Bud Selig

Bud Selig: the greatest commissioner in the history of baseball?

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Save your easy jokes. I know it’s fun to slam Bud Selig because he’s the boss, has been for a long time and thus every baseball complaint we’ve had for over 20 years is easy enough to lay at his feet. Plus he’s kinda funny in a lot of ways so that makes it even easier. Believe me, there is no Bud Selig punchline we haven’t heard.

But Jayson Stark lays out, at length, the case for Bud Selig’s legacy today. A legacy which Stark believes to be unparalleled in baseball history:

Bud Selig has been, without any dispute, the greatest and most important commissioner in the history of his sport. Period.

Again, save the jokes. And name a commissioner who has a better claim to that title. Or, at the very least, one whose legacy isn’t severely compromised by illegality, segregation, unfortunate early death or, in some cases, pure fecklessness. Happy Chandler integrated the game, but that legacy is far less his than Jackie Robinson’s and Branch Rickey’s. Really, among the nine guys who have held the title of Commissioner, Selig is pretty easily the top choice. Stark makes a good case for him. And he doesn’t let him off the hook for many of his stumbles either.

But I do feel a bit of a whitewash afoot, however unintentional it may have been on Stark’s part. And I suspect it was unintentional for the very reason Selig is such a fascinating Commissioner in the first place: his legacy and history in the game is extraordinarily complex, and thus almost impossible to capture while trying to keep things from spiraling out of control.

By way of example, Stark — while correctly noting that Selig and others in the game looked the other way on PEDs for years — lauds Selig for ultimately dealing with the PED problem more aggressively than any other sports commissioner. He also offers the defense for Selig’s past inaction that Selig has offered in the past: that he couldn’t do it alone. He had to have player cooperation. This is very true. But what’s left out of that is the reason why players were loathe to cooperate with ownership on PEDs or anything else for the great bulk of Selig’s term.

Put simply, there was zero trust between players and owners due to decades of owners doing absolutely everything they could to screw players over. The Collusion cases involved illegal conspiracies by the owners — with Selig and his ownership allies at the forefront — to hold down player salaries. To some of you it may seem like ancient history — most of the acts took place in the 1980s — but when Selig took office the Collusion cases were still very recent history. Indeed, the most recent expansion in 1998 which brought us the Rays and Diamondbacks was a direct result of those cases. The owners needed the money to pay the settlements and got it via expansion fees.

This distrust, on top of the owners still-ongoing aim of imposing a salary cap which led to the 1994-95 strike, meant that financial matters were first and foremost in every player-owner negotiation. Indeed, they could just barely deal with those (and in 1994 didn’t), meaning that there was no way they were going to get to any drug issues until at least after the last acrimonious CBA negotiation in 2002. Eliminating PEDs wasn’t a priority of ownership at all and even if ownership had pushed it, their treatment of players over the previous couple of decades would have made reaching some agreement next to impossible.

The same dynamic underlies labor peace as well, which is the primary thing Stark credits Selig for bringing. Which, yes, he did. Eventually.

While the labor battles of the 80s and 90s are often portrayed as player vs. owner, the reality is that for most of the post-free agency era, the biggest battles have been between small market owners and large market owners, and the complicated financial negotiations that led to labor strife were often a function of small market owners trying to tamp down salaries, both to help their own pocketbooks, but also to hamstring the richer, larger-market teams. Pushing back, of course, were the larger market teams who resent having to share the wealth they receive by virtue of a territorial monopoly system trying to screw the small market owners. It was only after they bruised each other for a while that proposals were put to players and even then there was a lot of owner-owner intrigue in the mix.

Selig was, unequivocally, the leader of the small-market owners in the late 80s and into the early 90s, and it was clear that their plan — to try to institute a salary cap — was the one that carried the day (what, you think Steinbrenner thought of that?). Selig led the charge to get rid of Commissioner Fay Vincent. Selig and his allies took the hard line that led to the 94-95 strike which caused the cancellation of the World Series. And of course, Selig was, by then, acting Commissioner.

So, yes, Selig brought about labor peace. But it was a peace attainable only because everyone knew how awful the alternative was. And they only knew that because Selig was the leader of the movement which led to that awful alternative in 1994.

There are other examples of this. Things which Selig is credited for doing now only because he had a hand in messing it up to begin with. We’re getting instant replay now because there have been a lot of high profile umpiring mistakes that wouldn’t have been possible but for baseball’s hesitance to get tough with umpires or adopt technology sooner. The financial success of MLBAM and local television are helping the game boom, but how much of that is because of, as opposed to in spite of Selig, is an open question (Frank McCourt cashed out of baseball a billionaire, after all; it doesn’t take a genius to make money in MLB these days).

Yet I am still inclined to agree with Stark about Selig’s primacy among baseball’s Commissioners. And not just because it’s a pretty weak field overall. I give Selig credit for many if not most of the good things baseball has done during his tenure because, hey, at least he didn’t stand in the way. And even for those items I mentioned above — the “victories” Selig claims even though they’d be impossible without his previous failures — because it speaks of a quality in leadership that is so often lacking: learning from mistakes.

Really, how many leaders actually think about, learn from and ultimately solve the problems they created? Not a ton. Most leaders declare victory no matter what happened and let their successors deal with the fallout. Maybe that wouldn’t have been as easy for Selig given how long he’s been around, but there is an undeniable humility on his part in actually trying to get things right after being wrong previously. It’s something we expect from normal people but hardly ever see and rarely even demand of leaders. The fact that Selig has learned on the job and the fact that he has grown is much to his credit.

