Thursday, January 22, 2004
Updated: January 27, 2:24 PM ET
Bud's had his ups ... and downs
By Jayson Stark
He won't go down in history as some transcendent sports visionary, like Pete Rozelle.
He won't be regarded as a smooth, league-resuscitating marketing genius, like David Stern.
But a century from now, when people look back on the fascinating commissionership of Bud Selig (assuming he's not still in office in a century), they'll have to admit this:
A lot of stuff sure did change in baseball while Selig was minding the supermarket.
Think about the state of this game on Sept. 9, 1992, the day Selig was named (ahem) interim commissioner. In retrospect, those days were to modern baseball what the year 12 BC was to modern civilization.
Three of the 11 World Series played since then have been won by teams that didn't even exist when Selig took over (namely, the Marlins and Diamondbacks). That was also 16 new stadiums ago, 142 Division Series games ago, 36 regular-season Mets-Yankees games ago, nearly a billion dollars in revenue sharing ago and two regular-season games in Japan ago.
Then again, in those prehistoric years BB (Before Bud), there was no such thing as a $252-million shortstop. There had never been a World Series called on account of labor pains, either. Contraction was a crisis that only obstetricians had to worry about. And the commissioner's office, in bustling midtown Manhattan, was a place where you might actually be able to find (believe it or not) the commissioner.
So obviously, those BB years were a loooonnnngggg time ago, friends. And those highlights were just a slice of what The Selig Years have brought us.
How much of it was his doing? Heck, we could shove 100 fans into a room, ask them which of those changes Selig deserved the credit or blame for, shut the door and return in a week to find them still arguing like Kornheiser and Wilbon. But we're not sure that's a bad thing. Boredom is bad. And whatever words historians might use to describe the Selig years, "boring" won't be one of them.
So since we're impatient, since we can't wait 100 years, here's a look in advance at The Selig Legacy, even though we're warning your right now: We predict Bud will undoubtedly reign as commissioner for life -- if not beyond.
On the field
|Avoiding a work stoppage in 2002 was a plus for Bud Selig in his tenure as commissioner ...|
1. Wild cards, more playoffs, interleague play
The commish takes a lot of credit for baseball's onslaught of on-field innovations. The honest truth is, pretty much none of them were his idea. But an owner once told us the rule of thumb for commissioners works a lot like the rule of thumb for presidents:
If you're the guy in charge when big stuff goes down, it goes on your permanent record. You get the cheers. You get the boos. You get whatever baggage winds up being stuffed into the overhead compartment.
But even Selig's detractors admit to one thing: At least the guy isn't afraid of change. If he were, either none of this would have happened, or he'd have been hiding in a closet since 1994.
So is baseball on the field a better game because of all the changes in The Selig Years? We know this isn't unanimous, but we would vote yes.
We hated the wild card when Bud rammed it through his ownership buddies. We've come to like it. On the other hand, we always wanted to see interleague play. And despite its problems, we still think it's full of matchups that provide a jolt of electricity in the middle of a really, really, really long season.
We love those expanded playoffs, too. Oh, the system still needs tweaking, to help the best teams get more of an advantage (and wild cards more of a disadvantage) in their dance across the first-round tightrope. And baseball still has to do a better job of promoting the NCAA-hoop-tourney type insanity of Division Series Week. But it's great theater. And great baseball.
So we'll give the commish a check mark in his Plus column for this one -- even if he probably takes too much credit for innovations that were other people's ideas.
2. The schedule
There would be no unbalanced schedule in both leagues right now if Selig hadn't pushed for it relentlessly. So you know where to send your cards and emails.
But we see more good than bad in this format, too, even though there are serious complications.
For one thing, the old balanced schedule was a logistical nightmare. It's amazing how many people have conveniently forgotten that.
For another, the more that teams in the same division play each other, the more meaning is restored to one of baseball's most unique and time-honored traditions -- that finishing in first place matters more than in any other sport. Was there anything more annoying than the old schedule's habit of sending teams roaring down the stretch playing nobody they were battling in the standings? That was standard stuff, remember.
And finally, rivalries are the best thing in sports. So the Yankees and Red Sox could play 80 times a year. It wouldn't bother us.
But because of this schedule and the rotating interleague games, there's no equity whatsoever in the schedules of the wild-card warriors. It also means some teams in the same division play easier schedules than others. Not in an NFL kind of way -- but in a way unlike anything baseball had seen before.
We know the commish thinks the benefits are worth the tradeoff. But it means his ovations on this front won't be long, and his passing grade is only a B-minus, not an A.
3. Attendance and ballparks
Whatever problems people inside baseball have with these Selig Years innovations, and no matter how many traditionalists might grumble about them, the facts are clear: Fans, in general, like this stuff. They vote with their wallets every day.
The novelty of interleague games may be wearing off, but about 20 percent more people still paid to see them last year than paid to see all other games. And ticket prices may have reached all-time highs, but (despite a fractional attendance dip last year) more people are still paying to see baseball games now than at any point in any era.
