Commentary

Bud Selig's long goodbye to baseball

The time might be right for him to retire, but the owners aren't making it easy on him

Originally Published: January 11, 2012
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Bud Selig has quite a way to go before he reaches Brett Favre or Roger Clemens status in the retired/unretired game, but the baseball owners' new two-year contract extension offer just might put him in the conversation.

If you took Selig at his word in July 2009 ("This time I'm done. I really am …"), or in March 2011 ("I really hope and believe that Dec. 31, 2012, I'll be done … "), or during the World Series last year ("I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to it, to write my book and do what I want to do … "), you will think that he won't agree to the proposal that is reportedly to be presented to him this week at the owners meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. However, if you follow Selig's actions -- starting when he agreed to remove the "acting" from his title in 1998 (after insisting he didn't want the job on a permanent basis) when he took over after the owners' coup of Fay Vincent in 1992 and continuing through contract extensions in 2001, 2004 and 2009 -- it's clear he is doing what he's always wanted to do.

[+] EnlargeBud Selig
AP Photo/Morry GashIt's hard to fathom Major League Baseball without Bud Selig, who has been in the commissioner's office for most of the past two decades.

In truth, it has always been difficult to understand why he has talked about leaving in the first place. In nearly every sense of the word, Selig has won.

He is a baseball lifer, no different in that regard from Jason Giambi or Rickey Henderson (who was elected into the Hall of Fame having never announced his retirement) or Don Zimmer, who has always boasted he has never in his life been gainfully employed outside of baseball. Selig has perhaps the best job in America, earning around $20 million -- more, annually, than almost every player in the game. He can claim credit for the most prolific era of stadium building since before World War I (even the renamed, previously doomed Miami Marlins will open a new park this year); he has successfully brokered interleague play and wild-card playoff baseball; and he's now negotiated a third consecutive labor contract with the players' association without a strike or lockout while watching the NFL and the NBA be immolated by work stoppages.

The sport is in a period of relatively tranquil prosperity. Nine different teams have won the World Series in the past dozen years, and the game's midmarket franchises are increasing spending and rising in the standings to the point that the Texas Rangers and Milwaukee Brewers are postseason qualifiers.

Perhaps the most remarkable part of the Selig journey the past several years is his ability to reach these accomplishments without really having to drop his leadership hammer on his sport, or having had the hammer drop on him. Selig even overcame what was expected to be his Watergate: the steroid era. As the game transitioned from the riches and dishonesty of post-strike years into a time of resignation that the drugs are here to stay, Selig survived calls from some members of Congress -- Rep. Henry Waxman, in particular -- that it was time for him to resign, that he was the problem rather than the solution. Performance enhancers haven't been, and won't be, eradicated from baseball any more than in general society, but Selig is not considered the obstacle he was perceived to be by some in 2005, managing to institute reforms of amphetamine and PED testing and player suspensions, as well as blood testing for human growth hormone -- concessions from the players that once were unthinkable.

At a cost estimated to be $40 million, he commissioned the Mitchell report about PED use in the game, but did not sanction the offenders -- players, executives or owners -- in any meaningful way. He has seen the greatest pitcher and greatest hitter of their times be targeted by the federal government -- Barry Bonds was convicted of obstruction of justice; Roger Clemens escaped for the time being with an abrupt mistrial and awaits the feds' next move in his perjury case -- but Selig and baseball's central office have managed to keep their distance from those problems.

And Selig so far has sidestepped the next possible great taint on the sport -- the potential exclusion of steroid era offenders from the Hall of Fame -- leaving that decision to the voters in the Baseball Writers Association of America. It is conceivable that Bonds, Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro will all be denied entrance into the Hall, a verdict that earlier commissioners would at least have acknowledged, if not specifically addressed.

[+] EnlargeBud Selig
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesHe resisted it at first, but, in 1998, Bud Selig agreed to take the "interim" off his title as commissioner.

In the past, the leader of the game has operated by putting some or all of his personal clout on the table. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis banished the Black Sox forever. Happy Chandler vouched for Jackie Robinson. Peter Ueberroth oversaw the drug trials of the 1980s. Bart Giamatti banned Pete Rose, an exile that has lasted nearly a quarter century.

