Bud Selig leaves a complex legacy

He finds himself thinking about history a lot these days, not so much the ancient minutiae he can famously recite from memory — the 1953 Milwaukee Braves starting lineup, for example, or the name of that one obscure pitcher who did that one amazing thing in that one game so many years ago — but History, writ large. His own history. Baseball history. American history. By this point, they’re all intertwined.

This is what happens when you’re about to turn 80, as Bud Selig will at the end of the month, and each week seems to bring the death of another good friend or colleague. It’s what happens when you are preparing to step down from the job you have held for 22 years, as Selig will Jan. 24, a job you have cherished and in many ways transformed. It’s what happens when you have held a lifelong obsession with history and now are confronted with it at every turn as the weeks tick down.

“The nicest part of all this is I have great memories,” Selig says. “It’s a tough job, no question, and I have a lot of tough days. But it’s a remarkable human experience. The sport is more popular than ever and clearly in a golden era revenue-wise [and] attendance-wise. But I thought long and hard about this — I’m going to be 80. I want to teach and write a book. I just felt it’s really my time.”

Time is a funny thing. As Major League Baseball’s commissioner, Selig was in many ways the perfect steward for the game. Baseball has no clock, and neither did Selig. Resolution came when he wanted it to come, usually after he had spent months working the phones until he had a unanimous vote of the sport’s owners. In this era of specialization, the game itself has slowed down — some would say to crisis levels — and perhaps Selig, in his advanced age, did, too.

But now at the end of his tenure, look at the way time is speeding up. For example: How did the all-star break get here so soon?

On Tuesday night, Selig will preside over his final All-Star Game as commissioner — one that will be hosted by a team, the Minnesota Twins, that was nearly eliminated (“contracted,” in the parlance of the times) in the midst of economic strife a dozen years ago. The squads from the newly realigned and reconfigured American and National leagues will meet in a stadium, Target Field in downtown Minneapolis, that didn’t exist when Selig took over the sport in 1992 — one of 22 new or newly refurbished stadiums under his watch.

During the game itself, there will be replay officials in New York monitoring close plays — part of an instant-replay system that was expanded beginning this season — and drug-testers waiting to collect samples afterward, part of a testing program that was once widely ridiculed but now stands as the toughest in major North American professional sports.

By the end of the week, teams will return to a regular season that has featured year-round interleague play since 2013 and that, as of Tuesday, included 19 teams within six games of a playoff spot — thanks in large part to the addition of a second wild card in each league beginning in 2012. This is not to mention the revenue sharing and luxury tax that have brought the sport an unprecedented level of parity.

“If you look at this season, it’s almost a personification of his vision, with so many teams within striking distance,” says Bob Costas, a commentator for NBC and the MLB Network and the author of “Fair Ball: A Fan’s Case for Baseball.” “His mantra for 20 years has been ‘hope and faith for all.’ He’s come pretty close to accomplishing that.”

And in October, the champion of each league will meet in a World Series for which home-field advantage will be determined by the outcome of Tuesday’s All-Star Game — another Selig innovation, born of crisis in the wake of the infamous 2002 All-Star Game tie.

The lingering image from that night of Selig — hands up, shoulders shrugged, completely flummoxed as both teams ran out of pitchers in the 11th inning, leaving him little choice but to declare the game a draw — still resurfaces occasionally.

Looking back, you can see how that moment was also a microcosm of the state of baseball — and of Selig’s commissionership — in 2002. His triumphant moment — the All-Star Game’s return to his native Milwaukee and to a gleaming new stadium, Miller Park, that he almost single-handedly willed into existence — was ruined. That summer, the sport was in trouble: weighed down by failing franchises, headed toward another painful labor negotiation and full of chemically enhanced sluggers emboldened — some would say abetted — by the sport’s lack of drug testing.


Mark McGwire reads a statement as Rafael Palmeiro and Curt Schilling look on during McGwire's congressional testimony. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

But that summer may have also been the turning point for baseball and, by extension, for Allan Huber “Bud” Selig, its ninth commissioner.

Quirks and contradictions

It is mid-afternoon, and the television is turned off in Selig’s office — with its 180-degree views of the Lake Michigan waterfront, on the 30th floor of Milwaukee’s tallest building — which only can mean there are no afternoon games being played. There are 15 night games on the schedule, and Selig, on his couch at the home he shares with his wife, Sue, will flip among all of them.

The Milwaukee office was one of Selig’s requirements when he accepted the permanent commissioner’s job in 1998, after having served as acting commissioner for the previous six years. He wasn’t moving to New York — not after having been born and raised here, schooled at Sherman School, Steuben Junior High, Washington High and the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Not after falling in love with the old Milwaukee Braves as a teenager — then, as a young man with a hole in his heart following the Braves’ departure to Atlanta, spearheading the effort to purchase the Seattle Pilots out of bankruptcy in 1970 and bringing them to Milwaukee to be rechristened the Brewers. Not after owning those Brewers for 28 years, placing his shares in a trust upon assuming the permanent commissioner’s job. (The Selig family sold the team to a group led by Mark Attanasio in 2005.)