Five teams drew more than 3 million customers last season, and two others just missed. In 1992, only three teams drew 3 million-plus.
There were still 11 teams (out of 30) that failed to draw 2 million last year -- but five of them played in the low-octane AL Central. In 1992, 12 of the 26 franchises failed to draw 2 million -- including (believe it or not) both New York teams.
It's safe to say that not one of those people paid to watch Bud Selig legislate. But he did lobby tirelessly for many of these new ballparks everyone is now sitting in -- including that ever-popular leaky dome of his in Milwaukee. And the ballpark boom, whatever its ugly repercussions in places like Detroit and Pittsburgh, did help fuel whatever sort of baseball boom the commish now presides over.
The real down side, of course, is all the demographic studies that show us baseball has lost its hold on the youth and the minorities of America. When those 22nd-century historians are studying The Selig Years in 2104, they'll be able to assess the long-term impact of the damage on those fronts more easily than we can. But for now, the numbers don't lie. So the commish gets another X in the Plus column.
4. Globalizing the game
|... But canceling the 1994 World Series was a negative that will certainly taint Selig's legacy as commissioner.|
It wasn't Bud Selig who inspired Alfonso Soriano, Miguel Cabrera or Albert Pujols to dream of being baseball stars in the good old U.S. of A. But baseball has done more to reach beyond the continent during The Selig Years than at any time in its history.
Obviously, the commish doesn't get singular credit for that. The union has pushed in that direction for years. The soon-to-be-a-reality World Cup was as much the players' vision as Selig's. And out on the Pacific Rim, it was the great players of Japan who forced their way to America -- not the American commissioner forcing the Japanese to open their doors and let them come.
Nevertheless, the future of baseball -- on and off the field -- is directly tied to its global popularity. And it has never been higher than during The Selig Years. So we'll award the commish another Plus, even if it's a right-man-in-the-right-place kind of Plus.
Off the field
There's no way of knowing how many sports fans still look at Bud Selig's picture and think: "That's the guy who canceled the '94 World Series." But that's a stain on Selig's record that's so indelible, all the Clorox on the planet couldn't wipe it out.
We have heard the commish say a thousand times he shouldn't be blamed for that one, because it was the players who were on strike. But ownership hawks forced that strike. And Selig was as hawkish back then as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Nothing about baseball has been the same since the strike of 1994-95, except those 90 feet between the bases. So the check mark in Selig's Minus column for that debacle could easily blot out all those Pluses up above.
On the other hand, the 2002 labor crisis was, miraculously, solved without a strike. And when we asked one baseball management person -- one, in fact, who has occasionally differed with the commissioner -- how much credit Selig ought to get for averting that strike, his surprising reply was: "All of it."
Well, we sure wouldn't go that far. The commish gets credit for not forcing the sport off the cliff. He also gets credit for convincing owners to do something the union has asked them to do for years -- share more revenue.
But if the union leaders hadn't understood the overwhelming need for compromise (some of which meant surrendering long-held philosophical stands), that 2002 labor deal would never have gotten done.
And if Selig's chief labor negotiator, Rob Manfred, hadn't forged a more cordial, workmanlike relationship with the union than many of Selig's hawkish pals would have preferred, that strike might still be in progress.
The union and management do work together now on many signficant issues (World Cup, All-Star Game, the 21st Century panel). Which suggests potential for better times. But there is still way too much personal distrust between Selig and union leaders. So until these two sides form a true partnership, the commish gets a Minus on labor.
2. Style and image
You can argue, we suppose, that job-approval ratings are irrelevant to Selig's legacy. After all, it isn't we the people who elect him. It's them, the 30 people who own baseball teams, who get that lucky job. So realistically, it only matters what they think of him.
The commissioner is the face of his sport. That's the deal, like it or not. And even Selig's allies admit he isn't exactly as popular as Dontrelle Willis.
We've never sent a major pollster on a door-to-door mission to find out what folks think of their friendly neighborhood baseball commissioner. But we do know that, in July of 2002, Baseball Weekly surveyed 2,044 fans -- and only 14 percent said they thought Selig should remain the commissioner. In fact, five times as many fans thought Rudy Giuliani should be commissioner as thought Selig should be commissioner.
By last summer, though, Selig fared a lot better in a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll. In that poll, 57 percent of fans surveyed said he was doing either a good or very good job as commissioner. On the other hand, when players were polled on the same question, 63 percent rated Selig's performance as either bad or very bad.
But whatever the numbers, even Selig's friends don't deny that there is more fan grumbling about their commissioner than there is about the commissioners in the other major sports. One of those allies even admits Selig hasn't lost his "used-car-salesman persona." So when it comes time to buy a 129-year-old used sport from this man, there are still too many fans making sure they hold on tight to their wallets.