The steroid era was when Selig, the old history major, was going to see his legacy shaped. That still will be the case, but, through it all, Selig relied on the resilience and appeal of the game to protect him, even if the period's greatest players will need a ticket to visit Cooperstown.

The truth is that the culture has changed around him. If baseball is diminished -- and it certainly will be if McGwire, Palmeiro, Bonds, Clemens and Sosa are rightfully banished from enshrinement -- Selig's enduring power, his ability to create enormous fortunes for his owners, more than compensates for it. During the steroid era, the question of whether it was possible for baseball to undergo a financial rise and moral decline simultaneously was answered in the affirmative. Baseball is richer than ever.

And it has prospered that way without clarity from the commissioner on its toughest issues. In an unpopular move, Selig signed off on Frank McCourt's purchase of the Dodgers in 2004, and now the franchise is in shambles. Selig had been told that McCourt was not a good choice and was short on financing, but today, McCourt is the villain. The game overreached on expansion into St. Petersburg, and now the Rays have neither a league-approved exit strategy nor support from baseball in terms of making concessions with the draft or scheduling that can help them thrive in the long term.

For nearly all of Selig's term, the Oakland Athletics have been caught between the San Francisco Giants and the commissioner's office; for two years, he has been promising a resolution to the relocation-to-San Jose issue. The Athletics believe their salvation lies in San Jose, and the Giants believe part of the reason for their powerhouse resurgence is their territorial advantage. (San Jose belongs to them.) The Athletics are still waiting for the commissioner, and their fans are paying the price in the meantime.

Selig even allowed baseball's perennial bottom-feeders -- the Athletics, Twins, Pirates, Rays, Marlins and Royals -- to avoid the contraction conversation of a decade ago by simply pouring warm milk on it. The Athletics won games but are financially hamstrung, a condition in which the Rays find themselves, too. The Twins, Pirates and Marlins all had stadiums built for them, which was the point of the contraction threat in the first place. The Royals have David Glass, an owner worth a billion dollars, but he seems in no hurry to get out of last place and isn't being pressured by the game to do so.

Still, Selig has managed and consolidated and adjusted at his folksy and shrewd pace, and it has worked much more often than not. He succeeded in following his idol, the NFL's Pete Rozelle, in rallying the once-disparate, rabid group of owners behind a common goal: maximizing franchise values and making money.

[+] EnlargeFay Vincent and Bud Selig
AP Photo/Frankie ZithsTwo years before he replaced Fay Vincent, left, as commissioner, Bud Selig and Vincent announced the end of a 32-day lockout in March 1990.

The game has quietly added another playoff team to its postseason lineup, and its advanced media are one of its key financial components. Quite possibly, new power teams in Texas and Anaheim will continue to challenge the Red Sox and Yankees. Now that the Houston Astros, National Leaguers since their birth in 1962, are to join the American League next year, baseball will finally have an in-state rivalry in Texas.

Selig has incorporated instant replay and other new technologies well, resisting the urge to add super-slow motion to a game that isn't culturally suited for it. Baseball isn't football. Do-overs ("Penalties offset. Replay the down.") are not welcome on the diamond.

With baseball in the shape it is, now might be the perfect time for Selig to leave. He has nothing left to prove, really, which might be precisely why the owners are leaning on him to stay.

Selig is familiar and stable. To ownership, a new commissioner, especially one from outside the game, might not understand his place and might fall into the romance trap of Vincent or his predecessor, Giamatti, who fancied themselves as custodians of the game rather than as the voice of the owners -- the trap that put Selig in the big chair in the first place.

His greatest success and reason for staying, if it's a mission he chooses to accept, is that he hasn't encouraged his owners to fight the losing battle of trying to destroy the power of the players, as David Stern and all of Selig's predecessors in the age of free agency did. Instead, Selig has opted to remind his owners to count their money the way insomniacs count sheep. After all, there's so much of it, none of them could stay awake long enough to reach the bottom of the pile.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.

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