After spending yesterday talking about baseball, my mind focused on the playoffs and the new “play-in game” feature of the MLB playoffs. To say that this novelty has created some controversy would be a huge understatement, so I thought that I would get in my two cents in favor of that added wild-card team. However, thinking about the expanded playoffs led me to a larger point that I want to make today:
Bud Selig is – on balance – an excellent Commissioner of Baseball.
It is fashionable to mock Bud Selig and to characterize him as a bumbling old guy who would take forever to figure out that it is raining outside. Lord knows; there are plenty of nationally recognized sports columnists who do that at least once a month. I choose to take a contrarian view.
In the first place, the most appropriate way to judge a person in the role of Commissioner of Baseball is to compare his accomplishments and his failures with those of his predecessors. It is irrelevant that that one might consider Bill Gates a more effective CEO at Microsoft than one might consider Bud Selig an effective Commissioner of Baseball. The jobs are only the same in a “theory of management” sort of way. A comparison of that ilk is the same as comparing the President of Harvard University with the Chairman of the International Olympic Committee. Once you get beyond the fact that each gentleman is the “guy in charge”, the similarities fade quickly.
So let me tell you how I rank Bud Selig as compared to his predecessors in the same job:
Bart Giamatti/Faye Vincent: I lump these two folks together because Giamatti was not in the job very long and Vincent spent his tenure continuing down the same path(s) that Giamatti trod. The shining moment of that tenure was the “Pete Rose banishment”. The downside was the absolute lack of any progress toward labor peace with the MLB Players Union setting the stage for the 1994 World Series cancellation.
Peter Uberroth: No matter what his accomplishments might have been during his time in office – and there were not a myriad of accomplishments –, there is one word that demeans his reputation in that job. That word is “collusion”…
Bowie Kuhn: For 15 years, he was routinely mocked as an ineffective leader much the way Bud Selig is today. During his time, there were multiple labor strikes and he set a silliness standard for the game by demanding that Jim Bouton take back all the things he said about baseball in Ball Four because he as The Commish deemed the book to be “detrimental to baseball”. Really…
William Eckert: General Eckert made his career in the US Air Force. Supposedly, when he took the job as Commissioner, he had not even seen a baseball game for the past decade or so. His tenure was not marked with great leaps forward…
Ford Frick: The thing from his administration that has lasted the longest was that Frick was the guy who decided to put an asterisk on Roger Maris’ home run record in 1961.
Happy Chandler: As commissioner in the late 1940s, Chandler was a positive force in helping Branch Rickey integrate baseball in 1947 and he was motive force in establishing the players’ pension fund back then.
Kennesaw Mountain Landis: A man highly mythologized by the baseball poets for “saving baseball” after the Black Sox scandal. What he did was to use his personal judgments to decide who would and would not be banned from baseball. Even players acquitted in court of wrongdoing were banned by Landis. However, when push came to shove, Landis allowed star players Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb to remain in baseball’s good graces after it became clear that both of them had bet on a fixed baseball game. Moreover – and make no mistake about this – Landis perpetuated the color barrier for MLB; Landis blocked the ability of Black players to participate in MLB. Rather than saying he “saved baseball”, I prefer to think that baseball “survived Landis”.
Now consider the successes in the Bud Selig years:
1994, the players walked out in the middle of the season (August); that is why there was no World Series in 1994. Bud Selig canceled the World Series because the players did not finish the season and there were no teams available to stage playoffs and the World Series.
If anyone wants to argue that the teams could have used “replacement players”, then that person would have to take exception with another great sporting myth that now Supreme Court Justice, Sonya Sotamayor, also “saved baseball” with her ruling that barred teams from using replacement players starting in Spring Training in 1995. The fact is that “replacement players” was never the answer to the labor problems in baseball in the 1990s.
Since that time, there have been no strikes/lockouts/work stoppages/whatever in MLB. When the current CBA expires in 2016, MLB will have had 21 consecutive years of labor peace.
In Bud Selig’s regime, baseball has flourished economically and expanded. In 1992, baseball revenue was reportedly $1.6B; in 2011, revenue topped $7.2B. That is a 450% increase in 20 years. It is certainly not all of Bud Selig’s doing, but he must be doing something right…
In 2011, nine teams drew 3 million fans or more and only one team drew less than 1.5 million fans.