It always was one of the quirks of the Selig years, that he kept himself removed from the sport’s teeming Park Avenue headquarters in a quiet office with just a handful of employees, a few blocks from a statue of the Fonz. In baseball, it seemed, the earth actually revolved around the moon.

Here, he could work the phones all morning, then make his way with minimal hassle to his favorite custard stand for a hot dog lunch each day at noon — that detail a staple of every feature story about Bud Selig written in the last 22 years.

“You know not to call him at 10 a.m. on Friday, because he’s getting his hair cut,” says Los Angeles Dodgers President Stan Kasten, formerly of the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals. “He’s a creature of extraordinary habit, but that also makes him unbelievably reliable.”

The Selig story is full of quirks and contradictions. He was the ultimate outsider — a Midwesterner, a car salesman, a Jew, a small-market owner — who fashioned himself into the ultimate insider. He was the acute technophobe — no computer, no e-mail — who positioned baseball, through MLB Advanced Media, as the industry standard for delivering games, tickets and merchandise through the Internet. He was the hard-core traditionalist who wound up leading the sport through a period of unprecedented change and upheaval.

“Nobody loves the game’s history and tradition more than I do,” he says. “But we had to make some changes that wouldn’t go against its history and tradition but that would bring the game into the 20th century and ultimately the 21st century.”

The notion of a “legacy” in sports is overblown, but the term is fairly applied to an almost-80-year-old commissioner, the second-longest serving in the game’s history behind Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

And the Selig legacy contains its own quirks and contradictions. It is most secure where the game’s bottom line is concerned, with revenues having grown roughly sevenfold during his tenure. Attendance, though flat in the last couple of years, is at levels unimaginable for previous periods, with the 10 highest attendance totals in history coming in the last 10 years. Average franchise values are approaching $1 billion. Baseball went from no revenue sharing when Selig took over to sharing some $400 million now. And by the time the current labor agreement ends in 2016, the game will have seen an unprecedented 22 years of labor peace, something that also would have been unimaginable not so long ago.

“An extraordinary amount of change has happened in his tenure — structural change, most of which you’d have to say was extremely positive,” Kasten says. “In the media, it’s fashionable to write the other narrative, the old kind of image of Bud. But he has presided over some revolutionary changes in the sport, and he doesn’t get enough credit for it.”

His legacy is something Selig cares deeply about. Though he tosses off questions about it with a wave of the hand (“That’s up to the historians to decide,” he says), a man who gets a daily package of newspaper clips faxed from New York each morning — and who has been known to call the writers of negative stories to set them straight — doesn’t all of a sudden stop caring about the way in which history will view him, just as he is ready to depart.

A skilled politician

Aside from baseball, Selig’s loves are politics and history. In the winter, when there are no ballgames to watch, he devours political shows on the news networks, flipping between MSNBC, CNN and Fox News as easily as he does in-season between Cubs-Cardinals, Yankees-Blue Jays and Rangers-Astros.

He has been called a master politician himself, skilled both at whipping votes when there is the possibility of consensus and at applying the dark arts of politics when there is not. In Milwaukee, the city’s power brokers still speak in awe at how Selig pushed through the construction of Miller Park, mostly through public money, when both the mayor and (eventually) the governor were against it.

“He comes up, and he goes, ‘G-dd--n it, governor, I’m sick and tired of all this horse---t!’ ” says Carl Mueller, a prominent Milwaukee public relations man and longtime Selig confidante who was involved in the effort to get Miller Park built, recalling a meeting in Gov. Tommy Thompson’s office. “ ‘I’m going down there, and we’re going to pass this bill. And I got one question: Are you with me or not?’ ”

The bill passed. “I wouldn’t want to cross him,” Mueller says of Selig. “Having him in your corner is worth a lot, and I think the owners understand that. I’ve never witnessed what happened to people who crossed him, but I don’t think you do it twice.”

Selig’s 30-0 votes among team owners — unnecessary in that he needed only 23 to gain approval but important to Selig for the unity they symbolized — are legendary, and he can still recall the rare “nay” votes as if they were 1970s Brewers relief pitchers. “The wild card was approved by a 29-1 vote,” Selig says, alluding to the 1993 playoff expansion that was met with widespread criticism in the media. “The only ‘no’ vote was from my friend, the managing partner of the Texas Rangers.”

That would be George W. Bush. In 1992, when the owners (Selig chief among them) staged a coup d’etat to oust Fay Vincent as commissioner, Bush and Selig were the two leading candidates to run the sport. And when Selig was chosen as chairman of the executive council — effectively becoming acting commissioner — Bush decided to run for governor of Texas instead, a move that eventually would propel him to the White House.

