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Selig Outlasts Critics
By Tom Haudricourt
MILWAUKEE--Ten years ago, Bud Selig was commissioner of a sport that was shut down in a labor dispute so bitter that management took the desperate measure of bringing replacement players to spring training.
As if canceling the 1994 World Series weren't bad enough, owners were foisting scab players on their fans, some of whom began to wonder why they ever cared about the game. When the labor shutdown finally ended at the outset of April, the so-called National Pastime was one big pile of smoldering ashes.
The game would never recover, critics said. Selig's commissionership was doomed, others insisted.
Wrong, and wrong again.
Ten years later, Major League Baseball is in what Selig calls a Golden Era. Major league teams set an all-time attendance mark in 2004, a season that concluded with the Red Sox finally claiming a World Series title after wandering through the baseball wilderness for 86 years.
"When you think about where we were 10 years ago, it is stunning," Selig says. "The sport in no way looks like it did back then. We have seen the greatest changes in the game's history. There's still a lot of work to be done and I feel a great responsibility. But I must admit it is very gratifying."
Past commissioners used to joke that you couldn't get owners to agree on the day of the week. Yet last fall, all 30 decided they wanted Selig, 70, at the helm beyond his existing contract, which was set to expire in 2006.
Selig got a three-year contract extension through 2009, guaranteeing he will be in office when the current collective bargaining agreement and national television contract end after the '06 season. Owners understood that putting a new commissioner in place at that critical juncture could prove disastrous.
"I have been in baseball nearly 25 years, and in that time I have never known anyone more dedicated and more devoted than Bud Selig," Mets owner Fred Wilpon says.
In the 12-plus years Selig has served as commissioner--including the first six on an interim basis--baseball has changed for the better in many ways. Revenue sharing among clubs increased to $256 million last year, and will jump to $300 million by 2006. Gross revenues have soared to $4.1 billion, 15 ballparks have been built, divisional realignment and wild-card playoff berths have been embraced by fans, and interleague play boosted attendance by nearly 14 percent.
"More important fan-friendly innovations have been introduced to major league baseball during his term of office than in the previous 100-plus years of baseball history combined," White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf says.
Selig now laughs at those who opposed changes in the game, particularly the wild card. He need look no further than last year's National League pennant race, when St. Louis ran away and hid in the Central Division, and Atlanta distanced itself from the pack in the East.
Thanks to the wild card, one of the most exciting races in years took place for the other two playoff spots. Houston secured the wild-card berth on the penultimate day of the season and came within a couple of outs of toppling St. Louis in the NL Championship Series.
Don't tell the last three World Series champions that the wild card is a bogus format. The Angels, Marlins and Red Sox all made it to postseason play by qualifying as the fourth team from their leagues.
"When I think back now to all of those who said we were ruining the game, it's remarkable," Selig says. "Now, people are telling me we should add another wild card in each league. But you hate to tinker with something that has been so successful."
Nothing is more important to Selig than the financial stability of major league teams. He had firsthand experience in the industry by heading the group that ran the Brewers for 35 years, the longest-tenured active ownership in the game until it sold the team to Los Angeles financier Mark Attanasio after the 2004 season.
Selig's most significant accomplishment came in August 2002, when owners negotiated a labor deal with the union without a work stoppage for the first time in more than three decades. The new agreement included expanded revenue sharing, a luxury tax on the highest payrolls, and regulations forcing clubs to obey the long-ignored debt service rule.
After the horrible days of 1994-95, Selig understood what his real mandate was as commissioner.
"I believe in always doing what's in the best interests of the sport. Nothing else really matters to me," he says. "I want to keep the focus on the field. Whenever the focus is on the field, that's when the sport does well."
MLB failed in that effort this spring, mainly because of Jose Canseco's tell-all book that implicated some of the game's biggest stars in a mushrooming steroids scandal. It troubled Selig that steroids clouded the opening of spring training, but he had peace of mind that baseball had at least addressed the problem with a new, tougher drug policy.
