How Bud Selig survived huge mistakes to forge a legacy worth remembering

Bud Selig was the accidental commissioner, the antiquated man charged with navigating modern times, the car salesman handed an institution and told to fix it. Dunderheaded and genius, profane and professorial, simple and complicated, Selig will retire from Major League Baseball’s top post Saturday after more than 22 years as the ultimate sort of political animal: the survivor.

He survived the strike, the steroid wars and the All-Star Game tie, the legacy-sullying Cerberus that took place on his watch, and history will see as his doing. And yet his commissionership was so rich with progress – the expanded postseason and and revenue sharing and new stadiums and instant replay and unprecedented riches and, best of all, two-plus decades of uninterrupted labor peace – that to define Selig by his mistakes, whoppers though they may have been, serves as a black-and-white rendering of a man who did his finest work in the gray.

Bud Selig had some missteps, but he helped guide MLB to unprecedented wealth. (USAT)
Bud Selig had some missteps, but he helped guide MLB to unprecedented wealth. (USAT)

Forever the public will see Selig as the man whose face always seemed to contort the wrong way when photographers snapped their pictures, whose words struggled to carry authority, whose posture screamed sciatica instead of CEO. The public version of Selig the goofus runs in stark contrast to the legislator who glad-handed baseball into a thriving 21st-century business.

At the first owners’ meeting under Selig’s watch, after his 1992 coup d’etat to wrest the commissioner’s job from Fay Vincent, two groups broke out into two different rooms. Small-market owners convened in one; large-market owners assembled in the other. The owners’ dysfunction made the Kardashians look normal. Here to solve it was Allan Huber Selig, nicknamed Bud, the billionaire whisperer.

Behind the scenes, on the phones, face-to-face, whatever the situation called for, Selig spoke the magical language of rich men. He had enough of an ego to know how to satisfy others’, enough sensitivity to understand their misgivings, enough savvy to unite them. He listened, he pushed, he prodded and he bullied when necessary. He wasn’t a puppet like Roger Goodell; he was one of them, a former owner, a man of means.

Baseball’s brokenness led to the 1994 strike and a canceled World Series, and it’s not revisionism to say the gravity of it saved baseball from future labor wars. Even as Selig pushed the ridiculous narrative into the 2000s that baseball was unprofitable, the strike reminded owners and players just how rich they were, and how allowing something like greed to get in the way of those riches isn’t just petty but counterproductive. Selig was a pragmatist. Games played meant wealth, which meant satisfied billionaires who didn’t mind spending money, which meant players who swam in cash. And when owners and players are happy, we have baseball.

How Selig pulled off the plan might be his greatest trick. Somehow, the public now conflates revenues with success. This is a dirty trap. Baseball grew into a $9 billion-a-year business on the backs of corporations that helped drive up prices so the average consumer can’t afford parking, let alone tickets. Publicly funded stadiums are fundamentally wrong, and baseball’s first boom came on their backs – the thievery of tax dollars to build secular houses of worship where the god is a uniform and where the redistribution of profits is limited to the pockets of owners and cronies. The second boom is even worse: Companies pouring billions of dollars into local-television contracts that turn monthly cable and satellite bills into albatrosses for the working person, preying on the loyalty engendered by sports to bundle their checkbook to death.

And yet it’s this money that kept the game on the field, this money that gave baseball the leeway to ask for investments from every team into MLB Advanced Media, the biggest technology company in New York. And that spawned MLB Network, a TV station that feeds the modern thirst for all-day programming. Without both, baseball is what it is perceived to be: old and behind the times. On the contrary, baseball has positioned itself remarkably well with TV, the web, social media and mobile, all under the watch of an 80-year-old who still doesn’t use email.

At the same time, calling Selig a visionary would be incorrect. TV money was going to be big no matter the commissioner, baseball being a cheap, 162-night-a-year, four-hour programming block. The Internet boom enlivened every sport. Visionaries look years ahead, and Selig’s greatest problems always crept up on him with years of buildup. Youth participation in baseball crumbled under his watch, a mess incoming commissioner Rob Manfred must remedy. The broken system with Latin American youth remains ugly, and Selig’s idea of an international draft is no panacea, just a solution to save owners money.