You could argue that in the end Selig was the more skilled politician, his governing style a mixture of practiced patience and relentless arm-twisting, his biggest attribute an ability to put his target at ease. He had an uncanny knack to make everyone feel like a friend.

“Bud has always had a skill for the political aspects of the job, and there are many,” says former senator Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), a friend of Selig’s since grade school. “You are trying to work with hard-headed [owners], many of whom have very large egos, and herd them all in a common direction. That can be incredibly difficult.”

Selig doesn’t dispute the notion he might have become a politician had he not gotten into baseball. He aspired to be a history teacher before his father, a Romanian immigrant, persuaded him to work for the family auto dealership. Before long, though, baseball swept him away, and the teaching career was put on hold for some half a century.

The steroids legacy

Much like an umpire, a commissioner is most effective when he is invisible. If you’re seeing him on television and on the front pages of newspapers every day, something very bad is probably happening. Selig was omnipresent for the first half of his tenure, never more so than in 1994 when he canceled the World Series in the midst of a players’ strike. If there were such a thing as approval ratings for commissioners, Selig’s might have been in the single digits.

“The ’90s were a painful period for me,” he says. “There were painful changes that needed to made. . . . We were stuck in neutral as a sport. We were resistant to change. ‘We can’t do it. We’ve never done it that way.’ The first tip-off I got about that was the wild card in September of ’93. You would have thought I had defiled motherhood. ‘What’s he doing? He’s killing the game.’ The critics were loud, boisterous.”

Even more troubling, when Selig came into power in 1992 following Vincent’s ouster, the sport’s off-the-field affairs were a horror show. The large- and small-market owners were split on the issue of revenue sharing — so belligerent they refused to be in the same room with each other — and relations with the players’ union were dire, thanks in no small part to the owners’ collusion ploy of the late 1980s and their ongoing quest for a salary cap.

“There were intractable issues in the early ’90s, and to some extent I would say Vincent was impaled on them,” says Steve Greenberg, formerly Vincent’s deputy commissioner and now managing director of Allen & Co. “Was it bad? Yeah, it was horrific. . . . I would’ve told you there was no way in the next decade baseball would be able to amicably resolve them. But Bud was able to navigate them.”

Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist, author of “In the Best Interests of Baseball? The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig,” says Selig “inherited an industry that was really teetering on the brink of serious problems. ‘Disaster’ may be too strong a word, but it was on the verge of becoming unmanageable. It was an impossible situation.”

It’s easy to forget now, but at the time of his rise to power, culminating with the 1998 owners’ vote that made him permanent commissioner, it was a radical notion for an owner to serve in that job. “That may be the single most defining thing about his tenure,” says Donald Fehr, who as chief of the players’ union from 1983 to 2009 frequently battled Selig. “He related to owners in a fundamentally different way. He didn’t engage in the myth that the job was something other than representing the owners. That was new and different.”

Time has softened the view of Selig’s handling of the 1994-95 labor crisis. It helps that baseball has not had a work stoppage since — an unprecedented period of labor peace that will extend at least through 2016, when the current collective bargaining agreement ends. Some even argue that the painful events of 1994-95 were essential to achieving this period of peace, the ends justifying the means.

“I’m not sure what [Selig] was supposed to do,” Zimbalist says. “The players strike because they have the most leverage at that time and threaten that the World Series is not going to happen. And instead of sitting around and saying, ‘Oh, no, they can’t cancel the World Series,’ he does it himself. You could take either side, but I thought that was leadership.”

The turning point in Selig’s tenure was still years away. In 2001, with the CBA about to expire, the owners and the union were again preparing for labor war — until the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened and the sides agreed to extend their agreement for another year. In the summer of 2002 — the same summer of the infamous All-Star Game tie in Milwaukee — the union set a strike deadline of Aug. 30, and the sides reached an agreement mere hours before the players were to walk.

The agreement was a landmark in several ways, not least of which was the fact it was the first achieved without a work stoppage in 30 years.

“Once we [reached a deal in 2002], I knew there was a reasonably good possibility of the sport moving into a new era,” Fehr says. “Because we had the building blocks in place. We had free agency. We had the economics turning up. We had revenue sharing. And some of the flashpoints were gone, the biggest at that time being contraction. The disputes we had after that time, I don’t want to minimize them, but they were not gut-level, fundamental, economic issues.”

Chief among those other issues was performance-enhancing drugs, which will always be a part of the Selig legacy. The question of how professional baseball became synonymous with steroids, human growth hormone and other performance enhancers — how their rampant use in the sport bloated statistics and undermined the game’s integrity — is one history still must sort out. But the fact is, it happened on Selig’s watch.

