Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 4: Bud Selig retires, Rob Manfred takes over

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We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 4: Rob Manfred Becomes Commissioner of Baseball 

Bud Selig took over from Fay Vincent as Major League Baseball’s Commissioner in the early 90s as the result of an owners’ coup. While he almost immediately drove the game over a cliff by forcing the 1994-95 strike, he somehow survived, eventually learned from his mistakes and, over the next 20 years, consolidated his power. Indeed, he consolidated it so well that on at least two occasions he announced that he would retire only to be begged to stay on longer by the other owners.

And the owners had good reason to want him to stay: he was amazingly good for them:

  • Owners made all kinds of money under Bud’s leadership. More than they ever had before;
  • The owners, under Bud’s leadership, finally learned to stop shooting themselves in the foot via misguided efforts to bust the players’ union (misguided efforts Selig once himself led, mind you, but see what I said above about how he learned from his mistakes) and instead began to learn how to beat them at the bargaining table rather try to do end-runs around it;
  • Selig perfected the tactics which most teams would use to convince local governments to build them new ballparks and, thanks to that, he oversaw almost a complete turnover in stadium inventory during his reign;
  • Bud oversaw the successful adoption and exploitation of online media and online platforms which was unmatched in professional sports, allowing MLB to create spinoff businesses which were subsequently sold for billions and billions of dollars, all payable to owners and not sharable with players. That may seem to have been inevitable now, but it’s not hard to imagine 30 owners fighting over that, each trying to monetize “[Team].com” and all of them failing miserably, leading to a patchwork setup that did not, in fact, make the owners billions; and
  • He spearheaded innovations like the wild card, interleague play and expanded playoffs which, while distressing to baseball purists, 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.

You’ll note that basically all of that describes things that benefit the men and the corporations who own baseball teams. That’s no accident. Despite the sentiment out there that the Commissioner of Baseball is some presidential figure who is tasked with looking out for the good of the game in the broadest sense, that has never been the job. Sure, some commissioners pretend that’s the job when it suits them, but the job is to do the bidding of the owners or, if their bidding is dumb, to convince them to come up with some different bidding. Ultimately, the only measure of a commissioner’s success is how much money he made the owners and Bud Selig made money for the owners to beat the band.

So in 2013 when Selig, again, said that he wanted to retire, you’ll not be surprised to hear that the owners weren’t all that happy. So Bud did something to try to make them happy. He basically named his successor.

Specifically, he named Rob Manfred, the Executive Vice President for Economics & League Affairs, baseball’s Chief Operating Officer. And he did it in September 2013, well over a year before he was to leave office, saying that Manfred would run the Commissioner’s Office on a day-to-day basis. Selig said it was his plan to work on “big picture issues” and prepare for retirement.

All of this was a big deal. For one thing, it finally made it clear that Selig was, in fact, going to quit. One of the reasons everyone sort of knew Selig had been bluffing about retiring in previous years was that he had not had a formalized second-in-command since Bob DuPuy left in 2010 and most people who knew Selig knew that he was not going to leave without at least attempting to control who replaced him. For another thing, naming Manfred made it very clear what Selig’s priorities and values were and what he felt Major League Baseball’s priorities should be after he departed.

Manfred’s title bad been, as noted, Executive Vice President for Economics & League Affairs, but he was really Bud Selig’s blunt instrument, hatchet man, bad cop, or whatever other Hollywood-style moniker you want to put on it. In contrast to Selig, Manfred was not a baseball man or really even a sports guy at all. Instead of parlaying a used car business and a love of the game into a baseball empire or running a successful Olympic Committee or something, Manfred made his bones as a labor lawyer at a white shoe law firm, representing management. Within five years he had Major League Baseball as a client, and he represented MLB on labor matters as an outside attorney for another nine years. It was not until 1998 that he was brought in-house.

Manfred served as the league’s point man for collective bargaining talks in 2002, 2006 and 2011. Each round of talks concluded without a strike or lockout and each round of talks, one can strongly argue, strengthened, rather than weakened, ownership’s hand for the first time since before Marvin Miller took over the MLBPA back in the 60s.

