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Retiring commissioner Bud Selig always put baseball first

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

In the moments after George Mitchell had blown a hole through the heart of his game, one he’d known was there but couldn’t put a name or diagnosis to, Bud Selig had paced his office 31 floors above Park Avenue. He’d hated all of this. He wore it in his scowl and the forward roll of his shoulders.

He’d taken off his sport coat and changed into comfortable shoes. Still, on a gloomy day in New York City in 2007, he’d paced from his window to his desk and back, from one baseball artifact to another, as if he could have worn it all down with worry and resolve. It was raining outside, of course, matching his mood. He’d stuffed his hands deep into the front pockets of his black slacks, removing them for one point or another, and then he’d return them to their pockets and resume his pacing.

There’d been nothing to do that afternoon but carry on. Do the right thing, as close to the right thing as possible, and carry on. This was his game. Back before the boardrooms and labor wars (and peace), before it was a job and a life’s work, before anybody cared what Bud from Milwaukee thought about anything, this was County Stadium, and a boyhood trip to Fenway Park and Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds and even Yankee Stadium. This was Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron. His game.

[Related: Bud Selig: Five good things, five bad things he did for baseball]

So he had stood that afternoon as the commissioner of baseball, but he had worn a path in that carpet as the boy whose mother took him to ballgames, who’d discovered early on he would never be a player, not like those guys, and still couldn’t ever leave it.

On Thursday afternoon, Selig, commissioner since 1992, announced he would retire as planned when his contract expires at the end of the 2014 season. He will be 80 years old.

Stuff happens over 22 years. Good stuff. Bad stuff. Good decisions. Regrettable ones. Plenty of rainy days for a game that’s played in sunlight, to be sure. Bud Selig wore it all, some pretty well, some kind of rumpled. But, in a job that could have fed his ego, he more often led with the game. Which, by the way, got rich. New ballparks rose up and attendance grew. Revenues multiplied. A franchise sold for more than $2 billion. Time and place put him in the steroids era (and, as a result, in front of more than one Congressional committee), just as they did other commissioners of other leagues, except baseball – and therefore Selig – bore more than its share of the load. It was baseball’s burden, Selig liked to say, that it be held to a higher standard, and so it was, and so he was. That’s not to say it was always comfortable. Change would sometimes be slow, and this would be taken for indecision, or stubbornness, and probably sometimes it was. Those closest to Selig saw it differently, however. They saw him trying to get it right.

“Always, always about the game,” said Rich Levin, Selig’s right hand for nearly 20 years. “He loved it. This was his life. It wasn’t a job. It was life.”

Selig worked hard and expected the same from others. He could grow angry, but was just as quick to forgive. He generally did not hold grudges, as that would impede whatever was to come next. And he liked to laugh.

[Related: Who will be baseball's next commissioner?]

Levin, who retired after the 2010 season, had attended UCLA and played basketball for the late John Wooden. When Wooden was scheduled to throw out the first pitch during the 2002 World Series in Anaheim, Selig asked Levin to introduce him.

“Coach,” Levin said, “meet Commissioner Selig. Commissioner Selig, Coach Wooden.”

They shook hands and a wry smile came over Selig’s face.

“Coach,” Selig said, “could you do me a favor? Rich always said he was better than Gail Goodrich and Walt Hazzard. Could you confirm that?”

Wooden grinned.

“Only in his own mind,” he said.

Years later, Levin still laughs.

“Typical Bud,” he said.

In a statement Thursday, Selig said he would serve through Jan. 24, 2015. He soon will announce a transition plan that would “reorganize centralized Major League Baseball management.”

“It remains my great privilege to serve the game I have loved throughout my life,” Selig said in his statement. “Baseball is the greatest game ever invented …”

He thanked the owners, the players, and, “the heart and soul of our game,” the fans.

The job almost certainly could be thankless, which is why it would take a wholly decent man to do it as well as it could be done. Selig did it – and will for another 16 months – as a very decent man. There will be problems. Far more problems than there will be parades. There will be disappointments. There will be debates. There will be missteps. There always have been.

Selig presumably will get to pacing again.

It’s his game, after all. It’s everyone’s. Which is how he’s always treated it.

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