None of that makes Selig perfect. None of it brings the 1994 World Series back or the Expos back or gets rid of Jeff Loria or keeps sewage out of the A’s clubhouse or equalizes the TV revenue the Brewers get with that the Dodgers get. But when you judge Selig you have to give him credit and blame where it is due. And on the whole, I believe Selig is running an accomplishment and leadership surplus. And, yes, compared to his predecessors, he is the greatest of all time.

Blame Baseball’s copycat behavior for its lack of diversity in the executive ranks

Rob Manfred
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Following on yesterday’s stuff about baseball’s marked lack of diversity in the executive ranks comes a Ken Rosenthal column which digs into it a bit.

I might observe that, while, Rosenthal is right on all of the facts, there is a whiff of pushback in the story. As if MLB folks were hearing the criticisms Murray Chass and others have leveled in recent days about the lack of women, minorities and other candidates who don’t fit the “30-something MBA from an Ivy League school” mold of so many of today’s top execs and wanted to get some points out there. The league’s search firm is examined and there is a bit of “well, here is an exception; and here are a few more . . .” to it. Which, hey, that’s fair. Like I said, Rosenthal has his facts right and treats the issue seriously.

I think Rosenthal’s best bit, however, is the point he hits on at the end, when he says “homogeneity is dangerous in any industry, particularly when bright people are excluded.” That’s probably the key word to think about when you think about baseball’s hiring practices. “Homegeneity.” Baseball has a distinct lack of women and minorities in key positions, but I don’t think it’s because baseball is maliciously racist or sexist. Rather, it’s because baseball is acutely prone to copycat behavior that breeds homogeneity.

Everything about baseball culture, from the first day of a player’s minor league career-on and from the first day an intern is hired to get coffee for an assistant general manager is about not being different. About not sticking out. About emulating successes. You may mess up or you may fail, but if you do it while going about your business the way other, successful people went about theirs, you’ll be way better off than if you did things differently or stuck out.

This is true of all industries to some degree, but it seems far more prevalent in baseball. It’s a smaller world with fewer opportunities than business at large. It’s a more conservative world in terms of temperament. It’s one where you’re far more likely to have a reporter ask you about why you did something than, say, the accounting industry. It makes people afraid to take chances and makes people far more likely to do what that last successful guy did than to go out on even the shortest of limbs.

Not that things don’t change. Indeed, today’s preference for 30-something MBAs is radically different than the old model of hiring some old “baseball man” to run baseball operations. But it only came to the fore after the sabermetric and analytical model forced its way into the conversation with success and/or efficiencies that were impossible for even the crustiest old baseball man to ignore. That said, it was a transformation that was so difficult and radical that it was literally turned into a book and a movie and led to a decade and a half of arguing. A philosophical change which may have been casually noted in another business and then quickly emulated played out like some sort of cultural civil war in baseball circles. Change came, yes, but it wasn’t easy.

But here we are again, with the old baseball men replaced by the “Moneyball” disciples, who have become the new normal. A normal which one deviates from at great risk in baseball’s conservative world. I don’t believe that baseball’s homogeneity in the executive ranks is a function of bad people who believe bad things making bad decisions. I think it’s about fear and conformity more than anything else. Now there is a fear that not hiring that Ivy League MBA is the radical and perilous move. And if that Ivy League MBA was one who worked under another Ivy League MBA with another, all the better. And the easier we can sell him to fans as “the next Theo Epstein,” well, the better. And it sure would be easier to do that if he looked like Theo Epstein! Comps are the lingua franca of old baseball scouts. They’re the lingua franca of baseball decision makers too.

Whatever the causes, the net effect of all of this is no different than if there were virulent racism and sexism in the hearts and minds of baseball’s decision makers. It’s the same rich white boys club that maliciousness and bigotry could’ve created, even if it was created via more benign means. If baseball’s leaders truly believe that diversity in their leadership ranks is important — and I believe them when they say they do — they need to attack the problem of its homogeneity in the same manner they would if there was something malicious afoot. They need to stop throwing up their hands and saying “well, that’s what clubs do” or “that’s what our search firm gave us” and make achieving diversity a goal with an action plan, not just a goal which is merely stated.

Chris Archer could lose his 20th game tonight

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 10:  Chris Archer #22 of the Tampa Bay Rays looks on from the mound after surrendering a home run in the sixth inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on September 10, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
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That’s a pretty negative way to put a headline, but the fact is, a starting pitcher losing 20 games is a rare and notable feat these days. But Tampa Bay Rays starter Chris Archer could pull it off against the White Sox this evening. He’s 8-19 with a 4.02 ERA in 194.2 innings across 32 starts in 2016.

That’s a big fall from 2015, when he was considered one of the rising aces in the game. Archer was an All-Star last year, and finished fifth in the Cy Young voting, finishing fifth in pitcher WAR, sixth in ERA, second in strikeouts, second in strikeouts per nine innings, fourth in fielding independent pitching and allowing the fourth lowest number of hits per nine innings pitched among AL starters.

To be fair, he still should be considered one of the best pitchers in the game. Yes, it has been a bad year for Archer, but he still strikes out a lot of guys. Overall, it takes a pretty good pitcher to lose 20 games in the big leagues. You don’t get the opportunities to do such a dubious thing unless you’re healthy and you have the confidence of your manager to take the ball every fifth day. And to be fair to Archer, he’s had bad defense and awful run support this year. Make no mistake, he has pitched worse than he did a year ago, but not so much worse that he deserves to reach a milestone no one has reached since 2003.

The guy who did that in 2003: Mike Maroth of a 119-loss Tigers team. Maroth won nine games that year and now gets referenced every time someone approaches 20 losses. If Archer avoids his 20th loss, he might match Maroth’s 2003 win total himself tonight. If not, well, everyone will cite Archer’s name, and not Maroth’s, whenever someone get to 19 losses in a season.