Etched in 128-point type to Selig’s legacy will be three letters he ignored: PED. He wasn’t the only one, but he was the steward of the sport, tasked with its well-being, and once steroids, HGH and their endless family tree of drugs infiltrated the sport, Selig faced a choice: challenge the generally accepted stigmatism against steroids by urging more research, or bow to the public and political rhetoric and play crusader. Selig did the latter because corporate America rewards the easy path, and he had a business to run. Baseball already had a game full of cheats; it didn’t need a commissioner emboldening them, no matter how worthwhile the discussion might have been and might still be.

Bud Selig's dealings with Alex Rodriguez certainly were messy. (AP)
Bud Selig's dealings with Alex Rodriguez certainly were messy. (AP)

Selig’s counterpunch was bold and mighty, his solution sweeping and quite preposterous: “The objective is to eradicate steroids from baseball,” he said, sounding like Reagan running up his battle flag in the War on Drugs. All the way to the end, when behind closed doors he threatened to ban Alex Rodriguez for life, Selig embraced his self-appointed role of steroid policeman with the naïve fervor of a pistol-packing stooge on the neighborhood watch.

There were rarely half-measures with Selig, some senseless, some brilliant. He didn’t just prevent future All-Star Game ties; he gave the winner home-field advantage in the World Series to assign greater meaning to the exhibition game. He didn’t just embrace baseball’s commitment to diversity; he retired the No. 42 and made the legacy of Jackie Robinson a priority.

Selig adored baseball history, romanticized it, and yet he never found himself too stubborn to ignore it for the sake of evolution. The wild cards lengthened the postseason without diluting it. Realignment did nothing to hurt competition or rivalries. The World Baseball Classic gave the league an international tournament that means far more abroad than it does in the United States. Instant replay, even in its infancy, removed the sport from another form of obstinacy. They are triumphs all, checkmarks that even his ledger and make his tenure perfectly human: great moments clouded by stunning lapses.

For every time he gave an owner a rightful boot as he did his foe Frank McCourt, he allowed a friend like Mets owner Fred Wilpon not only to stick around but position himself to land the head of the league’s finance committee despite losing a reported $700 million in a Ponzi scheme. For the many times he lobbied to gift teams new ballparks, he leaves with the Oakland stalemate in shambles, the Tampa Bay situation getting there and Montreal still without a team.

Calling Selig baseball’s greatest commissioner, as some have taken to doing, could well be the new dictionary definition for damning with faint praise. Among his predecessors were a vile segregationist (Kenesaw Mountain Landis), a labor hawk who not only shut the game down but got his clock cleaned by superior minds in the players’ association (Bowie Kuhn), a former Army general better known for his blundering than any achievements (William Eckert) and a proponent of collusion (Peter Uebberoth) whose strongest ally happened to be … Bud Selig.

Which makes him just about the unlikeliest candidate to be who he is: The bastion of labor peace. In that respect, he was the perfect commissioner for the modern sports era: a reliable speed bag, a willing patsy, a go-to punchline – and, away from those perceptions that never were going away, not after the strike, a man whose evolution may not have saved baseball but certainly didn’t get in the way of it.

Toward the end of his commissionership, Selig couldn’t help but involve himself in the choice of his successor. The inappropriateness of this couldn’t be more obvious, and yet it symbolized what Selig had become: the Budfather. As the opposition to Manfred’s candidacy mounted, Selig sprinkled his pixie dust on the proceedings and watched a heated race turn into a 30-0 vote in his choice’s favor.

The unanimous vote was a Selig special, an unspoken symbol of his power. Over nearly a quarter century, he amassed it bit by bit, storing it away like a squirrel preparing for the winter, ready to marshal it out at opportune times. Politicians wish they could do it like him. Of all his accomplishments, all his achievements, everything his commissionership entailed, that is what will endure: 22 years after he walked into the jungle, Bud Selig left a survivor.