Selig's toughest sell

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Bud Selig's attempt at normalcy came Monday night, after a day that kept him at the office long past 5 o'clock. He sat down for dinner with his family and watched a movie. Then it was off to the airport again. The life of a traveling salesman never ends.

The job of baseball's commissioner has evolved into that, and it fits Selig like a peel does a banana. Selig made his money pushing cars. Now he's selling baseball.

And his latest sale could be his greatest – or his "Ishtar."

The World Baseball Classic kicked off in the United States on Tuesday, and on it rides more than Selig's reputation as the sport's most innovative commissioner. The 18-day tournament could fortify baseball's future internationally, a step everyone in the game agrees is integral.

Nobody understands this more than Selig. He's turned out hit after hit while piloting baseball to record sales and revenues, and he's risking all of his capital, all of his good will, on a tournament that was planned hastily, unveiled at an inopportune point in the season and has some players, teams and fans casting doubts about its viability.

By all means, the WBC should work. With the Olympics dropping baseball, the sport needs a tournament that unites the world. Business today is without borders, and it makes sense that baseball's growth internationally mirrors its rapid expansion in Selig's 14-year tenure.

"This is something the owners wanted to do. The union wanted to do it. Everybody connected," Selig said from Milwaukee on Monday night. "This came from a lot of sources. This wasn't just me. Do I think it's time to take this international? You bet. Everything is a gamble."

The players' union and owners bandied about the idea of a baseball World Cup in the 1990s. Labor relations at that point were as cordial as a custody battle. The sides were brought together by Selig, who is a consensus builder. Oil and water would co-exist if he could broker the deal.

Now, the sport has its potential bonanza, George Steinbrenner and his complaints notwithstanding.

"No pain, no gain," said David Carter, the executive director of USC's Sports Business Institute. "This is a reasonable, measured risk for [Selig] to take. He's trying to shepherd a near-$5 billion business into being an international heavyweight. You don't do it without taking some risks along the way."

Even if some of baseball's greatest successes under Selig weren't his ideas – players' association leadership, for all the flak it takes, deserves credit – Selig has weathered the duty of thrusting risks on a doubting public.

Purists spat at the playoffs' wild cards. Large-market owners scoffed at revenue sharing. Congress tugged one way on the sport's drug-testing plan, the union pulled the other and Selig stood in the middle as a human shock absorber.

Turned out the wild card invigorated September baseball, which at one time was as gripping as staring at leaves and hoping they change color. The current revenue-sharing plan, though rife with flaws, gives baseball an idea of what will work – something the NFL clearly hasn't figured out. And though grandstanding Congressmen sent baseball through a wringer during the steroid hearings, the current drug-testing plan is tougher. It's still not tough enough, but it's sure to evolve.

The humiliation of turning a blind eye as players stuck steroid needles in each other bit Selig hard. Because, generally, he doesn't sit on his mistakes. The embarrassment of an All-Star Game tie didn't faze him. Somehow, Selig managed to emerge from the cancellation of the 1994 World Series with only a scar or two.

Recently, he's taken a few punches from Steinbrenner, the New York Yankees' owner who was muzzled by baseball this week after he refused to stop yapping about how the WBC hurt his business. Players pulling out of the tournament haven't helped its image, nor did the sight of more than 50,000 empty seats in the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome for first-round games that didn't involve Japan.

To counter the critics, Selig is calling in all of his favors.

"It's pretty obvious why I'm playing," said Roger Clemens on public-relations retainer. "I get to represent the country."

Starting Tuesday, we'll begin to see if the product matches the propaganda. The atmosphere in Lake Buena Vista for the Dominican Republic-Venezuela game was inspiring. Thousands of fans have made the pilgrimage to see the game millions will watch in their countries. The United States, the most skeptical market, gets its first glance at Team USA against Mexico in Phoenix.

However successful this incarnation is, it will take years to see whether baseball's investment yields a crop of players from South Africa and China and other neophyte territories.

"This is something to develop for the future," one high-ranking union official said. "Who watches on television and where it's watched is a lot more significant. We may not know for several years what the effect is.

"Clearly, there are huge, huge untapped markets where the sport can get interest. It could be perceived as a flop. It could not make any money. And in 20 years, you may have a completely different game because of it."

By then, Selig will be gone from the game. He plans on retiring in four years with baseball continuing its trend of booming revenue and record ticket sales.

In the meantime, he'll watch the World Baseball Classic, catching games in Phoenix and Anaheim before heading to San Diego. At that last stop, on March 20, he'll train a watchful eye on the WBC finals. He'll admire his baby that he hopes, more than anything, will have sold itself.