Bud Selig's legacy is mixed but no mistaking his passion for baseball: Griffin
No matter how many positives Bud Selig's supporters are able to point to – expansion to 30 teams, 18 consecutive years of labour peace, innovations to the playoff structure, inter-league play and the World Baseball Classic. No matter the obvious positives of added online revenue streams, the MLB Network and MLB.com that he has initiated that have driven major-league baseball to record high income, growing the sport around the world, the fact is, in the eyes of many fans, Selig's legacy will forever remain the cancelling of the '94 World Series and presiding over the Steroid Era. In some ways it's misleading.
The 79-year-old Milwaukee native announced on Thursday that he will step down as baseball commissioner on January 24, 2015 after 22 seasons as the sport's consensus-building czar. That is the second longest tenure of any commissioner, next to Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball's first commissioner brought in to handle the Black Sox Scandal in 1920. Landis ruled with an iron-fist for 24 years.
“It remains my great privilege to serve the game I have loved throughout my life,” Selig issued a statement. “Baseball is the greatest game ever invented, and I look forward to continuing its extraordinary growth and addressing several significant issues during the remainder of my term. We have taken this sport to new heights and have positioned our national pastime to thrive for generations to come. Most of all, I would like to thank our fans, who are the heart and soul of our game.”
Selig, MLB's ninth commissioner, took over on an interim basis in 1992 after commissioner No. 8, Fay Vincent was basically fired by the owners for being too conciliatory towards the players as the time for a contentious new Basic Agreement was approaching.
Much as Judge Landis's legacy remains his first assignment from owners, that of presiding over the Black Sox Scandal, suspending eight White Sox players for life that were accused of tanking the 1919 World Series for cash, the same will likely hold true for Selig.
The Milwaukee native was parachuted in for the '92-'94 negotiations replacing Vincent, leaving ownership of the Brewers to his daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb and tackling the Players' union and Donald Fehr with all the passion for ownership that he could muster.
How did that work out?
At the winter meetings of '92, baseball was reopening terms of its new basic agreement even though the old one did not expire until after the '94 season. With Selig in charge, there was virtually no negotiating done in 1993 (theme music from Jaws). Fehr could see the owners preparing to unilaterally implement a salary cap and revenue sharing after the '94 season, so he warned ownership of a strike possibility. Neither side believed that the worst-case scenario would happen...and neither side blinked.
On August 11, 1994 the final game of the regular season was staged with players and coaches honestly believing they would be back at work soon. But on Sept. 14, Selig held a press conference at old Milwaukee Stadium and cancelled the season and, more importantly, the World Series.
The Fall Classic had survived two World Wars and had been played consecutively since 1904. Fans abandoned the game in droves and even though the strike was resolved on the decision of an arbitrator Sonia Sotomayor, now a Supreme Court justice, on March 30, 1995, the damage was done. Fans were incensed and many have never forgiven Selig as the point man, the lightning rod and left baseball as a sport.
Luckily for baseball, the game is resilient and a part of so many families in North America growing up. It is not a spectacle like NFL football, it is a fabric of people's lives, like hockey in Canada. But people needed a reason to return. At first it was Cal Ripken of the O's, showing up for work every day, breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak of 2,130 in '95, preaching, through actions as much as words, professionalism and work ethic combined with excellence.
Baseball smoothly rolled into its next huge attraction, the home run race, that seemed like it was going to return the game to its pre-strike status as America's pastime. It was Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 competing to be the first to break Roger Maris's 61 in a season. McGwire reached it first with Maris's family in attendance along with the commissioner at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. It was magic.
Then came Barry Bonds of the Giants and his extraordinary emergence as one of the best home run hitters in the history of the game. The sport was back and Selig was on top of it, promoting the longball and attending the marquee moments in person.
How did that work out?
Poison. It began as a trickle, with Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti suggesting rampant cheating and steroid use in baseball during their careers. Then came Androstenedione and BALCO and steroids and finger-pointing denials in Congress and Kirk Radomski and PEDs delivered by UPS and online pharmacies and the Rocket and McNamee and the Mitchell Report and Biogenesis and Braun with no brains. The game was reeling.
How did that work out?
It's not been all doom and gloom. Through it all, Selig has played a hugely underrated role in trying to right baseball's foundering ship. Ever since the game was embarrassed by its (allegedly) lying superstars and threatened by Capitol Hill lawmakers to clean up its act or else, Selig, as commissioner, has at first strong-armed then has worked closely with the Players Association in instituting mandatory drug testing, a move that has added stiffer and stiffer penalties until it is now a real deterrent, the toughest testing in team pro sports.
The results of the two sides newfound cooperation on PEDs, spurred by Selig, can be seen each ensuing year as the game returns to more of the skills that made it a sport for everyman in the first 80 years of the 20th century. It's tough that all of these cleanup steps are being called “scandals” since the investigations and the penalties are all being internally handed out and revealed by the office of the commissioner and the game itself.
Nevertheless, the majority of fans will likely still remember the great strike of '94 and the drug scandals of the Steroid Era as Selig's legacy when he steps away in 2015.
But on balance Selig's contributions have been positive if you understand and keep in mind that in this day and age “the best interests of the game” are only about the best interests of ownership. There is no idealistic view of this relationship. It's why Vincent was fired.
Selig's strength and what is often overlooked is the passion he has for the game and the respect for the players and the fans. Granted it's a low bar when comparing the relative merits of baseball's nine commissioners through the years, but Selig ranks near the top.
MAJOR-LEAGUE BASEBALL COMMISSIONERS
1-Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1920-44)
2-Happy Chandler (1945-51)
3-Ford Frick (1951-65)
4-General William Eckert (1965-68)
5-Bowie Kuhn (1969-1984)
6-Peter Ueberroth (1984-89)
7-Bart Giammati (1989)
8-Fay Vincent (1989-1992)
9-Bud Selig (1992-2014)