Selig can be a very likeable guy, one on one. And we know he sincerely cares about the game he runs. But we hear from so many fans who have no faith in his ability to lead his sport in the right direction, you have to wonder how many potential fans he has turned off over the years who aren't ever coming back.
We know this, without polling one household: Baseball's hold on the soul of America is far weaker today than it was the day Bud Selig took this job. So a Minus on this front doesn't begin to describe all that entails.
3. Owner unanimity
Back in the olden days, the days Before Bud, it was hard to imagine baseball's owners gathering in one room and being able to agree on lunch, let alone stuff like revenue sharing and interleague play.
So whatever you think of Bud Selig on any other level, his greatest David Copperfield trick has probably been his inimitable skill at getting votes -- most of them "unanimous" votes -- to approve truly revolutionary changes in his sport.
That's a talent that means zilch to the American public. But it's a testament to Selig's abilities as a listener, arm twister, consensus builder and politician. And none of the good stuff that has happened under his watch would have been possible without it.
Oh, there are questions about how he does it. He has traded so many favors for so many paybacks, he could just as easily run the Corleone family as the baseball family. And there is legitimate reason for suspicion that he has maneuvered the sales of several franchises into the hands of people he knew he could count on.
Meanwhile, because he won't allow a vote on anything until he's sure he has the votes, his sport often seems to be moving slower than Henry Blanco. And while that may work in the long run, the problem is this:
If you lead by consensus, it often isn't viewed by fans as the kind of true, dynamic leadership they prefer in their commissioners. And it's that failure to be viewed as a real "leader" that is as responsible as anything for Selig's inability to connect with his public.
Nevertheless, within his circle, he has still managed to move a once-immovable mountain. So off the field, this is one subject where he ought to like his report card.
4. Milwaukee as the center of the baseball universe
||It isn't easy being Bud Selig. We all know that. You wouldn't wish his job on anybody.
It's one thing for the commissioner to want to live in the town where he has spent his whole life. In an age of computers and cell phones, it shouldn't matter anymore whether Bud Selig lives in Milwaukee or Mozambique.
But the trouble with his Milwaukee connection is more complicated than his mailing address. For 11 years, Selig has maintained his ownership of one franchise (the Brewers) while trying to lead all his franchises. And only this month, when he finally announced he was selling, has the commish acknowledged that this situation isn't good for baseball.
How many of the changes he has proposed -- realignment, contraction, revenue sharing, etc. -- have at least appeared to provide a direct benefit to the Brewers? Too many for his critics to dismiss that trend as a coincidence. That's for sure. And even if they were, a trillion Selig denials couldn't make the appearance of that conflict disappear.
It won't disappear until the day he sells, assuming he can ever find a buyer. But even then, Bud Selig will always be a guy from Milwaukee who views his world through Milwaukee-tinted Oakleys. And it's that small-market mindset that has oozed through his commissionership, from start to finish.
It's fine to view payroll disparity as a serious issue. It's not so fine to announce that two-thirds of your fans' teams have no shot to win the World Series before they even make it to spring training. It's not so fine to spend so much time publicly whining about the sorry state of your sport's finances and competitive balance.
It's not so fine to think the only solution to your industry's problems is a system that encourages teams to spend less money, as opposed to investing money wisely and creatively in a product that in turn inspires fans to pour money back into your product.
It's not so fine to see nothing wrong with stepping to the podium -- just a day and a half after an exhilarating World Series that made people feel so good about your sport -- to announce that it's in such disastrous shape, you need to put two teams out of business.
But that's Bud Selig. You can take the Milwaukee Brewers out of the commish's hands. But you can't take the Milwaukee brainwaves out of the commish's mind. And that's a big fat negative.
In conclusion ...
So as we look at the big picture, what do we find? We've actually given the commissioner more pluses than minus. We're not sure who ought to find that more shocking -- us, him or the fans who gave him that 14-percent job-approval rating.
But then Bud Selig is a complicated guy. He has gotten a lot of good stuff done. We'll give him that. But even many of his good deeds seem to have a big cloud hovering over them.
The dark side of expansion was contraction. The dark side of globalization was the still-homeless Expos. The dark side of the ballpark boom was the empty-ballpark bust in Pittsburgh and Detroit and Milwaukee. The dark side of the crusade to control payroll disparity was suspicions that not all the control mechanisms could be considered, well, legal.
It isn't easy being Bud Selig. We all know that. You wouldn't wish his job on anybody -- not Bob Costas, not Peter Gammons, not George Bush (son or father).
But it isn't easy to judge Bud Selig, either. His sport has probably changed more under his administration than in any other period in its history. It needed to change. And Selig allowed it to change. But how come, if the change has been so good, the future seems so worrisome, if baseball can't lure back the fans it turned off and the generation it's neglected?
When we try to address Bud Selig's legacy, we tangle with all those questions. So we just hope those historians in that next century find it easier to start untangling it all than we did. Because even after all these years, we're still not sure whether history will have a better idea what to make of him than the fans he keeps running into at the bratwurst stand.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.