No one may ever explain why Bud Selig chose Mariano Rivera’s last night at Yankee Stadium to make official the date of his retirement, but, as will be hashed over for the next 16 months, Selig was the most important commissioner baseball ever knew, maybe any sport. He made baseball big business, raising attendance eight times what it was when he took over on Labor Day weekend, 1992, raising revenues by five or six times what they were after The Great Strike of 1994-95. He got ballparks built, he got revenue sharing, he expanded the playoffs, he helped negotiate incredible television contracts, he helped baseball be a far more competitive business than his NFL counterparts, and, yet, when he made his announcement Thursday the first questions were whether or not he did enough for performance enhancing drugs.
So let us go there first. We may never know what Selig knew when they came off The Strike of ’94-’95, when Cal Ripken began the healing, or what he knew in 1998 when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa brought baseball back in the high life, again. So go back to 1998. Three years earlier, baseball was a $1.1B industry, and when McGwire and Sosa captured us the sport was rebuilding its revenue streams. If Selig knew—and he may—there was something suspicious about what was happening, if he’d pulled the plug on McGwire and Sosa, he’d have gone the way of Fay Vincent. Gone. And remember, what could he do, given the Players Association. It is now fashionable to blame Donald Fehr and Gene Orza for all things steroids, but in 1998, they were four years removed from a strike that was designed to break the union, smash everything Senator Jim Bunning and Robin Roberts and Marvin Miller fought to accomplish after the arrogant years of control of owners like Gussie Busch?
In 2002, Selig fought for drug-testing in the negotiations for a new Basic Agreement, but when it was clear Fehr and Orza felt drug-testing was a strikeable issue, he backed off because he knew baseball could not suffer another strike that quickly. Selig and I were both there for the first strike on March 31, 1972, and had seen them in ’76 and ’80 and ’95, etc., and he was right. He got the experimental testing for the next year which, because the players were so dumb, led to full testing, and on and on and on.
Selig and baseball are held to different standards, which may be good, although some of the hysteria is all about baseball records. In 2012, the New England Patriots traded for a cornerback named Aqib Talib who was suspended for PED abuse, had fought a teammate in Tampa, had been charged with beating up a cab driver and been arrested for assault, but there was no outcry because Bob Kraft was trying to win and increase the value of the franchise brand.
Drug-testing is a gray area. When Rob Manfred broke down the doors of the Florida drug clinic and had 13 players accept suspensions, it wasn’t because of drug tests, it was because of astounding detective work. The chemists usually lead the testers, and we know that.
But we also know how much Selig knows that, and how much he cares about baseball. He is passionate about Jackie Robinson and the history of baseball and African-Americans. He should be proud of the fact that in his tenure, in the final week of the 2013 season the Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics, Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds were still alive.
I remember talking to David Halberstam about his contention that George Herbert Walker Bush was the great American president since Harry Truman in terms of foreign policy because of Bush’s ability to sit foreign leaders down and achieve consensus. That is Selig’s legacy. His is a business where each owner doesn’t see his franchise as 1/30th of the business, but a separate entity whose interests often conflict with the best interests of the game.
Understand that, and you understand the difficulty and complexity of the job Selig has done so well. He needs to be a big part of the search for his successor. I’m told it will be Rob Manfred. Tim Brosnan will be in the process, MLB Network’s Tony Petitti. Selig has to be a huge part of the transition, because owners have to know the next commissioner is important.
Bud Selig loves baseball. He will take care of Manfred, Brosnan, Petitti…whoever. Baseball is far bigger today than when Bud assembled its leadership, and he has to make certain that the succession is so smooth, so natural, so powerful that 1994 never happens again.