The commissioner of baseball told us again this month that this is it. Really. Seriously. He's not kidding. He's not messing with us. His time is up. And he means it.
It's "100 percent" certain, said Bud Selig. On Jan. 24, 2015, when his contract countdown clock hits zero, "I'm done," he said.
So let's take him at his word. What do you say?
Stop snickering out there. Stop scoffing. He's "done." You got it?
Which means that just one year from now, if everything goes the way the commissioner says it's going to go, we're going to look up, in the final week of January 2015, and someone not named Allan H. "Bud" Selig is going to be running this operation.
Wow. Scary thought.
Because you have to admit: Whether you worship this man or you still perceive him as some sort of frumpy Midwest bumpkin (which he's not, by the way), it's hard to remember anymore what baseball looked like before Bud Selig grabbed the steering wheel. Hmmm, were the bases even 90 feet apart back then?
So let's start there. With only one year remaining, theoretically, in the commissioner's historic 22-year reign, it's more than just an excellent time to look at what lies ahead for him. It's also a beautiful time to look backward.
At how Bud Selig changed baseball's world over these past 22 years.
It's an unbelievable tale.
So this is where we need to begin -- with a list we compiled of 12 staggering ways in which baseball has transformed itself under Selig's watch. If you take a moment to contemplate each and every one of these items, your brain cells will start to rattle:
1. LABOR PEACE: No work stoppages in baseball since 1995. Meanwhile, you know how many combined work stoppages there have been since then in the NFL, NBA and NHL? How 'bout six.
2. HUGE ATTENDANCE GROWTH: In 1992, nearly half the teams in the sport (12 of 26) drew less than 2 million customers. By 2013, the 30 clubs averaged nearly 2.5 million per franchise, with eight of them topping 3 million.
3. EXPANDED PLAYOFFS: In 1992, a "wild card" was still a canasta term. Now baseball has two of them in each league. And 10 wild-card teams have played in a World Series. Yet (caution: purist alert coming) it's still harder to make the postseason in baseball than in any major professional sport.
4. INTERLEAGUE PLAY: As recently as 1997, the only time the Yankees and Mets had ever met up north was in Mayor's Trophy exhibition games. They've now played 94 regular-season games against each other. And people still pay to watch!
5. REVENUE SHARING: Before the Selig era, teams were still using revenue-sharing formulas from the 1940s and '50s. No kidding. There's now nearly $400 million in revenue-sharing money changing hands every year. Amazing.
6. GLOBALIZATION: Baseball's idea of globalization, before the Selig years, was playing ball in Canada, with Youppi! leading the, well, youp-ing. We've now seen three World Baseball Classics, four Opening Days in Japan and another international opener coming up in Australia, not to mention some slight hoopla over Masahiro Tanaka.
7. NEW BALLPARKS: Does anyone miss those big, round, concrete, multipurpose, phony-turfed stadiums that dotted the landscape in prehistoric BB (Before Bud) times? In the Selig years, 22 teams have opened new ballparks, many of them among the most beautiful ever erected.
8. COMPETITIVE BALANCE: You don't think things are looking up? Since 2001, 28 of the 30 teams have made the postseason (all but Toronto and Kansas City).
9. CHA-CHING: When Selig took over, baseball was a $1.2 billion industry. It's on its way to becoming a $9 billion industry in 2014. And climbing.
10. FRANCHISE VALUES: Bloomberg estimates the average major league franchise is now worth more than $1 billion. And there are twice as many $2 billion-plus franchises in baseball (Yankees and Dodgers) as in all other North American pro sports combined (Cowboys). As recently as 15 years ago, no baseball franchise had even sold for one-tenth of $2 billion.
11. KA-BAM: Nobody would mistake Selig, a man with no computer, for Steve Jobs. But no sport has ever produced an Internet success story quite like MLB Advanced Media. MLBAM generated almost $700 million in revenue in 2013, according to Forbes.
12. THE PED FRONT: Saved this for last on purpose. For most of the Selig years, baseball's record on PEDs was a blight on the commish's record and on the entire sport. But in the year 2014, is there any major professional sport confronting its PED issues as aggressively as baseball? Not even close.
Now feel free to re-read that list one more time. And ask yourself whether any other commissioner -- in this sport, in any sport -- has presided over an era that produced that much change, that much progress, that much alteration of its landscape.
All that happened on the watch of one man. One commissioner. Stunning.
Not saying it was all his personal idea. Not saying it was always pretty to watch this sport lurch toward some of those accomplishments. But when you add it all up, here's the truth:
One thing about Bud is that he's always willing to wait for it to stop raining, if you know what I mean. … In the end, it's given him a pretty good legacy. But it didn't just come in a snap of the fingers. It took patience. And Bud's a very patient man.
