Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Contemplating Bud Selig's Legacy

As followers of baseball know, longtime commissioner Bud Selig is due to retire after this season.  This has prompted speculation about his successor, as well as a surprising push by former Selig buddy and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf to reject Selig's hand-picked choice of Rob Manfred.  Instead of speculating on who will win the job, I'd like to think about Selig's legacy as the man who has overseen baseball for 22 years.  I am also doing that now, instead of in October, since this week is twenty years since the strike that helped define his commissionership.

On a fundamental level, above all else, Selig has been a lucky, lucky man.  He can easily tout his accomplishments by showing the high profit levels for major league baseball these days.  Of course, much of that has little to do with him, but with cable providers coveting live sports, one of the few kinds of entertainment that people watch almost exclusively on television rather than streaming.  (You can stream on, but not your local game, that's only on cable.)  The TV money has helped keep the owners and players peaceful with each other and reduced the former friction.  It's also filled Selig's pockets, since he's reportedly paid between $22 million and $30 million a year.  This is the second time that Selig has made a pile of money from dumb luck, the first being his purchase of the Seattle Pilots in 1970 for $10.8 million, which he moved to Milwaukee and named the Brewers.  That team is now valued at $565 million.  While Selig did have some success as an owner, bringing the Brewers to the World Series in 1982, the change in value has more to do with the big money revolution in sports that took place soon after he bought the team.

His luck has not only been financial, since events in the late 90s helped put the strife of the strike behind the game.  It is easy to forget today just how badly the strike of 1994 damaged baseball.  Many fans were disgusted, not only for being robbed of a World Series, but of a chance of seeing Tony Gwynn potentially hit .400 and Matt Williams break Maris' home run record.  Teams like the Indians, Expos, and White Sox, all having waited decades for a title, were all in strong contention when the strike hit.  Once spring training came in 1995, owners tried to fob off replacement players on the public, an insulting gesture.  While the players certainly share some blame for the strike, they were rightfully unwilling to trust owners after teams colluded with each other to not sign free agents, which froze salaries.  (This is not a matter of dispute, and the owners later lost badly in court and paid hundreds of millions in damages.)  Selig shared a tremendous amount of blame in all of this.  He was involved in the collusion of the 1980s, and he pushed a hard line when it came to contract negotiations.  It is hard to understate just how despised he was by the average fan when the season finally started in 1995.

But he was saved.  Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak in 1995 brought a lot of good will, but the home run race between McGwire and Sosa in 1998 made most people forget about the strike pretty quick.  Baseball suddenly mattered in a way it never had in my life.  I remember going to a Nebraska football game early in September, an event that is akin to a religious pilgrimage in my home state, and during the game the PA announcer told the crowd that McGwire had hit another homer.  A massive roar arose from the crowd usually reserved for a Husker touchdown.  In 1998 so many fans alienated in 1994 came back, and many others got drawn into the ballpark to see the longball circus.  Of course, it was all enabled by syringes and injections, but that would not be revealed until years later.  (Expansion and smaller ball parks were also significant factors, with two rounds of expansion coming during Selig's tenure.)  Selig was not the only person who looked away when the steroids problem raged, but his decision to benefit from the homers blasted by those inflated biceps should always be remembered.  Baseball also sat front and center after the tragedy of 9/11.  The singing of "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch became one of the most potent nationalist rituals in the aftermath of the event.  When the 21st century arrived, baseball mattered more than it had in years, but little of that had to do with the actions of Bud Selig, apart from him ignoring steroid abuse.

Beyond benefitting from circumstance, Selig also managed to throw in a few wrinkles that seemed fresh at the time, and only went stale later on.  Interleague play is so blase and meaningless today that it is hard to remember a time when inter-league games, especially intracity games, carried the intensity of post-season matches.  Selig also introduced the wild card and the extra round of the playoffs, which have mostly been successful, but which have also meant fewer live-or-die pennant races.  I do have to give him some credit for being creative and willing to change some things to keep the game fresh.  You certainly can't accuse him of complacency, in fact, he has probably brought more significant changes than any other commissioner in history.  (Integration was the most significant change, obviously, but Happy Chandler was not the prime mover in that case.)

Okay, enough of the things that went well under Selig.  Here's a grab-bag of less laudable things he will likely be remembered for:

Above all, he will be remembered as the commissioner that ended any sense that the commissioner's office had any sort of independent existence from the owners.  While the commissioner is indeed picked by the owners, there has always been a notion of sorts that he is supposed to be an independent force primarily concerned about the best interests of baseball, not working directly on behalf of the owners or players.  Bart Giamatti (may he rest in peace) and Fay Vincent, who was ousted by the owners in favor of Selig, certainly acted independently, to the owners' ire.  Selig, a former owner who participated in collusion and helped push Vincent out in a palace coup, has never been credibly seen as an independent force.  He was brought in by the owners to ensure that they would have total control over the sport, and Selig has been more than happy to oblige.  How else do you think he's been able to hold the position for so long?  One of the top candidates under consideration for Selig's job is his right hand man, the other another former owner.  I doubt the next commissioner will be anything else but a shill for the owners.  That might be Selig's ultimate legacy.

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