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MLB's next commissioner?

5/8/2013 - MLB

One of these days, one of these years, one of these centuries, there is going to be a commissioner of baseball who isn't named Bud Selig.

We know this is true because Bud Selig himself has told us so. And he would never kid or jest or lead us astray about something like that. Would he?

But here's what else we know is true: Selig's contract expires in 17 months, and not a single force has been set in motion, by him or anyone else, to begin the process of choosing his successor. Not one.

There's no anointed heir apparent. There's no search committee. There's not even a dart board in the commish's office with 23 possible names to aim his darts at.

So trying to guess the identity of the next commissioner is almost as impossible as trying to guess the identity of the next breakout Desperate Housewife of Topeka.

But we're going to take a stab at selecting the field, at least. Think of it as commissioner bracketology.

How will this work?

Before we start naming names, here's one thing we've learned in life: You can't get to the finish line -- in anything -- until you run the race. So what's the course layout for the Amazing Commissioner Race? Still very unclear, to be honest.

That's because the rest of Bud Selig's sport is waiting for a signal that it is now, officially, post time. Nothing can happen, said a management source from one club, "until Bud unequivocally says, 'This is it. I'm done. I'm out. We're going to have a new commissioner. So it's time to start looking.'"

The sport needs this sort of clear, forceful, no-wiggle-room pronouncement for one obvious reason: The commish's history is filled with previous occasions when he has said he plans to retire at the end of his contract -- only to keep right on commissioner-izing.

So even though this time feels different and more people than ever believe he really does mean it -- this time for sure, no kidding -- the skeptics remain. And they'll always remain until Selig, now 78, removes every shred of doubt. If that's even possible.

From all indications, Selig isn't ready to make that pronouncement yet. Folks inside the sport speculate that he's waiting until after this season. Whereupon the search would begin, with a successor theoretically chosen by midway through next season.

But again, we have no idea what he's thinking because a number of baseball people who speak with him regularly say he never talks about this -- and discourages the rest of his sport from talking about it. So no one is entirely sure about timetables, selection process or just about any other aspect of this humongous issue.

"What David Stern did with Adam Silver, what Paul Tagliabue did with Roger Goodell (i.e., anointing their successors), that's how this would normally go," said an official of another club. "But Bud hasn't done that. So we're all in the dark. Even within his inner circle, there hasn't been any talk."

So all this speculation you hear and read couldn't possibly be more premature. But it sure is fun to toss it out there anyway. So why not plow ahead with this game?

Candidates from the outside

What are the odds the next commissioner will be someone who doesn't currently work in baseball? Probably worse than the odds on Palace Malice at Churchill Downs last weekend (23-to-1). Probably much worse, in fact.

People within the sport constantly downplay the idea that anyone on the outside could walk in and run this complex, $8 billion industry made up of 30 different kingdoms that often have next to nothing in common except the baseballs they play with.

"It's a harder business, a more complicated business, to run than it's ever been," said another longtime official. "Can you imagine a new commissioner walking in the door on day one, not having worked inside the game, wondering, 'Where do I start?' I can't."

We've heard similar sentiments from numerous other people inside the game. If you're not a baseball person, you might as well be a Martian. That's how viable the candidacy of an outsider seems to the people who would cast the votes. After more than a decade and a half of labor peace and a long stretch with no other significant turbulence, owners are looking for more of the same, not a newbie to redraw the blueprints.

But if that's the attitude of the owners who will make this decision, they're setting themselves up for a major "missed opportunity," says one of America's most incisive sports-business and sports-marketing analysts.

"I think baseball deserves a process … that exposes [its leaders] to really thoughtful outside perspectives on what the game might need, not just to hold on to its existing relevancy, but to regain some of the relevancy it once had," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

What people on the outside see, Swangard said, is a sport that's still successful but has clearly slipped behind football in popularity, and a sport that has done a lot of creative things but "not as creative as some of the things the other sports have implemented."

So how, he wondered, can baseball not at least open the search to outsiders and give itself a chance to meet candidates who might "walk in the room and offer such a fresh perspective, you'll get blown away by their ideas?"

Excellent question. So which outsiders might be able to wangle an interview? That would be a list even shorter than Jose Altuve.

Bob Costas

Costas

You can forget people like Bob Costas, Peter Gammons, Ron Burgundy or any other sports-media giant, popular as those choices might be with the masses. This sport is looking for a CEO, not a guy who can turn a phrase. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

The closest thing to a "media guy" who might intrigue the powers that be? Maybe someone like George Bodenheimer, the man who ran ESPN for nine years and now serves as ESPN Inc.'s executive chairman. At least we got a "very well-liked" review out of one official when his name came up.

Former NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol -- a name suggested by Costas on "Mike and Mike" this week -- elicited a similar response.

One more name on the "outside" that inspired a little intrigue: outgoing Yale president Rick Levin, who once served on Selig's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Baseball Economics. "Very interesting choice," said one of Levin's baseball acquaintances. "He knows baseball very well. And if you really think it through, running a university is very similar to running a sport."

