|Face-to-face but hardly eye-to-eye|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
Miles: 350 (Minnesota to Milwaukee); total miles: 2,121; moving violations: 0; hours driving: 6; hours of sleep: 4; Diet Pepsi: 5 units; billboards advertising cheese: 7; facial hair: freshly shaved for the commissioner; ballgames on the radio: 2 (St. Louis and Chicago); "Grapes of Wrath" cassettes: 1 (Tom kills a man during a strike when the owners lower wages from five cents to 2 ½ cents a box); miles to go: 1,200 (approximate) ...
MILWAUKEE -- So far on my Interstate 90 tour of sports, I've met NFL players scrimmaging under the Eastern Washington sun, jockeys with duct-taped boots scrambling for a living on a Montana fairground track, a transportation buff running an Evel Knievel exhibit in Butte, bikini-clad women dancing on biker bars in Sturgis, S.D., and Minnesota farmers playing baseball on a diamond carved out of their crops. I've been in thunderstorms, muddy fields and under clear starry nights.
And Monday afternoon I found myself sitting on the 30th floor of Milwaukee's tallest office building in a glass-paneled, air-conditioned office with Lake Michigan stretching far below and the commissioner of baseball peering over a small mountain of mail piled on the desk in front of me.
As we talked about baseball's economic situation -- the conversation always returned to it -- the game suddenly seemed too far away.
"The fans are sick of all this (labor and money talk), and I don't blame them," Selig said. "I'm sick of it, too. I just want to get this thing done."
Monday was the eighth anniversary of the horrible 1994 strike, and as Selig and I talked, about 90 miles south of Selig's office, in a hotel right along I-90, the players were meeting to decide whether to set the date for another strike.
Readers in the Upper Midwest are probably already e-mailing me to point out that Milwaukee is on I-94, not I-90 (90 is about 75 miles west) but my editors figured that since I was in the general neighborhood, it would be a great idea if I broke off from I-90 and visited the man I have spent much of the past year bashing. I'm not sure whether they expected a "Roger & Me" showdown or some mended relationships, though when told about the plan, one asked, "Why don't you just lie on a bed of nails and have Mo Vaughn sit on you?"
I made fun of his haircut.
It's a wonder then that Selig agreed to take time out of his schedule to meet with me. Even though he is the most accessible executive in major sports -- it's his most endearing quality and one reason he's gotten as far as he has -- I've got to be near the bottom of the list of people he least wanted to walk into his office on a sunny August day.
It is a remarkably cordial meeting. I refrained from wearing my "Fix baseball: Contract Bud" T-shirt under my shirt, and he didn't even swear at me once. I complimented him enviously on the bench in the waiting room made with bases for cushions and a frame of game-used bats (Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Bob Uecker), and he told me he has had it for 40 years but his wife doesn't want it in the house (it must be his version of the wagon-wheel coffee table). He gestured to the view and remarked that this spacious office was a marked improvement over the old space he had at County Stadium.
I agreed but added that he had a ballfield right outside his old office. He nodded and smiled.
When I spoke with Minnesota townball player Myron Seidl over the weekend at the Stark township's beautiful little field over the weekend, he said the main question I should ask Selig is when he plans to resign. I didn't put it that bluntly, but I did ask Selig whether he thinks he can still do the job effectively after his credibility has been called into serious question over the past year. Not surprisingly, he says he is the best person for the job.
"I have a better understanding of the history and the problems we've had," Selig said. "Has anyone before me done a better job? No. If they had, we wouldn't be in the mess we are now."
Selig cannot keep himself from listening to criticism on talk radio or reading it in newspapers. He regularly calls writers to complain about negative stories. He cares passionately about what people say about him even if it doesn't alter his mind in the least. It's part of the reason I'm here.
I asked him how it then felt to have so many people dislike him (he took strong exception to my suggestion that he might be as disliked as Osama bin Laden). "Not good but I have a job to do," he said, adding that he is convinced he is right.
We talked about baseball's economics, but we didn't agree on much. We rarely do. Selig defended contraction, insisting that the owners are unanimous behind it. He acknowledged that the wave of new stadiums has worsened baseball's financial problems, but maintained the Twins need a new park to have a chance to remain competitive. He supported Pohlad, while I countered that he's the biggest obstacle to a solution in Minnesota.
I repeated questions I've been asking him for years, and he repeated the answers he has been giving me. It seems like we've been having this same conversation for a decade.
About 4 o'clock, Selig's secretary buzzed to let him know there was a news update on TV about the union meeting. He turned on the set and Donald Fehr's frowning face appeared.
Seeing Fehr, I assumed the players had set their strike date as expected. But then I remembered that Fehr frowns all the time no matter what the news. And this time the news was good. The players had decided not to set a date. Or at least, not yet. But in baseball's labor wars, you learn to celebrate the little victories because there so seldom are any at all.
"I'm not surprised," Selig said. He and Fehr spoke earlier in the day but he refuses to say who called whom or what was discussed.
He appeared relatively cheerful about the labor negotiations, and I remained optimistic there would be no strike.
He talked about not being able to sleep the night after the All-Star Game, and he talked abut how to fix the game by re-emphasizing winning rather than making sure everyone gets in -- "We're going back to the way the game was once played." He talked about Ted Williams calling him for years and always having to pinch himself at the thought when he picked up the receiver. He talked about solving the labor battle so that the next time we talk, the only discussion will be baseball. He said he will not compete against Fehr in a sausage race to settle the labor dispute.
He said the best time of his day is when he goes home, turns on the television and watches all the games.
"I miss my day-to-day talks with managers and players," Selig said. "I was lucky over the years. Sparky Anderson and I never failed to have at least a four-hour visit. We had a lot of fun and got to know each other very well. We used to sit in the stands sometimes, and players on both teams would watch us. I miss that.
"When Lee MacPhail and Chub Feeney were league presidents, the thing they told me is that the one thing you're going to miss is the relationships. And it's true. You're sort of here all by yourself."
Actually, I think that's part of the problem. Selig has a wonderful modern office, but I think we both would have enjoyed the afternoon better had we met on the Stark ballfield with a game in front of us and the smell of fresh cut grass mixing with grilled hamburgers. And the negotiations would go better if Fehr met him there as well. If not, at least the two could explain the impasse to the fans who simply can't understand what the hell the problem is.
Trouble is, major-league sports' decisions are made in towers not on the fields.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.