"-- Dodgers president Stan Kasten
Bud Selig has been, without any dispute, the greatest and most important commissioner in the history of his sport. Period.
Not that that's a pronouncement you'll ever hear coming out of his mouth, you understand.
"I'm going to let the historians decide that," Selig said, when we asked him to assess his own legacy this winter.
But we're not waiting for the historians. And neither are the men he has worked with all these years.
"If you look at the eight commissioners who preceded him, they all might have some aspect that you'd value more," Dodgers president Stan Kasten said. "But none were as successful, or had the impact, that Bud Selig has had."
"To really assess him," Giants CEO Larry Baer said, "you've got to look at where we were at Point A, when Bud walked in, in 1992, and where we are now. It's not a small leap since then. It's a quantum leap -- on multiple levels. In the world of labor. In the world of revenue generation. In the world of modernizing the game and expanding the game. That's something we take for granted. … But it's real. It's absolutely for real."
"Bud is not a change agent by nature," Phillies president David Montgomery said. "He's very much a traditionalist. But he recognized when change was in order, when change was good for the game and when change was needed."
And because he did, this sport now floats through a whole different solar system than it did in 1992. But not just on the field, where picturesque new ballparks now light up the night and 15 games a day stream live on your phone.
Believe it or not, an even more powerful revolution has been taking place in the game off the field. And that's what Bud Selig says he's most proud of.
Back in 1992, Selig reminisced (not particularly fondly), baseball's economic and revenue-sharing systems were "still in the Ebbets Field/Polo Grounds days." Almost nothing had changed in decades. And good luck trying to make it change.
"Everybody was mad at everybody," Selig said. "The owners hated the union. The union hated the owners. The owners hated each other. And the poor commissioners were in between."
But two decades later, owners work together as if, by some miracle, they believe the sport's health is more important than the health of their own portfolios. Imagine that. And the union has become a business partner, not a sparring partner. Incredible.
And so, in a related development, stuff actually gets done. Lots of stuff. Important stuff. Stuff that never could have happened, we're convinced, if someone other than Bud Selig had been the commissioner. We're not the only ones who feel that way, incidentally.
"I can't imagine another person being able to deal individually and collectively [with this group] the way Buddy has done," A's co-owner Lew Wolff said.
We have no doubt that there will never be a future commissioner in any sport who looks like Bud Selig, talks like Bud Selig or dresses like Bud Selig. For centuries to come, they'll all be flying off the insta-commissioner assembly line, wearing $10,000 suits, flashing Hollywood smiles, speaking in slick, pre-rehearsed, dulcet sound bites.
But if you're still focusing on the fact that Selig doesn't fit that mold, you're missing something. Behind the scenes, this man has a gift that has gone way too unappreciated by the masses. And that, says Kasten, is "his personal diplomatic skill."
"Is there a better retail politician than Bud Selig?" Kasten mused. "By that I mean, man-to-man, one-to-one. Is there anyone? That is such an important quality he's brought to this sport."
Back in 1992, you couldn't have gotten a room full of owners to agree on a breakfast menu, let alone a $400 million revenue-sharing agreement. But no matter how dysfunctional the group may have been back then, there was one man whom every owner always believed would listen to his or her story. And actually care about it.
That man was Bud Selig. And 22 years later, that hasn't changed.
So it's fascinating that many of Selig's critics still disparage him for leading by consensus, as opposed to staring over the horizon and pointing the MLB starship toward his vision of the future. But as we look back now over the Selig era, it's obvious almost none of this change could have happened if this man hadn't been one of the greatest consensus-builders of modern times.
"He's brought us together," Montgomery said, "by knowing what each of us think and care about. And I think so many other things flow from that."
What has flowed from it, of course, is progress.
To really assess him, you've got to look at where we were at Point A, when Bud walked in, in 1992, and where we are now. It's not a small leap since then. It's a quantum leap -- on multiple levels. In the world of labor. In the world of revenue generation. In the world of modernizing the game and expanding the game.
"--Giants CEO Larry Baer
In other sports, Roger Goodell and David Stern have developed a power structure that enables them to rule by edict, and by the strength of both their office and their personalities. But in Bud Selig's sport, that ain't happening.
The only way a commissioner of baseball could function, under the ground rules for the job laid out when Fay Vincent got the boot in 1992, was to build a consensus, on every issue, no matter how impossible that looked or how long it took.
