After decades of Bud Selig's leadership, it's easy to forget that the history of Major League Baseball's executive suite is littered with tales of infighting, stubborn defenses of archaic business practices and a seemingly endless capacity for injuring the game in the pursuit of personal gain. John Helyar famously wrote about owners as the game's
"Lords of the Realm" three decades ago, but if you thought those days were long over, Thursday's election of a new commissioner provided a quick reminder that they never really went away.
The proceedings quickly resolved into a two-man race and a battle over Selig's legacy. In one corner, we had MLB chief operating officer Rob Manfred. In the other, Boston Red Sox chairman Tom Werner. In each case, there's a lot of projection based on past history, but it's been ever thus with commissioners. When people talk about Bart Giamatti, they prefer to remember the academic and the fan of the game, not the guy who won fans among baseball's owners by busting unions when he ran Yale, although that's what got him the job, not poetry or fandom.
Manfred is seen as the aspiring guardian of Selig's legacy, the palace candidate who's supposed to perpetuate Selig's commitments. Given the absence of work stoppages in recent years and the game's booming profitability, that might sound like an entirely good thing until you remember baseball's screwups over performance-enhancing drugs, from Ryan Braun's transient "innocence" to the eventual deal with Biogenesis clinic founder Tony Bosch to get Alex Rodriguez, Braun and others -- all stuff which Manfred was involved in. More importantly, Manfred is the man commonly credited with talking Selig around baseball's limited form of revenue sharing. In baseball, that was a big, evolutionary step forward, although the game has further to go on that score to approach the standard set by the NFL.
From the outside looking in, Werner made for a strange choice as an alternative to Manfred, since Werner is best known for his association with sitcoms like "Roseanne," "The Cosby Show," and "30 Rock." His more recent contributions range from a lamentable run as the owner of the San Diego Padres, involving a fire sale of talent so egregious it generated a class-action lawsuit from fans. There's also his willing collaboration in one of Selig's most spectacular feats of sleight of hand: the ownership switcheroo of 2002 that put the Red Sox in John Henry's (and Werner's) hands while loaning Jeffrey Loria enough money to buy the Marlins to make the Expos community property (subsequently enriching all parties when the Expos were moved to Washington, D.C., and sold).
Those lining up behind Werner, apparently led by Jerry Reinsdorf, made for an odd assemblage. The White Sox's owner was believed to be the one orchestrating this cabal in his pursuit of a union-busting war to the death with the MLBPA, or perhaps just trying to tweak Selig's nose after not getting his way in the last major work stoppage in '94. But with the owners of the White Sox, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Angels, Nationals, Reds and Athletics reportedly all voting for Werner, the faction had the critical eight votes to prevent Manfred from getting the required 23 for election the first time around.
Manfred eventually won, but the Werner candidacy wasn't just some juvenile stunt, and it reflects a bigger problem -- not just with the 30 owners, but in the candidates and what they reflect. This might be best boiled down to the "vision" thing -- not that Manfred or Werner had a responsibility to publicly provide it up front, but what both candidates haven't given all of us is a sense of vision for the game that will contend with these substantive issues, let alone resolve its strategic challenge: the game's growing demographic problem, as the average age of its audience approaches 50, and its lower and lower television ratings.
Did either of these guys have answers? We don't really know yet. During his Wednesday interview, Werner couldn't really articulate a coherent strategy on revenue sharing, having been for it out of self-interest when he owned the Padres but against it now that he's minting money with the Red Sox.
That sensibility reflects who the commissioner serves and has always served: not you or me, and not the game, but the 30 owners as their employee. And as long as the 30 were each able to tell themselves, "I've got mine," they could work with Bud Selig -- originally one of their own, after all -- as he worked to create consensus around one issue or another.
Which brings us back to what was and remains important about Selig and his legacy. He wasn't just the guy who made the All-Star Game count or who worked to create the long peace the game has enjoyed since the disaster that he helped create in 1994. He's not just the guy who presided over an unprecedented wave of stadium construction across the industry. In short, he conspired to keep the game going despite the many owners who might prefer to win a labor war over a pennant.
To be sure, there's more than a little left undone, starting with the continued self-spiting insanity of baseball's television blackout rules. Or the nonresult in sorting out baseball's self-inflicted idiocy over territorial rights in the Bay Area. And the "vision" thing to find ways to make the game more popular with younger fans.
Maybe Manfred is the man to fix these things after years of having to work on them from the inside. But as a result, if you're wondering how he might succeed where Selig's genius for consensus could not, you're not alone. Today's wrangling reveals how hard it will be to work with the current 30 owners to recreate that capacity for forging consensus. It hardly bodes well for the game's future after Czar Bud, the Great Consensunator, departs.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.