Bye Bye, Bud Selig: Baseball's Commissioner Ends His Reign - Rolling Stone
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Bye Bye, Bud Selig: Baseball’s Commissioner Ends His Reign

For two decades, ‘Bud Lite’ ran baseball. Is he the greatest commish of all time, or the worst? Depends on who you ask

Bud Selig

Bud Selig


On January 24, Allan Huber “Bud” Selig will finally step down from his position as Commissioner of Baseball. Despite his oft-repeated protestations that he never wanted it in the first place, Selig has held the job for over 22 years, making him the second-longest tenured MLB commish since the first one, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who held the office from 1920 until his death in 1944.

Like Landis, Selig became commissioner at a deeply troubled moment in the game’s history, and presided over a period of unprecedented growth in its popularity. And much like Landis – who restored baseball’s image following the “Black Sox” scandal, but also used his power to block all attempts at integrating the majors – Selig leaves a complex (and not entirely savory) legacy in his wake.

There are those who would tell you that Selig is the greatest commissioner in baseball history. This might be true, providing you judge the health of a sport solely by the profits it generates. Major League Baseball’s overall revenue has increased some 400 percent under Selig, and overall regular season attendance records have been broken seven times during his tenure. Selig has also presided over the biggest stadium construction boom in MLB history, with 20 new ballparks (most of which were built using a significant amount of corporate welfare, a.k.a. public funding) opening during his time in office. This would be an impressive track record for any CEO, so it’s no wonder that major league owners – most of whom have profited immensely under his leadership – offered Selig one contract extension after another.

Judged on just about every other criteria, however, Selig’s career and legacy is a mixed bag, at best. Yes, baseball’s labor relations have been remarkably peaceful over the past two decades, but that’s largely because neither the players nor the owners have the stomach for a repeat of the traumatic strike of 1994-95, which canceled a World Series, negated the Montreal Expos’ best chance for postseason glory, preempted Tony Gwynn’s shot at becoming the first player since Ted Williams to hit .400 in a season and delivered a devastating hit to the game’s coffers and popularity – and which, of course, occurred during the Reign Of Bud.

Yes, Selig took a hard line on PED use by players, but only after he was pressured to do so by public opinion and the federal government. Like just about everyone in baseball, he was more than happy to bask in the renewed interest in the game (and the attendant profits) brought about by the increased offense of the “Steroid Era” and Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds’ respective assaults on the record books. But it wasn’t until the feds came knocking that Selig suddenly transformed himself into an upright defender of the game’s “integrity.”

Yes, Selig oversaw the introduction of the wild card, as well as the second wild card team and the “play-in game,” postseason developments which have unquestionably brought extra excitement to September and October – even if many would argue that the extra playoff rounds have devalued the World Series by decreasing the chances that the best NL and AL teams of the regular season will actually face off in the Fall Classic. Then again, interleague play and the unbalanced regular season schedule (both of which were also introduced under Selig) have made it increasingly difficult to say who the “best” teams of each league actually are. And speaking of the World Series, Selig’s decision to have the All-Star Game determine which league gets home-field advantage in October remains one of the inane ideas ever handed down by a baseball commissioner.

Yes, the Selig administration’s introduction of video review has indeed prevented games from being decided by blown home run calls, but allowing managers to question other calls has resulted in several minutes of dead time per game. Not to worry, though – those delays will be more than compensated for once the vile plot to speed up the game via pitch clocks (which Selig has already signed off on for AA- and AAA-level play) is inevitably implemented in the majors. The pitch clock is just the latest of Selig’s it-ain’t-broke-so-let’s-fix-it-anyway edicts, which include the moving of the Brewers to the National League, the moving of the Astros to the American League and baseball’s recently adopted plate-blocking rule, a statute so convoluted that no one seems to fully understand it.

