Selig’s Legacy, For Better and For Worse

Bud Selig really is retired, at last. And baseball's new commissioner, Rob Manfred, isn't an incumbent or former owner. Selig, you may remember, owned the Milwaukee Brewers when he helped engineer the putsch that sent Fay Vincent out of the commissioner's office. He then became baseball's longest serving commissioner since Kenesaw Mountain Landis. And his legacy is at least as mixed as Landis's was.

Part of the problem is that, say what you will of the man one way or the other, Selig really is a baseball fan when all is said and done. And like many baseball fans who aren't even close to owning a franchise, never mind running the game overall, Selig hasn't always married his fandom to the absolute best for the game.

Essentially, it comes down to the way I phrased it addressing a different issue a short while back: Under Selig's watch, the common good of the game wasn't always the same thing as making money for it. Which isn't to say that Selig was always as concerned about making money for the players as for the owners, of course.

Think about all those yummy new ballparks that came online during Selig's administration. Damn near all of them were paid for with "public monies." (Read: your tax dollars.) Not only did they not "deliver the local economic booms they promised," says Sports Illustrated‘s Jay Jaffe, "but [they] also often pushed average fans farther away from the action, thanks to the addition of corporate-targeted luxury boxes and premium seats — all while raising ticket prices, of course. What's more, the costs of the increasing television revenues brought into the game were inevitably passed along to customers whose cable and satellite bills have skyrocketed, and yet odious, antiquated blackout rules prevent fans in some markets from watching as many as six teams in their general vicinity."

Lots of fans thought it was just a delight when baseball's owners engaged in collusion twice in the 1980s. Selig was one of those owners. Except that he has never spoken publicly about his precise role in it. Murray Chass, the former New York Times columnist now writing independently, notes that Selig has never admitted that, yes, the owners colluded to suppress salaries in violation of specific agreements with the Players' Association: "Or if he didn't want to make it so personal, ‘Yes, we violated the free-agency rules'."

Two independent arbitrators said the owners were guilty. The owners — including Selig — agreed to pay the players in question a total $280 million to settle the issue. When Chass asked Selig last week to talk about collusion, Selig merely referred him to Peter Ueberroth, the commissioner at the time collusion began.

Vincent wasn't a perfect commissioner. He did try strong-arming the Yankees into submission when they stood by reliever Steve Howe despite an eighth or ninth drug-related issue. But Vincent also told the owners, essentially, as a reader wrote the New York Daily News, "You stole $280 million from the players, and the players are unified to a man around that issue, because you got caught and many of you are still involved."

And in due course Walter Haas, Jr., the late Oakland Athletics owner, admitted to Vincent, "I'm embarrassed about it. I was involved in it. You should never feel bad about saying it happened, and on your watch it wouldn't have happened." Selig has yet to speak. "Concerned that if Vincent remained in the commissioner's office, he would get in the way of the owners' plan to go to war with the union," Chass noted, referencing the 1994 players' strike, "Selig and his closest cohort, Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox, led a move to oust Vincent. It was just another brilliantly bad move that is imbedded in the part of his legacy that Selig would prefer that no one talk about."

Perhaps realizing at last that all the strong-arm and warmongering with the players' union was going to get was the possible destruction of the game — and possibly embarrassed as hell because the strike was barely settled when Reinsdorf, the cheapskate, backed a truck to Albert Belle's place refusing to leave until Belle signed a deal paying him a few million a year more than 1994′s highest annual salary ("Whatever happened to nine and ten?" Whitey Herzog would ask incredulously in You're Missin' a Great Game) — Selig gradually backed away from downright militancy.

The best parts of Selig as commissioner: He did engineer revenue sharing at long enough last, enabling fans to understand that baseball, being a franchise operation, wasn't quite the same thing as thirty independently operating manufacturers whether they produced the same goods. He did respond affirmatively enough when people like the late Michael Weiner, first as a negotiator and then the (too-short-lived) leader of the players' union, shepherded an era in which compromise and larger visions no longer had to fight with a disreputable past. They have other battles to fight, larger visions especially do, but no longer does baseball seem entirely like a war waiting to happen.