The wild card team in the playoffs came into being. Then came the second wild card team.
Revenue sharing among teams increased – - it is not where revenue sharing has gone in the NFL, but it is better than it was in 1992 when Bud Selig took the job.
Interleague play began – and was mightily successful and well received by fans.
The World Baseball Classic is the single largest international baseball event in the world; twenty-eight countries now participate. Assuming that next year’s tournament goes off as planned, it will be the third of its kind. Spain and Canada have already qualified. Bud Selig made that happen.
Drug testing regimes expanded. Recall that it was Bud Selig who first began the call for steroid testing in baseball and that progress along that line was blocked by Donald Fehr of the MLB Players’ Union on the basis that drug testing was an invasion of the players’ privacy. It took a direct threat from the US Congress and a public tongue-lashing by Congressthings to get Fehr to begin to agree that testing regimes for PEDs would be permissible. [Aside: At the time of that controversy, it was a crime to possess let alone use certain of those steroid drugs without a prescription. Fehr was “defending” lawbreaking by asserting a privacy right.]
Even the idea of the All-Star Game determining the home field advantage for the World Series is not nearly as bad as the Bud-Bashers would make it out to be. Prior to his edict that the team representing the league that won the All-Star Game would have home field advantage in the World Series, that same determination was made in an arbitrary way. Since the inception of the World Series, the rules for home field advantage had the two leagues take turns with the advantage. Just because that rule was put in place in 1905 does not make it sacrosanct; in fact, it often allowed a team with an inferior record in one league to hold that advantage over a team with a better record in the other league simply because of the calendar.
Let me be clear; there is no logical thread that connects the winner of the All-Star Game to the home field advantage in the World Series just as there is no logical thread that connects the calendar to that home field advantage. I would argue that Bud Selig’s criterion is infinitesimally better than the previous criterion because it has something to do with baseball instead of the calendar.
Now, if you are tempted to demean Bud Selig because he does not “measure up” to commissioners in other sports, I would urge you to take a deep breath and think about your position there:
David Stern: I think David Stern is a man trying to hold together a league that can only survive with its superstar players. If those players ever realized their power in the game, David Stern’s authority would not extend beyond his office suite. Moreover, that situation is of David Stern’s making; he created the situation where the NBA markets its players instead of its teams. Remember, David Stern himself said during the last lockout that 23 of the NBA’s 30 teams are losing money; that is not much of a recommendation for his leadership.
Roger Goodell: He has done plenty of good things for the NFL and avoiding a player/management impasse last season was critically important. However, his handling of “Bountygate” has been ham-handed and the use of replacement referees in the 2012 NFL regular season is a stain on his record that will take at least a decade to fade.
Gary Bettman: You cannot be serious… [/John McEnroe]
Even if you want to go to the “minor sports” in the US to look for someone light-years more effective and successful than Bud Selig, you will have a difficult time. Would you like to make a case for the greatness of Tim Finchem of the PGA and all of the sponsors and corporate partners that the PGA Tour has lost? How about the France Family that runs NASCAR? Do you believe that more than 5% of US sports fans could even name the guy who heads up ATP – let alone assess his effectiveness in that position? I don’t.
The closest I can come to naming a commissioner on the US sporting scene who has been as effective as Bud Selig has would be MLS Commissioner, Don Garber. In his dozen years at the helm of MLS, the league has expanded – after Garber contracted a couple of teams early in his tenure that were just not viable; MLS no longer has one owner holding half the teams in the league; many teams play in newly constructed “soccer-only venues”; there have been national TV deals with ESPN, FOX and now NBC for MLS games. That résumé is comparable to Bud Selig’s and there is another similarity. Both Bud Selig and Don Garber do their work behind the scenes and without a lot of publicity and panache.
Baseball is better off today than it was when Fay Vincent went noisily into the night as he was relieved of his job as Commissioner in 1992. If you want to argue that it would have been better off no matter who had replaced Fay Vincent, I would be tempted to agree with you but even in that circumstance you have to credit Bud Selig for following the first tenet of the Hippocratic oath:
He did no harm.
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………