Bud Selig has been running major league baseball since 1992 after he helped orchestrate the ouster of the commissioner, Fay Vincent. The then-owner of the Milwaukee Brewers was first made chairman of the executive council, making him the de facto commissioner during the more than five years the sport was without one, and he officially got the gig in July, 1998.
When Selig steps down next January he will have served for 17-plus or 22-plus years, depending on how technical you care to be. He kept the job for so long by making multi-millionaire owners into billionaires, by following a spectacular flop with a lengthy stretch of labor peace, and by cracking down on steroids and other PEDs when it was convenient to do so.
Selig’s supporters call him the “consensus commissioner,” which means he was willing to talk awhile before imposing his will. Not often did he not get his way.
It was the same thing last week as his hand-picked successor, Rod Manfred, was elected commissioner upon Selig’s impending retirement.
“It’s been a great day for baseball,” Selig said, after a misleading unanimous vote in Manfred’s favor was announced. According to insiders, five ballots passed without a consensus, then Selig had a private word with the main antagonist, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, and a 30-0 vote followed on the next ballot.
A great day? More a typical day for Bud Selig who, one more time, got his way.
“I have very big shoes to fill,” Manfred said. “There is no question I wouldn’t be standing here today if it weren’t for Bud. I hope I will perform as [the] 10th commissioner in a way that will add to his great legacy.”
If you sense some cynicism here, let me precede any of that by acknowledging Selig did some impressive things. Revenues and the game’s economics are at record levels, luxury taxes against high payrolls have led to some amount of competitive balance, the MLB drug-testing program is one of the best in professional sports, divisional realignment and then expansion of the postseason via wild-card teams added to pennant race drama, interleague play was refreshing, at least when it started, and instant replay in its various increments has been a plus for the game.
But baseball has some serious problems as he exits and if Manfred is simply “Bud Light” they will likely escalate.
Too many fans have been priced out of the game. Enough said.
Games take too long. Thus far in 2014, nine-inning games are averaging about 3 hours, 5 minutes. That’s 30 minutes longer than they took 30 years ago and the tedious, more often-used replay system is only partly to blame. Pitchers step off the rubber, batters back out of the box, catchers wait for nearly every pitch call from the bench, then visit the mound. Enforce the rules. Speed it up!
Yes, revenues are higher than ever, which probably matters only to owners and players, and that is mostly the result of national TV deals, the most recent negotiated in 2012 that is worth $12.4 billion to baseball through 2021.
The downside? Television dictates the game, especially in the postseason when the World Series has become as late night as David Letterman and the ratings have dived off a cliff. The national pastime these days, if you haven’t noticed, the real fall classic, is the NFL.
A luxury tax to create some parity was a start, but it’s only a compromise with the wealthiest teams that have no interest in a salary cap. Anybody paid attention to what has helped make the NFL great? Sure, there are Detroit Lions out there that haven’t won diddly in almost six decades, but that’s their fault, not the fault of the sport. Baseball needs a cap.
We could go on, but you get the idea. Selig accomplished a lot, but the sport is far from being on cruise control. Manfred has some mandates.
As for Selig, many will remember him for a hard-line, owner-friendly stand against labor that led to a strike in 1994, the cancellation of the World Series, and replacement players the following spring. The harm it did to the game was a harsh slap to Selig that caused an about-face to where some owners thought he became too chummy with the hired help. It is why Manfred’s election went through six ballots before some disgruntled owners, who would like another showdown with players when the collective bargaining agreement is up for renewal after the 2016 season, fell into line.
Yes, Selig will go down as the “steroids commissioner” to some and he has done a lot to clean it up. That title isn’t necessarily meant as a tribute. Remember, he first let Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and others do a Popeye to a lot of sacred records in order to rescue the sport after the ’94 strike. There was conviction upon convenience.
Lastly, there was the All-Star Game tie in 2002 when teams ran out of pitchers after 11 innings. Selig’s answer was to make the game mean something by giving the winning league the home-field edge for the World Series each year. A lot of fans like it. I think it was an absurd overreaction. It’s an exhibition game; who cares which side wins?
So, time will tell if history looks favorably on Selig’s legacy as baseball’s czar. It’s a mixed bag, for sure.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.