "As a former agent, he had a good relationship with Donald Fehr of the players' association, and he had a real understanding of the game. Don't forget -- Hank Greenberg, his father, pioneered the oversized first baseman's mitt."
For his part, Greenberg deflects the credit back to Vincent. "Fay was the wise one," says Greenberg, now a managing director at the investment firm of Allen & Company. "He could have easily been a judge -- or a priest. He just thought things through."
In the fall of 1989, the commissioner's office alerted the glove manufacturers that they were planning to enforce the rules limiting glove sizes. When players finally arrived at spring training, they were told they would have to give up their big old mitts. But they were also given a grace period of a few weeks in which to break in new ones.
"What we did is somewhat akin to what the governing body of golf has done with the long putter," Greenberg says. "We realized we had let things go too far, and we gave the players time to adjust."
Looking back on that spring, both through memory and clippings, some outfielders were not happy with the change. The complaints were understandable given (1) the attachment players have to their leather and (2) the admission by Rawlings that 25 percent of the gloves they made were beyond 12 inches. "It's a stupid rule, the kind baseball doesn't need," Yankees outfielder Luis Polonia said. "I'm not cheating. I'm going to catch the ball no matter what."
"I'm upset," said Braves outfielder Dale Murphy, who was among the most admired players in the game. "They're giving me two weeks to break in a glove when it takes a year. It's not fair."
But there were also acknowledgements that the things had gotten out of hand. "For certain, some of the gloves are too big," Reds manager Lou Piniella said. "I saw some gloves on the Yankees that looked like loaves of bread."
Then there was the matter of punishment. Would players be ejected? Would outs made with an illegal glove be ruled hits? Would catches over the fence with a 13-incher be ruled home runs? Giants manager Roger Craig suggested that players caught using an illegal glove should be forced to play the rest of the inning bare-handed.
Again, good sense prevailed. If a player was found to have an illegal glove, he had to replace it with a legal one. He would only be ejected if he refused to switch. Umpires could measure at their own discretion -- they were provided with cute little tape measures -- and managers could demand a maximum of two measurements per game. Any plays up to the time of a confiscation would not be affected.
"I've read the reports -- the NFL was clearly looking the other way when it came to the footballs." Fay Vincent, former baseball commissioner
So what happened to what one writer labeled as The Great Glove Grapple? Well, it turned into Much Ado About Nothing. There were no incidents, no confiscations, no ejections. The manufacturers retooled, and the players got the message. The controversy went away so quickly that even Vincent has a hard time remembering it.
While the situations faced by MLB then and the NFL now are not exactly analogous, the core of the problem is basically the same: the leagues had been lax in enforcing the rules regarding an essential piece of equipment. "My father was a football official, you know," Vincent says. "So I'm taking a special interest in Deflategate. I've read the reports -- the NFL was clearly looking the other way when it came to the footballs."
What if pro football had simply said, "OK, from now on we're going to enforce the regulations"? What if it had taken the air out of the controversy rather than gone to war over a couple of ticks of pounds per square inch?
What if the NFL had made its decisions based on cooperation and the good of the game? You know, the way Major League Baseball did 25 years ago.