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Bud Selig Proved Himself a Worthy Commish in One of the League’s Toughest Eras

Though never short on critics, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig proved to be a strong leader in one of the league’s toughest eras.

Bud Selig

If you polled the average baseball fan, he probably won’t have a good assessment of Bud Selig as he ends the second-longest commissioner’s tenure in baseball history next month.

Over the last two decades, you’d have to scour the country far and wide to find a non-baseball executive/media person who’d be classified as a dyed-in-the-wool Selig fan.

Given all that, a cool analysis is warranted as Selig hands over the reins to Rob Manfred, an insider’s move being promoted one step up in the commissioner’s office.

The first thing that comes to mind with Selig unfortunately is an apparent too-long tolerance of PEDs in the 1990s before cracking down. We’ll get to that in a minute. When the good and bad of Selig is weighed, one bottom line tips the balance in his favor: the fact we’ve played baseball uninterrupted since mid-spring 1995. That’s when future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, then a U.S. appellate judge, essentially ruled in favor of the players amid the legal backwash of the crippling strike.

If Selig couldn’t – or wouldn’t – jawbone all his owner buddies into backing off their hawkish stance toward cost control fighting the Players Association, the country’s most powerful union, then he’s made up for it ever since.

Selig saw that baseball, already eclipsed by the NFL in popularity, was staring at the abyss with one strike too many and cancellation of the ’94 World Series. All labor negotiations ever since have been conducted in an atmosphere of conciliation, even with the 2002 talks coming within a day of a strike deadline. More recently, Collective Bargaining Agreements have been crafted in near-secrecy to avoid the distractions of media-borne controversy. Selig and several Players Association bosses apparently have agreed to try to agree. Much of the deep acrimony between management and labor dating back to Marvin Miller’s groundbreaking work has been purged, with far-reaching consequences beyond just CBA bargaining.

For that achievement alone, Selig deserves to go down in the annals as a significant commissioner.

The former Chevrolet leasing-firm exec’s other big advancement was creating a multi-tiered postseason system to match what’s been in place for decades in all the other sports. The wild card has proven to be a genius move, culminating in two wild-card teams facing off in the 2014 World Series. Extra playoff berths have created late-summer interest where little existed previously. Half or more of baseball was like a wasteland of dog-days ennui when teams fell out of the race if they were not within hailing distance of first place prior to the wild-card system.

Related to expanded playoffs was interleague play, which had been proposed on and off back to the 1920s. Baseball needed the interleague jolt in the post-strike environment of the late 1990s. The novelty has long since worn off and even the heat in crosstown rivalries such as Cubs vs. White Sox has cooled. Nevertheless, the concept was sound to inject a new competitive feature in a game that normally changes at a glacial pace.

The wild-card has downsides, especially after the expansion to permit a second qualifying team. The one-game play-in seems abrupt, almost cruel to the loser. It should be best-of-three, the format that settled end-of-season ties back in the day. Expanded playoffs also work against superior teams. The best-of-five Division Series is where 100-win teams often go to die, as a lesser-in-talent, but hotter-in-momentum team often emerges the winner. By the time the Final Two reach the World Series, the atmosphere is almost anti-climactic, as TV ratings have proved. Once a unifying national event and appointment-TV with radio smuggled into classrooms, the World Series is now almost regionalized with much interest confined to the fan bases of the participating teams.

Everything is interrelated. Selig is old-school, a product of his post-war upbringing. Under his watch, baseball’s marketing has sagged far behind the NFL and especially the NBA, which has apparently replaced baseball as the sport of choice among many young African-Americans.

Former NBA commish David Stern said he wished his sport had baseball’s glorious history, but he oversaw a dynamic marketing effort that emphasized the NBA’s glittering personalities, fast pace, and bread and circuses. Now the NHL, paced by the Blackhawks, the new flagship team, is coming up on the outside with marketing prowess to bust out of the niche category. Baseball was supreme when it had little competition for the fans’ affections and undercut all other sports in ticket pricing. Now the game struggles with better-promoted sports that horn in on baseball’s schedule front and back, while the truly cheap seats no longer exist. MLB now really has just a few weeks starting off July as a season unto itself.

We mentioned PEDs and we’re getting to them. Many believe Selig’s apparent inaction as the use of the enhancements got out of hand in the 1990s is the cross he must bear. I’ll run counter to the mob in stating he needed a more moderate, cooperative Players Association, much as President Obama required a flexible-of-mind Congress, to have counteracted an ingrained culture of cheating and getting around the built-in failures in the game that has existed since the beginning.

At the height of PEDs, management and labor were still coming off the contentious generation of work stoppages. Only when the clock struck 2000 did the Players Association begin to put aside self-interest and join the bossmen in doing what’s best for the game in allowing more comprehensive testing and stricter punishments.

To give an example of players always desiring shortcuts in a sport where the best hitters fail two out of three times, as testing became established in 2004, some hitters resorted to corking bats to compensate for the lack of enhancements. A prominent player tipped me off to the trend. How did he know? By the hollow sound bats made as they connected with pitches. If it’s not PEDs or corked bats going forward, it’ll be something else to game the system.

Finally, a subject dear to my heart: replay. Selig did not back major expansion of replay in 2012 when widespread use of HD cameras caught umpires with their pants down. He was not pro-active and hide-bound upholding the tradition of human frailties in baseball. Only after egregiously blown postseason calls was his hand forced in bringing MLB close to the standards of the other sports. For that I must give Selig several demerits, more so than for handling PEDs.

Overall, Selig ends up on the plus side for his administration. He could have done a lot more, but we often, in hindsight, want far more than a man of his time can emotionally provide. Selig was not slick and polished as Pete Rozelle, father of the modern NFL boom, and that’s the image by which we often measure him. But in actions, in implementing some needed changes in baseball, he’s on the positive side of the ledger.

Now, Manfred must tie up all the loose ends to properly promote baseball and avoid losing ground. He’ll have to balance tradition and modernity in a manner Selig could not.

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