Bud Selig's overzealous handling of A-Rod is more about legacy preservation than 'good of the game'

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

Bud Selig did not want this. He surrounds himself with smart people, smarter than him, and at least he's smart enough to recognize that. They told him no. It is not worth it to turn Alex Rodriguez into Pete Rose. That was his forbidden fruit. And at 245 Park Avenue, they refused to let him take a bite.

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Were it up to Selig, Monday would have been the day he nuked Rodriguez's career, kicked him square out of the game, all for the sake of … well, we're still trying to figure that one out. The people against performance-enhancing drugs or the New York Yankees would say because Rodriguez deserved it. Those who are fine with players using or just don't care anymore would say because Selig has turned into a PED Django. And Selig would say for the good of the game.

For 21 years painted with successes and pocked with failures, Selig has always operated with that nebulous, subjective ideal in mind. The good of the game. Of his game. And make no mistake: This is Bud Selig's game more than it has been any commissioner's since Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Because it is his – because the owners have given him the leash to operate as he chooses after turning the game into a nearly $9 billion cash cow – there are certain ideals he upholds, certain wrongs that in his mind he must right. Two main ones have guided his final years as commissioner. He wanted to achieve labor peace after the debacle of the 1994 World Series cancellation. And he wanted to make up for his willful blindness to the pervasiveness of PEDs throughout baseball by playing ersatz DEA agent.

[ Related: Alex Rodriguez suspended for 211 games for Biogenesis ties ]

Selig scoffs publicly at the idea that he is doing this for his legacy – that levying a 211-game suspension on Rodriguez is not the commissioner's equivalent of a manhood-measuring contest. There is no reason to deny this. Of course he is doing this for his legacy, just as every man or woman in a position of power and authority has, dating back to the dinosaurs. Leaders wanted their names scratched into the walls of caves with great glory, and Bud Selig wants his similarly scrawled into the annals of baseball. He wants his triumphs to overwhelm his foibles, and at 79 years old he is taking bold steps that turn him into as polarizing a figure as the man he's prosecuting and, many would say, persecuting.

If A-Rod is a lightning rod, Bud Selig is the thunder and rain, his complement in chaos. Even if he didn't get the lifetime ban – not only would it have drawn the ire of the union and incited another labor war, it might have threatened the league's antitrust exemption, something no commissioner wants on his résumé – Selig is playing legacy Stratego: by crushing Rodriguez's, he's pumping up his own. 

Selig's ultimate hope is that the public intertwines him more with Rodriguez than it does Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. It was their home run chase in 1998 that fueled baseball's resurgence following the '94 strike. Though Selig never can erase that, the 22 years of labor peace through the current collective-bargaining agreement represent the longest uninterrupted stretch of baseball since the MLB Players Association came into existence.

No matter how much he postured or what his orbitofrontal cortex urged him to do, Selig couldn't risk obliterating that relationship on account of one sleazy player. The union is bound to defend its own, no matter how much the player cheats or lies or, in A-Rod's case, both. Vigilante justice would have fulfilled Selig's clearest impulses. The best businessmen know that impulse is the enemy of accomplishment.

And what he wants to accomplish more than anything is getting this one right – or at least his brand of right. Selig's black-and-white view of PEDs ignores the nuance of modern science that has difficulty differentiating between a substance and a treatment. If one player is taking synthetic testosterone to heal faster and another player is getting his blood spun and reinjected into him to heal faster, why is the former banned and the latter welcomed? Because the government says so? The government also says marijuana is illegal, and baseball players on the 40-man roster can take bong rips galore without penalty.

[ Related: MLB's Biogenesis investigation leads to 13 more suspensions ]

Were Selig in the business of true legacy burnishing and not dragging A-Rod's 38-year-old carcass to the gallows, he would use his position to ask for a more honest discussion about PEDs. He would approach the same Congress that dragged him to Washington to atone for his sins and declare that sports drug policy is rotten to the core, and that after years of policing baseball he has come to the same conclusion as the rest of the sports world: these drugs are not going away, so let's find a reasonable approach to their use instead of letting the game go through this cycle of ugliness.

Even if the chances of success are minimal – the FDA would need to reclassify drugs or at least amend the rules that bind doctors to prescribing them for certain ailments – that progressive step would do far more for showing Selig as a reasonable and rational commissioner who did indeed have the good of the game in mind. The game is not this cops-and-robbers charade taking place off the field, with a cadre of investigators knocking on doors and ferreting out information about who took what. It is not about cutting deals with drug dealers in order to harangue players. It's about finding a happy medium between that and the feigned ignorance of the '90s.

It's unlikely Selig has that in him, which is a shame. He has spent so much time building up the evils of PEDs and demonizing them that an about-face to a more moderate, sensible point of view almost certainly won't happen. His legacy before was that he didn't do enough, and his legacy now is that he's going overboard in his dogged pursuit of an issue he and his advisers know cannot be exterminated.

So he's left with a fight that is out of his hands and in his lawyers'. After Rodriguez's appeal, an arbitrator will determine whether 211 games is just or excessive, and Bud Selig will be left to accept it. The result here is one of the few things he cannot control in his fiefdom, and that is for the best. Left alone to repair his legacy, he would've taken a healthy bite out of that apple and smiled the smile of a man fulfilled.

More suspension coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
MLB's Biogenesis investigation leads to 13 more suspensions
Gio Gonzalez finds PED redemption
Jeff Passan: Sad road to Alex Rodriguez's suspension
Suspended Alex Rodriguez says he's 'fighting for my life'

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