There's always a chance baseball could consider a bright, charismatic executive from another sport. But could a candidate from another sphere -- smart and magnetic as that candidate might be -- really get 24 owners who barely know him (or her) to cast a vote for dramatic change from what they know and love? "No way," said one club official.

"So what baseball needs in this job and what it gets," said Swangard, "are probably two different things."

Candidates from the inside

OK, now this gets interesting. So many names that could potentially fit. So many ways to look at them.

Dave Dombrowski

Dombrowski

Owners and club presidents: Dave Dombrowski (Tigers) and Mark Shapiro (Indians) are men who ascended from baseball operations to their club presidencies. Both are bright and exceptionally well-liked. But are they even interested in assuming a job that's as much about politics and dollar signs as baseball is?

Paul Beeston (Blue Jays) and Sandy Alderson (Mets) once worked in the commissioner's office. But they've both moved on to running teams. Tough to foresee them reversing field at this stage in their careers.

John Schuerholz (Braves) and David Montgomery (Phillies) might be the two most respected and beloved club presidents among their peers. But it's doubtful they'd be interested in taking on this level of aggravation after all these years.

Other names: Mark Attanasio (Brewers) … Derrick Hall (Diamondbacks) … Terry McGuirk (Braves) … Stan Kasten (Dodgers) … Larry Baer (Giants) … Andy MacPhail (formerly of the Orioles, Cubs and Twins). They'd all be fascinating names to kick around. But get back to us in six months.

Joe Torre

Torre

Baseball Icon Division: Joe Torre and Tony La Russa both work in the commissioner's office these days. If baseball were just looking for a face of the sport to move into Bud's old office, they couldn't do better. But do you see these two men, savvy as they might be, as CEOs of a gigantic, multifaceted, multibillion-dollar industry?

"I love Joe and Tony," said an official of one club. "But that's not what they do."

Inner sanctum options: The three names people seem to speculate about most are the names of baseball's most influential movers and shakers: Rob Manfred (executive vice president, economics and league affairs); Tim Brosnan (executive vice president, business); and Bob Bowman, CEO of MLB Advanced Media).

Manfred would be to Selig what Adam Silver has been to David Stern -- a longtime trusted aide to the commissioner who has negotiated multiple labor deals, handled crises such as the Dodgers' bankruptcy saga and been intimately involved in major issues ranging from drug testing to revenue sharing.

Brosnan has worked in the commissioner's office for 20 years, has had his hands in every significant broadcasting, licensing and sponsorship issue that has arisen for more than a decade, and has been heavily involved in the globalization of the game.

And Bowman has been the dynamic force behind MLB's innovative, highly successful foray into the digital marketing of its sport to millions of online subscribers around the planet.

When and if a search committee starts batting this stuff around, you can expect to hear all those names again. How loudly and how often? Depends who's running the committee.

And the winner is …

Ho, ho, ho. You really think anyone knows the answer to that question?

We've seen all sorts of conjecture about which of those folks named above is the "favorite." The truth is: There is no "favorite." This race hasn't even started yet.

But here is the most important thing you need to remember: Nowadays, the commissioner of baseball isn't the commissioner of The People. He's the commissioner of 30 people -- the owners. Period.

And the next commissioner has to collect 24 votes out of those 30 owners. Trust us. That'll be tougher than hitting a 103 miles-an-hour Aroldis Chapman smokeball.

"I don't think there's any person today who can get 24 votes," said an official of one club. "Nobody. Not right now."

Why would that be, you ask? Because over the past 30 years -- maybe 40 years -- only one person on earth has been able to get baseball's owners to work together and agree on much of anything: Bud Selig.

But once those owners have to choose his successor, they split back into the old, familiar, what-can-this-do-for-me factions. There's large-market/small-market. There's old-guard/new-guard. And there are many more factions you'd never believe existed.

And when people start thinking that way, they "count backwards," said an official of one club. "They hear a name, and they start thinking, 'How many votes do I need to block this candidate?'" (Correct answer: only seven.)

Some owners are looking for as close to a Bud-like figure as they can find. Others are looking for a different style of leader, someone who will run the business but also make himself (or herself) more visible than Selig, showing up at a different ballpark every time you look up, to connect with fans and talk up the game.

But with so many people looking for so many different qualities, here's a scenario some folks can easily foresee:

Search committee forms in, say, November. … A half-dozen names emerge by the spring. … And by midsummer, it's clear that (uh-oh) no candidate has the votes.

"You know what Oliver Stone would say, don't you?" laughed one club official. "He'd say, 'If you believe in conspiracies, you'd believe that's the plan.' And then Bud would say, 'How can I let my sport down? I'll do two more years -- but that's it.'"

Well, you won't find any Oliver Stones here. We believe Bud Selig means what he says and says what he means. But where is the Amazing Commissioner Race about to lead him and his sport over the next 17 months?

Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Great question. Too bad it would be easier trying to predict who's going to win the World Series -- in the year 2088.