Manfred was also the man Selig had handle his thorniest problems. He was the point man for the league’s anti-PED efforts. Efforts which, as we noted in the Biogenesis entry, were, to put it mildly, . . . aggressive.  He was the point man in the Dodgers’ bankruptcy and sale which took no small amount of jawboning and a game of chicken which risked billions. There are a lot of things Manfred did while serving under Selig that one could question or criticize. There is nothing he did in that capacity that did not inure to the great benefit of Selig, the 30 owners and Major League Baseball. Frankly, it made him perfect for the job of Commissioner, at least if you remember what the actual job description is and if don’t pretend that it’s to be some Baseball Dad or whatever.

The vote to pick a new commissioner was held in August 2014. There was some drama surrounding all of that as a small insurgency led by Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox sought an alternative candidate, but eventually Bud’s heir apparent got the job.

Since taking over, Manfred hasn’t done too terribly much to cause Bud Selig to regret his decision.

I’ve been told by people in a position to know there is at least some sentiment in the league office, the union office and in many team front offices that people are often displeased with Manfred’s demeanor. That he’s more prickly and abrasive than Bud used to be. That he does not have a good sense for P.R. and that he has, instead, chosen to just make assertions about league actions and policy rather than try to lay the groundwork for them. That sort of thing. There’s a good deal of truth to it from what I can see, but I’d also guess that most people who think this have forgotten what Bud Selig was like back in the early 1990s. Manfred will likely never be able to pull off that oddly endearing, allegedly confused, but dadgummit, he just loves baseball Uncle Bud persona, but he has been in the job less than five years. One assumes he’ll develop a bit more polish over time.

On the substance, though, Manfred has done exactly what his successor and his 30 employers have wanted him to do.

Revenues continue to grow at unprecedented rates and, on top of the TV deals and new ballparks that Selig helped oversee, Manfred has radically expanded MLB sponsorship deals, signing up “official partners of Major League Baseball” in every business imaginable. Under his leadership multiple teams have gotten into the real estate business, with insanely lucrative developments already being built in Atlanta and St. Louis and even more lucrative developments being planned in Anaheim, San Francisco, Oakland and other cities. Manfred has even gotten baseball into the gambling business, which is something that would’ve been utterly unthinkable a few short years ago.

He also, perhaps not surprisingly given his track record, deftly handled the 2016 Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations which, many believe, contained some of the biggest concessions to the owners in CBA history. Whatever you think about that on the specifics, it cannot be denied that baseball revenue has skyrocketed and that, for the first time in decades, player compensation has gone down. To call it anything less than a total victory for ownership and MLB would be to engage in magical thinking. The owners certainly agreed. In 2018 they extended Manfred’s contract through the 2024 season. Bud Selig used to only get two-year deals.

These days there are storm clouds on the horizon. It finally dawned on the players that their clocks were being cleaned by Manfred and, in the past couple of years, they have taken an increasingly bold stance on labor issues. While the current CBA lasts through the 2021 season, player displeasure persuaded Manfred to begin preliminary talks with the union in midstream. Those talks didn’t go too well, and at the moment many think that Manfred will have his toughest fight yet before a new CBA is signed. His nearly 20-year streak of handling those without a work stoppage is certainly in jeopardy.

For now, though, Manfred’s power is unquestioned. And Bud Selig’s legacy — including his decision to name Manfred his successor — remains perfectly intact.

 

PREVIOUS ENTRIES 

No. 5: The Tanking Epidemic
No. 6: The Deaths of Young Players
No. 7: Miguel Cabrera Wins the Triple Crown
No. 8: The Biogenesis Scandal
No. 9: Bullpen Mania Takes Over the Game
No. 10: The Rise of the Young Player
No. 11: Baseball Goes From Deadball To Juiced Ball
No. 12: Baseball Begins Rewriting the Rulebook
No. 13: Baseball Adds a Second Wild Card
No, 14: Albert Pujols Signs With the Angels
No. 15: Baseball Continues a Remarkable Run of Labor Peace
No. 16: Baseball implements a domestic violence policy
No. 17: Cardinals Employee Hacks Astros’ Database
No. 18: Frank and Jamie McCourt Bankrupt the Dodgers
No. 19: Baseball Embraces Gambling
No. 20: The Hall of Fame Logjam
No. 21: The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules
No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

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TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.