Of course, the above transgressions are mostly things that piss-off baseball purists, while average fans just shrug their shoulders and accept these sorts of changes as inevitable. But every baseball fan should be infuriated by Chairman Bud’s long history of blatantly pandering to the owners’ interests. In 2001, for example, just days after a thrilling World Series that provided a welcome distraction from the horrors of 9/11, Selig pissed in the punch bowl by telling everyone that baseball was in serious economic trouble, and the only solution was to eliminate the Twins and Expos – a solution which, as it turned out, would have chiefly benefitted the bank accounts of Twins owner Carl Pohlad and Expos owner Jeffrey Loria. Though Selig’s “contraction” plan for the Twins ran aground in a Minneapolis courtroom, it still led to the Expos’ sad and unnecessary exit from Montreal, and to Loria’s ownership of the Marlins, which in turn resulted in the city of Miami’s publicly-financed ballpark debacle.

Selig was widely praised in 2011 for forcing Frank McCourt to sell the Dodgers, but it was Selig himself who’d fast-tracked the Boston parking lot magnate’s purchase of the team back in 2004 – despite McCourt’s shaky finances – as consolation for losing out on a bid to purchase the Red Sox. Meanwhile, Selig has steadfastly refused to intervene in the Mets’ sorry situation, even though his friend (and Mets majority owner) Fred Wilpon is up to his eyeballs in debt and is running his franchise into the ground a la McCourt. Selig also has the Oakland Coliseum’s raw sewage on his hands, at least figuratively, since it was Selig who helped broker the 2005 deal that allowed an ownership group headed by his fraternity brother Lew Wolff to buy the A’s. That the team has continued be competitive in the ensuing decade is actually pretty amazing, given Wolff’s policy of not-so-benign neglect, which seems chiefly designed to give him an excuse to move the A’s elsewhere.

None of this “old boys’ club” back-slapping should be particularly surprising, given that Selig was once a team owner himself. A minority share-holder in the Braves during their brief stay in Milwaukee, the former used car salesman became a local hero in the spring of 1970, when he purchased the bankrupt Seattle Pilots and moved them to Milwaukee, where they became the Brewers. (Never mind that the specifics of the transaction were so shady, the city of Seattle was able to successfully sue the American League for a replacement franchise.) Thereafter, Selig repeatedly aligned himself with the most conservative and virulently anti-labor factions in baseball ownership, coming out in full support of such ill-conceived owner-driven initiatives as the 1976 and 1990 spring training lockouts, and their mid-80s attempt to drive down free agent salaries via collusion.

Selig was one of the leaders in the owners’ 1992 ousting of commissioner Fay Vincent, who was considered insufficiently sympathetic to owner interests. Named acting commissioner after Vincent’s resignation, Selig had his finger squarely on the pulse of baseball ownership, chiefly because he remained an owner himself, retaining his control of the Brewers long after the “search” for a new commish had become an obvious charade. Even after being officially elected commissioner in 1998, Selig wasn’t compelled to give up his stake in the Brewers; he simply put his ownership shares in a trust that left the team in the control of his daughter. When the Seligs finally sold the team 2005, its value had increased significantly thanks to the 2001 opening of Miller Park, the publicly-funded stadium that Selig had campaigned tirelessly for; Selig walked away from the sale with a huge profit, while Milwaukee taxpayers continue to foot the bill for the ballpark to this day.

Unfortunately, Selig has seemed even less willing to walk away from the commissioner’s office than he was to let go of the Brewers. He’s repeatedly promised to retire over the years, only to “reluctantly” sign another contract extension. And even in retirement, he may not actually be going anywhere.  Commissioner-elect Rob Manfred, formerly MLB’s Chief Operating Officer under Selig, recently announced that his old boss will be paid an annual $6 million salary for his new role as “commissioner emeritus”. Though its exact duties are unclear, this newly minted position seems to indicate that Selig will continue to exert his influence over the game, as does Manfred’s jaw-dropping announcement that Fred Wilpon (who clearly handles money about as well as Lil Wayne plays guitar) will be the new chairman of MLB’s finance committee.

But if all of that still doesn’t make you mad, consider this: Bud Selig will almost undoubtedly be inducted into the Hall of Fame before Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens or Pete Rose, three of the greatest players of the last fifty years. And whatever sins Bonds, Clemens and Rose may have committed during their playing days, none of them ever sold out a major league city, put a major league franchise in the hands of an inept crony, or canceled a World Series.

Goodbye, Bud Selig. And good riddance.

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