In case you were wondering, the average baseball game attendance during the middle so-called Golden Age of Baseball — 1955, to be precise — was 13,466. The average game attendance last season was 30,437. Last year's worst attended team, the Tampa Bay Rays (average attendance: 17,857), still drew better than the 1955 World Series champions. (The Brooklyn Dodgers — average attendance: 13,423.) Thank you, George F. Will, for isolating those figures.

Selig also finally got on board with the much-needed and long-overdue instant replay system. Yes, the system has a few kinks to work out still. But, yes, it's far better than what was present before. And you notice that this past postseason the umpires' mistakes seemed fewer and farther between. The human element wasn't eliminated, after all. The world didn't grind to a halt. Hell didn't freeze over. And the sun still arose the morning after the World Series finished.

Unfortunately, the World Series amplifies a couple of the worst sides of Selig's legacy. His insane championship of three-division leagues and wild cards yielded up a 2014 World Series in which the nation's ninth-best major league team beat its seventh-best. Essentially, Selig compromised the value of the regular season on behalf of the postseason. The fannies in the seats may be greater on average than in the so-called Golden Age, but isn't it just a little perverse to be sitting on the edge of your seats down the stretch biting your nails to see who's going to finish ... in second place?

Even Selig's postseason emphases have come with problems other than the silly idea of pegging World Series home field advantage to the All-Star Game result. Television viewing is still in the basement. It never seems to have crossed Selig's mind, to any extent known publicly, that a seven-game League Championship Series dilutes the impact of the World Series, that in the past decade or so there have been times when the LCS was actually more exciting than the World Series (to name one, who the hell remembers the Florida Marlins' 2003 Series conquest more vividly than they remember that year's hammer-and-tongs, Boone-and-Bartman LCSes?), and that the saturation factor just might have a play in it?

Selig may have helped shepherd a stringent and by and large effective baseball counterattack to actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, too, but it was on his watch that their presence went from trickling in to exploding in the first place. It was Selig's and the owners' blind eyes as much as the players' that finally invited Congress — which probably had no business doing it and seemed interested less in solving a problem than bashing players and other baseball people — to pressure baseball into a program with some heft. And even as the program continued to improve and tighten up, not only did a few such problems continue but Selig proved very willing to get in the dirt and violate certain agreements in matters such as the Biogenesis scandal.

Selig is far from the worst commissioner baseball has ever had. Landis may have cleaned up baseball's gambling problems for the most part, but he did turn the other way as that generation of baseball people did their best to keep the game from admitting black players who proved in due course to enhance it munificently. Ford Frick was so hands-off (except when trying odiously to preserve Babe Ruth's legacy, as Roger Maris could tell you) that it sometimes seemed baseball might as well be anarchy. (He also presided over the Golden Era of 15,000+ average game attendance and competitive balance inclined almost entirely toward New York.)

Bowie Kuhn, who genuinely loved the game, forced the Atlanta Braves not to jerry-rig Hank Aaron's breaking of Babe Ruth's career home run record for the home folks, in the interest of honest competition. But he also presided over fifteen work stoppages, tried actively and clumsily to censor Jim Bouton's Ball Four, tried to thwart the overdue end of the reserve era that kept players as chattel, and was exposed during the 1981 strike as having built little real consensual power. Ueberroth might have fought baseball's cocaine epidemic in the 1980s but he was also what Vincent would call "the quarterback of collusion."

And A. Bartlett Giamatti, who probably loved the game more deeply than any commissioner, might have done yeoman's work in investigating Pete Rose's gambling, but he was also coming out as a baseball labour hawk before his untimely death. We'll never know whether that would have exacerbated or eased the tensions and chicaneries that led to the 1994 strike.

Mae West once said, once famously, "When I'm good, I'm very, very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better." Say fairly of Selig, then, that when he was good, he was very, very good. But say as well, and just as fairly, that when he was bad, he could be and often enough was very, very bad.

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