Defending Bud Selig

Bud Selig spent 23 years as the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. He certainly had his detractors but presided over legendary players, unique games, successful expansion, a steroid controversy, and a significant increase in the dedication of the game’s fans. After Selig’s retirement, Tom Wright finds himself reluctantly defending Bud Selig as financially the league has never been stronger.

I can’t believe I’m actually doing this. I’m going to defend Bud Selig. I have to admit that this feels weird, but after Justin Gorman’s recent piece described Selig’s tenure as a mixed bag for baseball, I decided that someone has to speak up in favor of Bud.

We can all agree that Bud Selig was one of the worst “faces of a sport” in history. He had no charisma. He had a penchant for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, like when he presided over the All-Star Game tie in 2002. Selig tripped over words so often that his middle name may as well have been Menino, and he clearly went to the Tim Duncan School for Boring Press Conference Etiquette. Compared to commissioners such as Roger Goodell, who look like they came straight out of central casting, Bud Selig looked and acted like a person who should stay behind the scenes.

Here’s the thing, though: Bud Selig was one of the best baseball commissioners of all time. He was a fantastic consensus builder. He understood the issues of the game, and he was unafraid to take risks if it made the game better. Most importantly, he clearly loved the sport of baseball and wanted it to succeed.

It took many years for me to come to this conclusion. Selig certainly got off on the wrong foot, canceling the 1994 World Series and creating what felt (to this baseball purist) as a gimmicky playoff system that diluted the regular season.  Of course, some of my hatred of the playoff system would later subside when the Red Sox used that gimmicky playoff structure to win their first World Series in almost a century, but the underlying distrust of Selig still remained.

A couple years ago, though, I had a realization: Selig was the best commissioner in sports. David Stern was dealing with the Tim Donaghy scandal and a persistent perception that the refs played favorites. Roger Goodell was dealing with whatever stupid self-inflicted scandal-du-jour that he had created for himself. Gary Bettman was Gary Bettman. Baseball, though…just kept humming along. It was stunning to realize, but Selig put baseball into a strong situation where the teams make money and the fans are happy.

Selig’s accomplishments were numerous. Take a look at what he did:

LABOR PEACE

Just for comparison’s sake, let’s look around the sports landscape at the state of labor relations in the other major professional leagues:

  • The NBA last had a lockout in 2011. It ended with an uneasy truce, leaving no doubt that the 2017 negotiations are going to be similarly incendiary. They also had a strike in 1998 that canceled half of the season.
  • The NHL locked out their players for the entire season in 2004. They also lost half of the 2012 season to another lockout.
  • The NFL had a lockout in 2011. I don’t even have to tell you that there’s no trust whatsoever between the players and King Roger.

Every other sport besides baseball is currently in a state of labor strife. This is the era of sport as big business, and in nearly every sport, both players and owners want a bigger piece of the pie:

When Selig took over as commissioner, baseball had the same sort of acrimonious labor relations as the other sports. In the 20 years before Selig began as commissioner in 1992, baseball had suffered seven work stoppages, including four that happened during the regular season. Selig’s initial years were no different from the twenty years prior, and baseball would soon have its most calamitous strike in 1994-95, wiping out the World Series and crippling the Expos franchise permanently.

But then something amazing happened: Selig learned from his mistakes. Despite a credible strike threat in 2002, Selig and player representative Donald Fehr came to the table and reached an agreement. Some of that may have been because Selig and Fehr didn’t want to shut down the national pastime in the jingoistic post-9/11 era, but Selig undoubtedly realized that the previous strike had devastated baseball and was reluctant to let it happen again.

Long story short, baseball hasn’t had a work stoppage since 1995. In other words, no one under the age of 25 can remember a time when baseball was interrupted for labor reasons. In the era where franchise valuations and salaries are front page news and the machinations of football ownership read like an episode of Game of Thrones, baseball has done a shockingly good job of keeping the focus largely on the field.

Moreover, baseball hasn’t even had the threat of a lockout since that 2002 agreement. The most recent CBA was approved without ire or fanfare in 2011 – did anyone outside of the baseball diehards even notice?  MLB owners, under Selig’s direction, realized that the incremental gains from forcing a salary cap weren’t worth the costs of fighting the strongest union in sports. So they stopped fighting. It’s weird to say this, but after a decade of harmonious negotiations, the MLBPA appeared to even (gasp!) trust Selig a little bit.

NEW STADIUMS

Raise your hand if you miss any of the following stadiums: Shea Stadium, Veterans Stadium, Cleveland Municipal Stadium, Three Rivers Stadium, the Metrodome, Candlestick Park, or Joe Robbie Stadium. Nobody? Good. Those stadiums, along with 17 of their not-particularly-beloved friends, have been fortuitously consigned to the dustbin of history. Of all of the execrable multi-purpose stadiums that did everything badly, only Oakland and Toronto remain, and Toronto’s ballpark is around only because a.) it was just built in 1989 and b.) an outdoor stadium is not really a possibility in Toronto.