“Selig had a major responsibility for the failures in addressing PEDs in the years before” a landmark March 2005 congressional hearing on the issue, said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who was the ranking minority member of the House Government Reform Committee at the time of the session. “It was appalling how little they did.”

Selig decries what he calls the widespread “historical myth” that says baseball turned a blind eye to the problem, content to let jacked-up sluggers assault the record books and lift the game out of its mid-’90s, post-strike downturn. He has always maintained he handled the steroids issue in as timely a matter as he could.

“I never had one baseball executive, manager, GM or anyone else come to me and say, ‘I think we have a problem,’ ” he says. “We reacted as quickly as we could because this was a collectively bargained issue. People don’t seem to understand that.”

It’s true: As it finally began to dawn on baseball’s leadership that the sport had a steroid problem, the players’ union resisted the owners’ initial push for testing, referring to the issue in terms of privacy, not performance-enhancement. The pivotal 2002 labor agreement contained the sport’s first testing program, albeit a feeble one — a round of “survey” testing in 2003 that, by hitting certain benchmarks, triggered a full-fledged (though still non-penal) program beginning in 2004.

It was only through a lot of painful reckoning — the 2005 congressional hearing at which a brow-beaten Selig testified along with players Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and the December 2007 Mitchell Report that outed 87 players as performance-enhancing drug users — that baseball began taking steps to strengthen its testing policy. Today, it is regarded as the toughest in the country.

As recently as January 2008, Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and a longtime critic of baseball’s testing program, was ripping the sport’s commitment to getting clean. “I guess it’s not unexpected, given the history of this issue in baseball,” he told the New York Times. But “the only logical conclusion is they don’t truly want effective drug testing.”

Says Tygart today: “I think you see a culture that has dramatically changed. Where Commissioner Selig is concerned, I think he deserves all the credit in the world for responding the way a leader should when he finds himself in a crisis. Baseball’s program is better than any other sport in the U.S., for sure.”

Waxman, too, gives Selig high marks for his efforts. “He addressed the problem in a first-class, meaningful way, [and] baseball led the way in all of professional sports,” he says. “That will stand as a great credit to Bud Selig.”

A deep affection

He gets one of the calls a few times a month: an owner asking Selig whether there’s any chance he would consider staying on as commissioner. There is a committee, appointed by Selig, already conducting the search for his successor. But the calls keep coming.

When was the last call?

“About a week ago,” he says.

From an owner?

“Yes.”

And there’s still zero chance of it happening?

“Zero.”

Of the sport’s eight previous commissioners, only one other — Peter Ueberroth in 1989 — stepped down voluntarily. (And Ueberroth is a bit of a “gray area,” as Selig admits, since the collusion issue eventually may have led to his ouster.) The rest have either died in office or been booted out by the owners.

The fact the owners are practically begging Selig to stay indicates either a deep affection for him or a lack of faith in his potential successors or perhaps both. And the fact Selig is sure about leaving a job that reportedly pays him $22 million a year indicates either a leave of his senses or a deep resolve that now is the time to go.

Some have speculated Selig’s decision to step down is a sign he sees some sort of downturn or flattening of the game’s economic growth, which has boomed in the last 20 years. Selig dismisses a question about that but not in an altogether reassuring way.

Future projections, he says, are “really difficult” to make. But, he adds, “I will say this: If we do our work as well internationally as I believe we can, I think we can go on to heights we can’t even conceive today.”

No, he says, the only reasons for his departure are his age, his aspirations to teach and write and the feeling it is simply time to go. He’s ready to see some movies (he loves the classics) with Sue. He is ready to listen to music (he loves Neil Diamond). He has an office waiting for him in the humanities building on the Wisconsin campus in Madison, where he plans to write his memoirs.

He remains in good health and frequently brags about his streak of consecutive days on the treadmill — it’s now approaching 2,200, which means he has passed Lou Gehrig and is a little more than a year away from catching Cal Ripken.

Baseball still has its problems. Oakland and Tampa Bay are stuck in bad stadiums. Washington and Baltimore are fighting over their cuts of a shared television network. Most vexing of all, the games themselves are too long, and thanks to the rise in strikeouts and the work-the-count approach of hitters, the ball is in play less than ever — not a great prescription for a sport struggling to keep the attention of the next generation of fans.

The Pete Rose issue still looms, too — the banished Hit King, 73 years old himself, withering on the vine, hoping for a reinstatement from his 1989 ban for gambling on baseball. If Selig is considering reinstating Rose on his way out — his own version of a presidential pardon — he isn’t saying, having stayed almost completely silent on the Rose matter.

But the next commissioner has it easy, thanks at least in part to what Selig is leaving behind. He probably won’t be staring down a strike or wrangling bullheaded owners into the same room or getting beat up on Capitol Hill over steroids.

Heck, if he wants to, he can even live in Milwaukee.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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