So committees were formed. Seemingly hundreds of them. They may have appeared, from the outside, to be the commissioner's way of dodging making a decision. But in truth, they were a means to force teams to work together, like it or not, and agree on solutions that worked for the sport, as opposed to themselves.
When you govern this way, progress does not come swiftly. Decisions are not made instantly. And let's just say Bud Selig's critics noticed that. But what we understand now is that the commissioner's patience turned out to be mostly a good thing, not a bad thing, for his sport.
"One thing about Bud," Kasten said, "is that he's always willing to wait for it to stop raining, if you know what I mean. Sometimes that meant it would take years [for decisions to get made]. … In the end, it's given him a pretty good legacy. But it didn't just come in a snap of the fingers. It took patience. And Bud's a very patient man."
But the down side of leadership by consensus is that every once in a while, the luxury liner can slam into the iceberg while the captain is waiting for a consensus to build on which direction to steer.
So think back now on the worst moments in Selig's reign -- the '94 work stoppage that devoured the World Series and the PED era. They're both vivid examples of the kind of disasters that can ensue in a sport where the commissioner doesn't have the ability (or the consensus) to do much of anything unilaterally.
What most Americans remember about 1994 is that Bud Selig canceled the World Series. But in truth, said Montgomery, a key member of Selig's negotiating team back then, "all of us were responsible for canceling the World Series, by not hammering out an agreement. … It was our labor impasse that caused that. It wasn't Bud."
Nevertheless, it's Selig who still agonizes over that painful moment, all these decades later.
"I've thought about that over and over," the commissioner said. "And what I've concluded was that '94 was coming. … There wasn't anything I could do. I knew there were economic problems. You could see them. Disparity had set in dramatically. You had so many unhappy people.
"And so I've thought, 'What could I have done differently?' And even in the retrospect of history, one of my favorite terms, I'm not sure anything. … I'm just afraid that we were headed for that since the late '60s."
And the PED mess was coming, too. Selig was the commissioner of a sport where too many people on all sides looked the other way until it was too late. That doesn't let him, or anyone else off the hook. But could Bud Selig -- could any commissioner -- have single-handedly prevented the PED era from engulfing his sport? How exactly?
"People said, 'You should have done something,'" Selig agonized. "I can't do something unilaterally. It doesn't work that way."
No explanation can erase the scars that the '94-95 strike and the PED era left on his sport. There will be no pardons coming from the governor's office. The F's won't ever vanish off the commissioner's report card. He shares those grades with many others. What happened, happened. That never changes.
But what's happened since is also part of his permanent record. So you have to give Bud Selig credit for this:
He drew on his most painful experiences to make something good come from something awful.
Can you connect the dots from that strike to two decades of labor peace? Absolutely.
"After the pain of that strike, Bud understood that he had to make deals, that he had to make peace," said one longtime friend who didn't want to be identified. "But I think the biggest thing was that, after everything that he went through, after all the criticism, he wasn't going to go through that again."
And think of what came from the embarrassments of the PED era -- the devaluation of the record book, the thrashing in Congress, etc. Out of that grew the toughest drug policy in professional sports, the Mitchell report, Biogenesis and, of course, the misadventures of his good friend Alex Rodriguez. Not a coincidence.
"Now people will often say, 'Oh, Congress made them do it,'" Selig growled. "Congress didn't make us do it. Congress didn't make me go get George Mitchell. I did that on my own -- by the way, to the consternation and criticism of everybody, including my own staff. But I'm glad I did it. And it worked out well."
Oh, it didn't work out so well for folks like, say, Roger Clemens. But the point is that, by the time Bud Selig found himself sprinting toward the finish line, his sport was in a far better place -- on both labor and PEDs -- than it was a decade earlier.
Now clearly, other people in his sport share the credit for that, and for all of this. Michael Weiner shares it. Rob Manfred shares it. Tim Brosnan and Bob Bowman and everyone who ever served on one of Selig's "special" committees shares it.
But who hired them? Or drew them into the process? Or created the climate where many could have a hand in charting baseball's course? That would be Allan H. "Bud" Selig, naturally.
"So when you look back on all these things that have happened under his watch, it might seem like it was a slam dunk to get them done," Baer said. "But in fact, all along the way, there were voices out there saying these were things that would rob the sport of its tradition, that would rob the sport of its character. And those folks were just wrong, dead wrong.
"But what you had all along was a commissioner who loves the game, and who knows that no one human being could possibly accomplish all this by himself. So he's delegated, and he's done it well. He's got a knack for pushing all the right buttons. And over the last 22 years, that's allowed him to make all this happen."