What’s more, the new stadiums are all gorgeous. They’re all baseball-only stadiums in the mold of Camden Yards, filled with quirks and distinctive features that make a night at the ballpark feel like a special occasion. The attendance figures agree – more people came to the park under Bud Selig’s regime than ever before.

LOCATIONAL STABILITY 

It feels odd to say this one because there are always rumblings of the Rays moving to Montreal or Portland or the A’s moving to Fremont. That said, the only franchise that actually moved under Selig’s watch was the Expos, a team that had been somewhere around last in attendance every year for almost a decade before it finally gave up and moved to Washington. Of course, Selig was probably complicit in the Expos’ unpopularity because he was the driver behind the strike in 1994, but the fact remains that MLB has had one relocation in 20 years, and it was a relocation of the least popular franchise in the sport.

None of the other sports have been nearly as shy as baseball about moving teams:

  • The NBA moved the extremely popular Sonics to Oklahoma City in what was basically an extortion attempt to get Seattle to build a new arena. Of course, the current Seattle arena was only about 15 years old at the time, which made the whole situation a little bit ridiculous. The NBA also moved the Hornets to New Orleans and the Grizzlies to Memphis.
  • The NFL went nuts with relocations in the 90’s. The Rams went to St. Louis (who themselves had lost the Cardinals in 1988), the Raiders returned to Oakland (after Oakland had lost the Raiders in 1982), the Oilers moved to Tennessee, and the Browns went to Baltimore (who had lost their Colts in 1984). Sports Illustrated in the late 90’s joked that “NFL” stood for “No Fixed Location” or “National Flux League.”  The moves were successful in getting new stadiums and lucrative concessions from the new cities, but it’s hard to call a series of moves “good for the game” when the end result is that the second-largest city in the United States has had no professional football team for 20 years.
  • The NHL spent the 1990’s in a bizarre quest to move hockey from the northern US, where people actually play hockey, and Canada, where hockey is so popular that it actually appears on the five dollar bill, to places in the south that had never seen ice. The Winnipeg Jets were moved to Phoenix; the Minnesota North Stars inexplicably went to Dallas; the Quebec Nordiques left for Denver, and the Hartford Whalers moved to Raleigh. The NHL still likely regrets the Phoenix decision, as the Coyotes have had a financially turbulent existence and the Jets’ fan base was so obviously superior to many of the southern franchises that the NHL eventually relocated Atlanta’s team to Winnipeg in 2011.

BASEBALL ON OTHER TECHNOLOGY

Do you remember the olden days, when watching your favorite sports team was impossible if you were out of market? Once you moved out of the area for your hometown team, you were forced to watch the local teams or whichever team the national broadcasts wanted to show. If you were a fan of a small-market team, the team on television was inevitably not yours.

If you’re an NFL fan, you will certainly remember those days, because one of those days is today. If you live out of market and want to watch your favorite football team, you have to 1.) have a TV, 2.) sign up for the roughly 8,000,000,000 channels that DirecTV makes you buy, and 3.) purchase NFL Sunday ticket.  And what do you get for all that? For the low, low price of just $360 per year of DirecTV and $250 for Sunday Ticket, you get to watch your favorite team play exactly 16 games. For those of you doing the math, that works out to about $30 for each game, or $10 per hour of entertainment.  Let me tell you – if I were to make a list of things that I would be willing to pay $10 an hour to do, I’m quite certain that “watch TV” would not be on that list.

MLB, on the other hand, has been out in front of technology like no other sport. They’ve had streaming baseball online since the very early 2000’s. They’ve had condensed games and viewable highlight packages available for nearly as long. For those who have slow internet connections, they even have “basic” streaming games (i.e. lower quality streams) and radio broadcasts. For fans who like to see the numbers behind the game, MLB has unveiled all manner of statistical and interactive tools like PitchFX and Statcast. Baseball was also the first to understand viral content, even going so far as to start their own “Cut 4” channel on mlb.com to highlight the funny/strange/impressive/human interest side of baseball.

In fact, MLB’s online presence has been so far superior to the rest of the field that other sports have begun to use MLB’s infrastructure to broadcast their own events. Did you watch March Madness online last year? Did you see the World Cup on your phone? Have you used the WatchESPN mobile app? Those were brought to you by MLB Advanced Media, a massive media presence that draws almost a billion dollars in revenue every year.

