Commentary

Bud Selig: Baseball's kooky hero

Next to the other commissioners in pro sports right now, he's a keeper

Originally Published: April 5, 2012
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

It's a stretch to say Bud Selig is the most beloved commissioner in sports, if only because it's debatable such a creature can even exist. Being a sports commissioner ain't all season tickets, pal. An evangelical zeal for the job may be forgiven, but no one awards you the same infallibility as the Pope. Most of the time, you're just a piñata, a dope, a despot. You're held responsible for things you had nothing to do with and can't possibly control. And still …

After watching how expertly Selig and baseball's lawyers put the python grip on Dodgers owner Frank McCourt -- first by refusing to blink at the land-mine-filled lawsuit McCourt filed against the league, and then by squeezing, squeezing, squeezing until McCourt careened into bankruptcy and finally agreed to sell the team, which is what Selig really wanted all along -- the commissioner of Major League Baseball deserves a strong reappraisal.

[+] EnlargeBud Selig
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeBud Selig launched the 2012 season (in North America, at least) with style in Miami on Wednesday night.

Did you see the record-setting $2.15 billion sale price for the Dodgers?

What that outcome suggests is the same aw-shucks commissioner who's so often compared to an absent-minded professor because of his verbal perambulations and flummoxed looks might actually have the guts of a burglar and a black bag of full of tricks, not just a wonk's lust for reimagining baseball a bit at a time. And it's about time someone said this: Has not Selig become the most effective, innovative commissioner in American sports?

I know. I never thought I'd find myself saying that out loud, either. And I may kick myself in a week. Selig's laxity during the steroid era drove me crazy. His habit of blithely reframing discussions with unsustainable claims can be irksome, too. (He once insisted that baseball faces no more danger of being beset by bad weather in November than in any other month, which the folks who sell sunblock or mittens might be surprised to hear.)

But while the NHL's Gary Bettman struggles to even make his league a blip on the sports radar, and while David Stern is hearing he's overstayed his NBA party, and while the NFL's Roger Goodell deals with the Saints' bounty scandal and concussion issues that threaten his so-called Teflon league, Selig's kingdom is thriving. And at age 77, Selig is, too, two roller-coaster decades after he became acting commissioner in 1992 and never vacated the job.

Baseball has had labor peace since 1995. The Wilpons may yet survive the Bernie Madoff scandal and keep the Mets after being left for near-dead. The jaw-dropping price the Dodgers just commanded from a group that includes local hero Magic Johnson astounded analysts. Even little Cincinnati just gave Joey Votto a Yankees-sized $251.5 million contract.

Not all of that happened solely because of Selig's personal sleight of hand, it's true. And this is not meant to suggest the man doesn't have flaws or skeletons in his closet. He does.

Selig still insists he never saw baseball's steroid scandal coming even after reporters put together timelines that include his own quotes that suggest such denials are a self-serving fiction. Similarly, the cynic in me has always thought the Mitchell report that Selig commissioned wasn't a search for the whole truth as much as baseball's attempt to write its own competing version of an "official" history that artfully ignored some dark alleys. (Players and small-fry trainers have been vigorously investigated. But team executives? The game's corridors of power? No.)

Selig is often accused of having clubby double standards. His treatment of McCourt was far different than how he's doggedly propped up the Mets' Fred Wilpon, a close friend. Years ago, Selig rescinded the lifelong suspension of convicted felon George Steinbrenner but continues to uphold Pete Rose's ban.

[+] EnlargeBud Selig
AP Photo/Morry GashHe's clearly a fan of the sport he governs. Last October, glove and all, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch during the Brewers-Diamondbacks playoff series.

And yet, while Goodell and Stern marinate in acrimony directed at them from their own players, Selig chugs along slapping backs and shaking hands. Even when his critics take aim and fire at him, sunshine tends to come pouring out of the bullet holes when you'd expect a couple of pints of blood instead.

Take this response from Selig on ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike Show" this week when it was suggested that reigning National League MVP Ryan Braun's positive test for performance-enhancing drugs, and then the unprecedented overturn of his suspension by challenging the handling of his sample, is proof that baseball today isn't all "a bed of roses."

"See, I don't look at it like that at all," Selig exclaimed. He pointed out that baseball has administered 4,800 other drug tests that weren't overturned ("None, zero!") and thus, "All [the Braun case] proves, again, is we have the toughest testing program in sports. And yet, there is an appeals procedure, which is fair. And it worked."

Sooo … wait -- having a sitting league MVP test positive was a good thing? And the same goes for the overturned test? Come again?

I listened to the podcast twice and I'm still amazed at the leap.

But like a lot of things Selig has done, you have to give him this: His calculus often works somehow.

Opening Day is here and people aren't buzzing about Braun's case, same as steroids didn't make fans abandon baseball even when the enormity of the scandal was exposed. In the end, most fans seem shrewd enough to conclude that they don't have to deprive themselves of something they love just because players cheat the game. Perhaps Selig always understood that calculus because he began as an uber fan, too. After the Braves left his native Milwaukee for Atlanta in 1966, Selig was outraged enough to embark on a long slog that ended with him bringing a major league team back to town from Seattle. A statue of Selig now sits outside Miller Park as homage.

But that's hardly all he has done. Interleague play and the World Baseball Classic came in on Selig's watch as commissioner. He was the driving force behind the implementation of one (and now two) wild-card playoff spots in each league. Some traditionalists still hate it. But in small- and medium-market cities, especially, fans' hopes spring anew.

[+] EnlargeAllen (Bud) H Selig statue
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesWhy not honor him with a statue in Milwaukee? He spearheaded the effort to bring baseball back after the Braves left.

Selig also pushed for holding Opening Day in Japan this year, a decision that provoked howls of protest and wise-guy jokes. (If the new season begins in Tokyo and nobody in the U.S. knows it, does baseball really return at all?) But the commissioner's response is classic Selig: First he explained that one of his responsibilities is globalizing the game, then he refused to back down -- even upping the ante by cheerfully adding that baseball will open in Europe or some other overseas locale every year if he has his way.

As you may have noticed by now, Selig has a way of getting his way.

This is not the résumé of the bumbling fluff he is still often accused of being.

Selig remains ritually underestimated outside baseball, but big league owners know better. And Selig knows that's where his bread is really buttered. As he also said during this week's "Mike & Mike" interview while discussing the astonishing Dodgers coup: "When I took the [permanent] job back in 1998 -- it seems like 1888 some days, lately -- I said to the owners, 'Look, guys, in the end you can judge me by asset values. Because in the end, that is really the sum total of everything we do.'"

The Dodgers' sale price set a record for a North American sports franchise. Twenty major league teams have built new stadiums since Selig took office. TV rights are through the roof.

No wonder baseball owners prevailed on him in January to forget his retirement plans and accept a contract extension to 2014, when he'll turn 80.

Selig would probably say something like, "Aw geez and look here, that's young compared to Connie Mack -- he managed Philadelphia until he was 87!" But that's Selig, and these are his golden years, all right. Men who are decades younger and light-years smoother keep bumping into the furniture. But Selig just keeps chugging along, letting the arrows glance off him and getting things done as he goes.

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