Bud Selig.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
May 5 2005 12:37 PM

Bud Selig

A baseball hero. Really.

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This Bud's for you

The most powerful man in Major League Baseball, Bud Selig, is also the most reviled. Fans hate baseball's commissioner because of a perception that he has mangled the sport's economics, because he decided to end the 2002 All-Star Game with the score tied, and just because he looks like the last guy who'd be picked for a Fourth of July whiffle-ball game. His nickname, "Bud Lite," captures his image as a weak-willed cipher with nothing like the fearsome reputation of his NBA counterpart David Stern or the charisma of Kennesaw Mountain Landis, baseball's first commissioner. Even the Bud Selig Fan Club Blog likes to pile on, with the slogan "All B.S., All the Time."

Selig has earned some of this scorn, for sure. But he is a far more decisive leader than the rap on him allows for—and a much better commissioner, too. In recent years, he has steadily straightened out baseball's economics. Last week he grabbed the sport's steroid crisis by the horns. Even a few of his past ridiculed decisions, like playing favorites during the sale of the Red Sox and threatening to shrink the league, look pretty good in retrospect. For most of his tenure, Selig has been dismissed as a weak hitter with a gimp arm, but it's time to start thinking of him as Vladimir Guerrero.

Selig starts off down in the count because everything about him seems blah: the way he looks and the way he talks. His biography doesn't help. Born in 1934 in Milwaukee, baseball's future chief quit playing the sport as a kid because he couldn't hit a curveball. His lack of skill on the field notwithstanding, Selig became a baseball freak, so much so that he ruined his first marriage. "From the day Bud became involved in baseball, he divorced me and married baseball," his first wife told the court in 1976 during divorce proceedings, according to Sports Illustrated.

Selig succeeded better in business than in love, but he made his money selling cars, not the suavest route to riches. In 1970, he saw a chance to acquire the hapless Seattle Pilots after they filed for bankruptcy and moved the team east to Milwaukee, where they became the Brewers. Two decades later, when baseball's other owners tapped Selig to lead the sport, they declared the appointment temporary, downgrading his title to acting commissioner for the first six years that he held the post.

Selig struck out at his first big at-bat when he failed to make a deal with the players' union in 1994, a blunder that led to the cancellation of the World Series. This was baseball's bleakest moment, and Selig seemed inept. He alienated the players and the fans during the pre-strike negotiations and then again when he let the owners threaten to start the 1995 season by fielding subpar scab players. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Brewers hung around his neck as a glaring conflict of interest, even as they stumbled through 12 consecutive losing seasons. Commissioners are supposed to make decisions in the best interest of the game; Selig owned part of one team that his daughter was running. When he proposed that baseball eliminate two teams that were floundering financially in 2001, outraged fans speculated that he just wanted to knock out the Minnesota Twins, the Brewers' regional rivals. The biggest whiff of all happened when Selig decided to stop the 2002 All-Star Game after 11 innings. With the score tied 7-7 and both teams out of pitchers, the commissioner looked feeble and confused when he threw up his hands and called the players off the field. Baseball purists ripped into him for bastardizing a tradition and making the All-Star Game seem like a farce.

Mistaken as Selig's decisions may have been, however, they didn't derive from weakness. Canceling the World Series and bringing in scabs may have been bad moves, but they were gutsy. So was threatening to shrink the number of teams in the sport and calling off the meaningless All-Star Game. Selig may look like a chump, but he always swings hard. And now he's finally hitting some balls out of the park.

Consider Selig's admirable handling of baseball's steroids crisis. The sport was moving slowly to cope, even as Congress bore down, new scandals broke weekly, and players began to resemble Mr. Potato Head. Then last week, Selig sent a bold letter to baseball owners outlining a genuinely tough policy. Until now, busted players have faced 10-day suspensions. The minor penalty leads to public shaming. But when the fans shift their attention, a 10-game suspension turns into an opportunity for the average player to sit tight and heal his nagging injuries. Selig's proposal, by contrast, would bench a player for 50 games on the first positive test and kick him out for life after the third—fittingly serious penalties for serious crimes. In addition, Selig has proposed banning amphetamines, the first time anyone has focused seriously on stopping this scourge of the sport.

Selig also deserves credit for restoring fiscal sanity to baseball. Player salaries have stabilized, owners have stopped complaining that their teams are going bankrupt, and in 2002 the owners and players signed a collective bargaining agreement without a work stoppage or lockout for the first time in 30 years. Along the way, Selig pushed for interleague play and an expanded playoff system with wild-card teams, ideas that have boosted revenue and pleased the fans.

And Selig has taken a step toward enhanced competition by overseeing the creation of an effective, if imperfect, system for transferring money from rich teams to poor ones. This year, for example, the Yankees were forced to pay more than $60 million dollars to other teams as part of a revenue-sharing agreement and an additional $25 million tax to the sport based on their huge payroll. The system has flaws—some small-market teams have an incentive to stay bad so they can continue to rake in George Steinbrenner's dollars—but it's a big step toward greater parity among teams. In addition, Selig has written rules limiting the amount of debt, compared with cash flow, that a team can carry. This is a huge hindrance to the Yankees, the sport's behemoth, who carry a heap of fat, long-term contracts. It's probably the reason the team has scrub infielder Tony Womack in their outfield instead of the studly Carlos Beltran, and it helps to explain why it looks like another team might win the Yanks' division next fall, for the first time in eight years.

Selig has also done smaller things wisely and boldly. According to many insiders, he put a thumb on the scale so that the ownership team of John Henry, Larry Lucchino, and Tom Werner could buy the Red Sox in 2001 over local bidders—a shady backroom maneuver that helped put smart managers at the helm of one of baseball's most storied franchises and that helped create last season's beloved winners. Similarly, Selig engineered the moving of the Montreal Expos to Washington, D.C., where they are thriving as the capital city's Nationals. And, under his watch, the sport cleverly centralized www.mlb.com, turning it into the country's greatest tool of workplace procrastination.

Selig will never be one of baseball's crowd-pleasing stars. But he has learned on the job, and he has remedied some of his earlier errors. Last year, he sold the Brewers. He is no longer threatening to cut out the Twins. He has even gotten remarried. And this week, even his old, long-sagging team is on a six-game winning streak. It's time for the surly fans in the bleachers to stop throwing peanuts and beer bottles and give Selig a cheer.

Nicholas Thompson is a senior editor at Legal Affairs.