"I couldn't be more happy or proud of what we've accomplished," says Selig, who had championed a tougher drug testing policy for years. "For all of the people who understand the significance of getting it done in the middle of a labor agreement, it's truly historic.
"The specter of steroid use was something that threatened the credibility of the game. Our fans wanted us to do something about it. I feel very good about what we've done and the union should feel good, too."
Under the new policy, players who test positive for steroids for the first time receive a 10-day suspension without pay. Selig notes that beyond the suspension itself, fans and the media will now know when a player is disciplined for steroid use.
"That's the greatest deterrent of all," he says. "It surprises me that some people do not understand that."
Selig has definite ideas about what does and doesn't work in the game of baseball. His official entrance to the sport came in 1970, when he led a group of local businessmen determined to make Milwaukee a major league city again after the exodus of the Braves to Atlanta.
Selig's group purchased the Seattle Pilots out of bankruptcy proceedings, and within a week brought the club to Milwaukee and renamed it the Brewers.
"We got it at the very end, six days before opening day," he recalls. "I have said for years, no matter what happens to me in life, getting a team will always be my proudest achievement because it was against unbelievable odds."
Selig helped keep the team in Milwaukee by leading the campaign for a new ballpark in the 1990s. His efforts resulted in the building of Miller Park, thus assuring the Brewers would remain in the city for generations to come.
After shedding his "interim" tag as commissioner on July 9, 1998, Selig put his shares in the club in a voting trust. Despite that maneuver and efforts to remain neutral in matters pertaining to the Brewers, Selig was seen as a walking, talking conflict of interest in the dual role of commissioner and owner.
Those critics finally were silenced last year with the sale of the team to Attanasio.
"I wanted to do it for a long time for reasons relative to my commissionership," Selig says. "Even as interim commissioner, with the tumultuous decade of the '90s, I began to realize how much my life had changed. You can only do so much."
Selig accepted long ago that the commissioner of baseball is a lightning rod for any scandal or controversy affecting the game. At times he can't help feeling like Smokey the Bear, constantly on the lookout for brush fires to stomp out.
Beyond the spiraling steroids controversy, some owners spoke out about the continued disparity among team payrolls as well as the overzealous spending habits of their peers. Selig quickly quieted the ranks, explaining that the task of finding financial balance would be an ongoing effort.
Payroll disparity and competitive balance--which go hand-in-hand--remain significant areas of concern. The average payroll of the eight playoff clubs in 2004 was $101 million, more than twice as much as bottom-feeders such as the Pirates, Devil Rays and Brewers intend to spend this year.
"I'm very comfortable with our labor deal," Selig says. "You have to remember that we have two years to go on it, and the revenue sharing increases and the luxury tax gets tougher. Other rules become more stringent.
"We've made enormous progress, but there's still work to be done. I've said that many times."
Selig's predecessors seldom had legitimate opportunities to grow the game because they constantly faced double jeopardy--a union that didn't trust the commissioner's intentions, and an ownership group divided by internal strife. It took years of consensus building and cajoling, but Selig used his experience as a longtime owner to get that group together.
"We no longer have the internal bickering among owners," he says. "That's the thing I'm most proud of. It sabotaged the sport for decades. I must admit that when I look at it today, you almost have to pinch yourself."
With his three-year extension, Selig is slated to serve as commissioner for at least 17 years. That would be the second-longest term ever, behind original baseball boss Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who served for 22 years. But Landis ruled through intimidation, a tactic that would not work in today's game. One of Selig's biggest accomplishments was convincing his peers that change was good, not something to fear.
"I've said it many times, baseball was like a dinosaur," says Selig, who draws an annual salary of about $5 million. "We were so slow to change. There have been so many changes now, and we haven't damaged the game. We've made it better.
"There is still work to be done, no question. This job is never easy. There will always be challenges. It's my responsibility to make sure nothing gets in the way."