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.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Athletics 10, Angels 0: Brett Anderson — the pitcher, not the lead singer for seminal 1990s Britpop band Suede — tossed shutout ball into the seventh while Stephen Piscotty brought The Power, homering and driving in five runs to lead an Oakland hit parade that beat the Angels Black and Blue. It wasn’t a Wild One, but I’m sure A’s fans Can’t Get Enough of their team winning.

Dodgers 5, Rockies 2: Yasiel Puig is having a heck of a month of September. I mean, yeah, his house has been robbed a couple of times lately, but it’s not distracting him on the field. He got the day off to start the day yesterday but then he came on to hit a three-run pinch-hit homer in the seventh inning to break a 2-2 tie and to give the Dodgers a three-game sweep of the Rockies. Puig is hitting .400 with seven homers and 14 RBI in the month of September. Matt Kemp homered too and Walker Buehler struck out 12. The Dodgers, meanwhile, boosted their lead in the NL West to two and a half games with nine games to play. Ten for the Rockies.

Indians 4, White Sox 1: The White Sox carried a 1-0 lead all the way to the ninth inning, backed by a strong performance from Dylan Covey (6 IP, 2 H, 0 ER). In the ninth, three different White Sox relievers each allowed a batter to reach to load the bases. The third one of them, Ian Hamilton, then faced Jason Kipnis. On his sixth pitch, Kipnis launched it over the fence in right for a walkoff grand slam that doubled a his 1,000th career hit:

Braves 7, Cardinals 3: Freddie Freeman hit a two-run homer and knocked in three on his 3-for-3 day as the Braves snapped their four-game losing streak. They now start a four-game series against the Phillies, over whom they hold a five and a half game lead in the NL East and hold a magic number of six. St. Louis falls and is now three behind Milwaukee for the top NL wild card but holds its one and a half game lead over the Rockies for the second spot thanks to the Rockies loss in Los Angeles.

Twins 8, Tigers 2: Stephen Gonsalves pitched six scoreless innings of one-hit ball as the Twins second pitcher of the day, striking out four and picking up his first major league win. Twins catcher Willians Astudillo doubled and singled in a run on his three-RBI day as the Twins sweep the Tigers.

Rays 9, Rangers 3: Tommy Pham homered twice to give the Rays a three-game sweep. Ryan Yarbrough picked up his 15th win on the year despite the fact that he has only started six games. The “opener” concept at work. I don’t know if that will become a new part of baseball going forward or if it’ll just be a fad. I don’t think anyone knows that yet. If it is he latter, people in 20-25 years are gonna be looking at baseball stats and wondering why “relievers” had such high win totals.

Phillies 4, Mets 0: Zach Eflin and five relievers combine for a six hit shutout, backed by homers from Rhys Hoskins and Odubel Herrera. It’s now on to Atlanta, who Philly trails by five and a half. Seven of Philadelphia’s final 11 games are against the Braves, in fact, so this thing isn’t over.

Yankees 10, Red Sox 1: The AL East race isn’t over yet either. It will be — the Sox only need one more win and one more Yankees loss — but New York postponed that for yet another day, thanks to a big offensive day led by Luke Voit‘s two-homer performance. Miguel Andujar also homered and Aaron Hicks drove in three. David Price was knocked around for six runs — four earned — in five and a third. Luis Severino started shaky — his fist six pitches of the game were balls — but ended up allowing only one run in seven innings of work. New York remains two and a half games ahead of Oakland for the top AL Wild Card spot.

Orioles 2, Blue Jays 1: DJ Stewart hit his first major league home run, Jimmy Yacabonis and four relievers allowed only one run on four hits and the O’s avoid the sweep. I’m pretty sure Jimmy Yacabonis was in Season two of “The Wire,” by the way. He was either one of the dock workers or a henchman at the Greek diner, right? I think I’m right about that.

Pirates 2, Royals 1: Chris Archer allowed one run over seven innings, striking out eight, and Adam Frazier hit a tie-breaking solo homer in the fifth to give the Buccos a three-game sweep over Kansas City. The Royals have lost four straight.

Brewers 7, Reds 0: Jesus Aquilar and Manny Pina each hit three-run homers and Aquilar knocked in four in all as the Brewers knocked Matt Harvey around for seven runs in five and a third. Gio Gonzalez tossed six shutout innings tossed six shutout innings on his 33rd birthday. I think I had to file a summary judgment brief on my 33rd birthday, after which I probably changed diapers and fell asleep at 9:16PM. It was a hell of a Friday.

Mariners 9, Astros 0: Seven M’s pitchers combined on a five-hit shutout. Kyle Seager, Mitch Haniger and Guillermo Heredia each homered but Seattle had already built a 5-0 lead by the time those guys started going deep.

Padres 8, Giants 4: San Diego had a five-run second inning led by Wil Myers‘ two-run homer. Freddy Galvis also homered as the Padres avoided a three-game sweep.

Diamondbacks 9, Cubs 0: Robbie Ray tossed six shutout innings allowing only one hit and three Dbacks reliever combined for three no-hit innings to finish it off. The need not have been so dominant given that Cole Hamels was rocked for seven runs on nine hits in his six innings of work. Christian Walker, Chris Owings and Jeff Mathis each homered for Arizona. The Diamondbacks did this despite putting basically an all-backup lineup on the field with only two regular starters, Nick Ahmed and Ketel Marte, getting the start.