On Sunday, Rob Manfred will officially take over as the 10th Commissioner of Baseball, succeeding Bud Selig, who has held the post, officially or in acting commissioner capacity, for 23 years. Over the next couple of days, we’ll be assessing Selig’s past, predicting Manfred’s future and generally summing up the State of the Game as we witness the transition of power.
Bud Selig is the greatest commissioner in baseball’s history. I and some others first claimed that about a year ago, and I see no reason to change that assessment. The executive summary of the Case for Bud, keeping in mind that his job has been to serve baseball as a sport and the owners as a favored constituency, not to make the general citizenry happy:
- Since the 1994-95 strike, he has reigned over two decades of labor peace, with multiple collective bargaining agreements being ratified without a work stoppage;
- Baseball’s attendance has skyrocketed, with teams averaging over 2.5 million tickets sold a year, whereas when he took over half the teams didn’t even draw two million;
- Tremendous revenue growth. Baseball is now a nearly $10 billion a year industry. Revenues were just over a billion a year when he took over. More significantly to the owners, the value of franchises — the appreciation of which is how these guys make serious money — have gone through the roof;
- A near complete turnover of the ballpark inventory in the game. With a couple of exceptions, every team that has wanted a new ballpark has gotten one and damn few of them have had to pay for most or, in a lot of cases, any of these palaces;
- The successful adoption and exploitation of online media and online platforms which is unmatched in professional sports. Indeed, MLB Advanced Media serves as the digital platform for many other sports and entertainment outlets;
- Innovations like the wild card, interleague play and expanded playoffs which, while distressing to baseball purists, have helped drive those revenue and ticket sales increases and — maybe more significantly — shook baseball out of the mindset that nothing can be changed in the game without an act of God and the ghost of Honus Wagner appearing to 18 of the 30 owners in a vision on the top of a mountain; and
- The taming — relatively speaking — of the performance enhancing drug scourge that peaked in baseball in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Those are a lot of accomplishments.
Now, to be clear, a lot of those things don’t do much for us as fans or the public at large and many of them may actually tick us off. But again, it was not Bud Selig’s job to serve the public. It was his job to serve 30 franchise owners and to make sure fans and players aren’t alienated enough to where those 30 owners lose money. By that measure Selig has been astoundingly successful, especially compared to his mostly feckless and sometimes calamitous predecessors.
Now to be clear, Part II: many of those innovations and accomplishments were only made possible by Selig’s own past failures. We would not think much of labor peace — nor would it be as attainable — if Selig had not spearheaded the group of owners who (a) overthrew former commissioner Fay Vincent; (b) installed Selig in his place; and (c) declared war against the union and fomented the player’s strike which cost us the 1994 World Series.
Likewise, PEDs would not have gotten to the crisis point they became if Selig and his comrades had not ignored it as it took hold and created an atmosphere of rancor and distrust with the players which prevented either side from addressing PEDs before, say, dealing with all of the messed up financial issues.
Finally, some may say that all of that revenue growth and success baseball has seen in the past 20 years would’ve happened with or without Selig. Maybe. I think such a position underestimates just how easy it is for someone to meddle with a good thing, but I won’t claim that Bug Selig merely waved a magic wand and caused money to come out of everyone’s ears.
All of that amounts to a bit of a complicated legacy to be sure. After all, if one solves the problems he himself created, does that make one a success?
For the time being — at least until any and all skeleton’s from Selig’s commissioner closet come to light — I’m going to say yes. At least in the case of professional sports management where ego reigns supreme and hardly anyone at the highest executive levels are ever punished for their failures.
Selig could’ve decided in 1995 that, even if his labor tactics had failed, he was right and everyone was wrong and they could all go to hell if they thought differently. He could’ve limped along as commissioner for a couple of years, earning a seven and then eight-figure salary before being fired by his fellow owners. He could’ve then returned to running the Milwaukee Brewers — which he still owned, and which were managed by his daughter — and counted his money for the rest of his days. It’s the path a lot of baseball owners would’ve taken, I reckon.
But Selig didn’t do that. While never publicly and fully admitting his failures in words, he attempted to atone for them in deed. The former labor hawk reached a peace with the player’s union with whom he had done battle for so long. A peace that, eventually, turned into the closest thing to a partnership baseball had ever seen. He pushed baseball owners — a conservative group by nature — to try new things. When he could’ve just counted all of the money he and his friends were making in the resurgent late 90s and early 2000s — a game made resurgent due to Mac and Sammy and Chicks Digging the Longball — he decided that it was worth risking killing that golden goose by beginning to take a hard line on PEDs.
No, these changes were not out of the goodness of his heart. They were motivated by money and, in the case of PEDs, Congressional and P.R. pressure — but they were changes he didn’t have to make. Remember: he could’ve just taken his bag of money back to Milwaukee. Instead of doing that he attempted to learn from his past mistakes and take a different course of action than almost anyone in the exclusive baseball owners club would, naturally, be inclined to take. He decided to look to the future, not the past. This is almost unheard of in the history of the baseball executive class.
And all of it amounts to Bud Selig being the best commissioner in the history of baseball. Maybe not your favorite commissioner. Maybe the competition for the title isn’t that fierce either. But Bud won it, fair and square. And as he leaves office this weekend, it’s worth remembering it.