Yet we still hear folks complaining about this man all the time. He doesn't fit everyone's image of what a commissioner should be. He doesn't fit everyone's image of what a commissioner should look like. He doesn't fit everyone's image of a commissioner who is supposed to navigate every sea without ever letting the ship rock with the tides.
OK, we get why those folks complain. We've complained and criticized ourselves through these past 22 years. But check the record, friends. Check it again. Read that list at the top of this column. It blows the mind how much has been accomplished in the Selig years. Blows. The. Mind.
Ah, but what's left for him to accomplish still? Good question. So let's look at …
A commissioner's job never gets real relaxing. So if there are any month-long vacations to Maui in Bud Selig's future, we'd bet they won't be happening before Jan. 24, 2015.
But on the surface, there isn't a lot on this commissioner's agenda that appears, for now, to approach the magnitude of the issues he has already tackled.
Oh, there are still thorny ballpark issues in Oakland and Tampa Bay. They have dragged on for years. They may well sputter along for more years. If there's a clear solution in anyone's sight, it certainly hasn't surfaced yet.
The implementation of replay will be a major topic in the commissioner's final months, too. But the heavy lifting has been done. A system is finally in place. And while important decisions remain on when and how to expand that system, they still fall more under the heading of "tweaks" than "revolutionary."
And, of course, the PED work is never done. And never will be. A-Rod's expeditions down to the courthouse will continue. Players will never stop trying to follow the Tony Bosch playbook and beat the system. There will be more positive tests, maybe many more with the start of "longitudinal testing" that will regularly monitor players' testosterone levels. So "there will never be a moment of rest" on that front, Selig predicts.
But once you peer beyond those issues, what you find is that two major challenges remain -- inextricably linked with each other.
One is the transition to the next commissioner. The other is a new outbreak of competitive-balance worries, and how they're linked to the next labor negotiations, which should begin sometime in 2016.
So when will we know the identity of Bud Selig's successor? Ho, ho, ho. It would be easier to tell you who's going to win the Cy Young in 2087 than answer that question.
Even high-ranking people within the sport swear they have no feel whatsoever for how this "search" for the next commissioner is going to work. Instead, they shake their heads and laugh: "I haven't noticed any search committees."
They mention how little this process resembles the NFL transition from Paul Tagliabue to Goodell, or from Stern to Adam Silver, where every piece was put in place long in advance. They want to believe their friend Bud when he says, "I'm done," as he approaches his 80th birthday this July. But they remember he's said that in the past, too. So some can't help but quip,"I've seen this movie before."
So what is The Plan? Selig says only that "a lot of ideas" are being discussed by the executive council and promises details will be worked out "shortly." He concedes that "the more time there is for a smoother transition, the better." But he isn't ready to be more specific about any timetables. Naturally.
All of this is very Bud-like. So ordinarily, it would be a cause more for amusement than worry. Yet worries are beginning to mount, because Selig's retirement is converging with several other forces that could mean trouble over the horizon:
• Mounting tension between large-market and small-market clubs over mammoth local TV deals, new draft rules and issues such as the Japanese posting system.
• The tragic death of Michael Weiner and what that portends for the future of the players' union.
• The timing of the next labor talks, and concerns over how differently they might proceed without Selig than they might if he remains in the job to remind everyone of the irreparable damage that previous work stoppages have inflicted.
So if Bud Selig just locks up his office next January and starts writing his book, teaching his history lessons and staying out of the fray, there are legitimate fears that the old factions from the not-so-good old BB days could roar back to life.
"My worry," said one longtime insider, "is that we're going to go right back to where we were, once Bud's gone."
So there are lots of theories about what happens next that don't go: Bud leaves. Successor named. Transition is seamless. MLB lives happily ever after.
Would it surprise anyone, then, if Bud Selig's "exit" gets complicated?
With Selig still around in some role? With MLB naming an interim commissioner instead of a permanent successor?
With no one -- not Manfred, not Brosnan, not anyone else -- able to get 24 votes from these 30 owners, causing the group to beg the commish once again to stay on for "just one more year?"
Any of that could happen. All of that could happen. And if it does, chaos could also happen.
Uh, hopefully not. But just contemplating what's possible once this commish leaves can get downright terrifying. Got a good doomsday scenario? It isn't out of the question.
So if you don't miss Bud Selig yet, get back to us in a year. Get back to us in two years. Get back to us when you start hearing the labor talks are growing messy.
In the meantime, here's our prediction: By 2017, you won't merely be ready to acknowledge that Bud Selig is the greatest commissioner of all time.
You'll be ready to hand him the Nobel Peace Prize.