Now, it’s true that baseball’s TV numbers have fallen. It’s also irrelevant. Everyone’s TV numbers have fallen. How many people watch the Stanley Cup? The NBA Finals? The Oscars’ ratings have been in freefall for 20 years – should we be concerned? Football used to have a third-place game every year – can you imagine anyone watching that now? The internet age is one where every form of entertainment is available at all times, and people aren’t going to watch the Royals play the Giants in the World Series simply because it’s on TV anymore. Baseball understands this, and they’ve moved toward a 21st century model where a fan can watch a game on any device, replay the game when convenient, and share his or her favorite highlights of the day with the touch of a screen or the click of a mouse.

BASEBALL PARITY IS AWESOME

Back when TV became the primary medium by which people watched sporting events, the various sports approached the video box with suspicion. The NFL imposed blackout rules, the MLB, NHL, and NFL put team broadcasts on a pay channel, and boxing put everything on pay-per-view.

Later, most of these sports realized that it’s actually a good thing if fans can watch the sport, so they found ways to monetize the TV streams. In baseball, this monetization, combined with a generous revenue-sharing program, has created a system in which most teams can afford to keep a big-name player even as free agency makes him more expensive. In the not too distant past, Giancarlo Stanton would have been roaming the Yankees’ outfield and Felix Hernandez would be anchoring the pitching staff in Los Angeles. Today, thanks to outsized TV deals like those of the Mariners ($2 billion over 17 years), Rangers ($1.6 billion over 20 years), and Padres ($1.2 billion over 20 years), teams that draft players can pony up the cash to re-sign them. Most teams nowadays feel that they have a chance, and even the ones that don’t see a tangible path to contention. 

The most amazing part, of course, is that they’ve managed to do this without resorting to a salary cap. In other words, you’re not required to have a Ph.D. in applied mathematics in order to figure out whether two teams can swap players.

THE PLAYOFF SYSTEM ACTUALLY WORKS 

The jury may still be out on the one-game playoff, but there’s no doubt that baseball generates more interest with the current playoff system than it would with the pre-1994 system of four division winners in the playoffs. In the age of the internet, it’s easier than ever for fans to follow their own team, but it’s also far less worthwhile to pay attention to other teams (why watch a game between two teams you don’t care about when you can watch House of Cards instead?). As a result, baseball is now more of a regional sport where people care deeply about their team but little about the MLB as a whole. Baseball’s playoff system is an adaptation to this new reality, keeping more teams (and hence more fans) involved without massively diluting the regular season like hockey or basketball. For those of us who grew up in the late 80’s and watched mediocre AL East teams compete for the chance to get swept by the A’s, it’s also worth noting that the current system guarantees the best two teams will be in the playoffs every year.  Plus, America loves playoffs, and the baseball postseason is just plain fun.

THE GAME

The one overriding attribute about Bud Selig’s tenure was that he truly cared about the game. Bud has said many times in interviews that he doesn’t care if he’s seen as a great commissioner now; instead, he wants historians who look back at the game to see him and say, “That man did great things for baseball.”

Even the things that went badly in the Selig era were likely borne of Selig’s love for the game and desire to do right for the sport. For instance, many would contend that Selig took too long to respond to the steroid epidemic, leading to a surge in PED’s that now taints the legacy of the game. While baseball was indeed lethargic in instituting testing, Selig had a rather pressing reason for moving slowly: the players’ union in the late 90’s felt that PED testing was an invasion of their privacy and threatened to strike over the issue. Could Selig have forced the MLBPA to accept PED testing at that point? Perhaps. But Selig decided that the price of ignoring PED’s was a lesser cost than that of further work stoppages and labor strife. Honestly, it’s hard to say that he was wrong.

Now, saying “Selig loved the game,” would seem to be damning with faint praise until you consider what some other commissioners have done. In fact, just for fun, let’s do a little thought experiment. Imagine that there’s a baseball league that broadcast on MTV2 where women play baseball in their underwear. Now imagine that Bud Selig, in an attempt to save a couple million dollars, had decided to take the umpires from that league and use them as umps in MLB for, oh, a quarter of the season. That’d be ridiculous, right? Is there any way that Selig would ever do that?

Of course, if I had said “football” instead of “baseball” and “Goodell” instead of “Selig,” you wouldn’t have to imagine at all because the NFL did exactly this in 2012. The football owners, in an attempt to save several million dollars for their $9 billion league, locked out the referees and replaced them with whomever they could find. Unfortunately for football, the college refs didn’t want to be strike-breakers, so the NFL actually went with refs from (and I still can’t believe this actually happened) the Lingerie Football League, as well as some refs from high school. Say what you want about Bud Selig, but he would have dug up Ron Luciano to be an umpire again before he ever would have let Lingerie League umpires make a mockery of the sport.

There. I said it. Thanks to Bud Selig, the sport of baseball is the healthiest it has ever been in the free agent era. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go take a long walk – this is all so very surreal…

Check out today’s other new article where Brandon Magee profiles super sub Brock Holt.

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