Did Bud Selig make baseball better?

AP Photo/Mike Groll

Former Yankees manager Joe Torre had a saying that seemed especially pertinent during the hell and lying of the Steroid Era. He would often tell players who were damaging the game that "baseball is something you borrow. Your responsibility is to leave the game in better condition than it was when you entered."

On Sunday, a new 16-member group called the Today's Era committee enshrined Bud Selig into the Baseball Hall of Fame, perhaps by deciding that Selig falls on the affirmative side of Torre's criteria or perhaps because Selig's induction was always a foregone conclusion to happen while he was alive. To ensure the latter, baseball essentially held a special election, guaranteeing the nearly 83-year-old ex-commissioner and ultimate baseball insider would come up for a vote.

But does Selig pass Torre's litmus test? In so many ways, Selig's 20-year reign as commissioner resembles the contradictions of the Steroid Era itself. On the night of Sept. 8, 1998, at old Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Selig sat next to Cardinals legend Stan Musial when Mark McGwire hit his 62nd home run. Cubs right fielder Sammy Sosa, McGwire's friendly rival that summer, raced from the outfield to hug McGwire as he rounded the bases. Watching the scene, Selig leaned over to Musial and said, "This is a renaissance."

In retrospect, the moment was grotesque. Baseball doesn't even celebrate it now -- McGwire's 70 home runs that year, Sosa's 66, or the 73 Barry Bonds would hit three seasons later. The two protagonists of the scene, McGwire and Sosa, are both disgraced -- 1,192 combined home runs, and neither are in the Hall of Fame. In fact, neither has come close: McGwire has never surpassed 23.7 percent of the 75 needed for enshrinement, while Sosa's high was 12.5 percent in his first year of 2013 (it dropped to 7 percent last year). Baseball disowned 1998. Those players are radioactive. Selig is immortal.

Selig would use the word "renaissance" often during those years, forcing the question of what kind of renaissance could be defined by a simultaneous financial rise and moral decline. Baseball has become a $10 billion money machine, and yet drugs have undermined it, a sport in which the record book is central to the game. The greatest players of Selig's time might never take the dais he will assume come July.

Under Selig, baseball lost virtually every advantage that gave it its very special power as a national pastime. But there was never any question of his induction, because he succeeded in accomplishing two primary missions -- for him, really, the only two that mattered -- harmony and money. Before Selig, baseball owners did not just fight the players but also each other, cut along the interests of large and small markets. Selig, as an owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, was the consensus builder who worked the phones tirelessly in an attempt to create a kind of unity. He saw harmony through the NFL, where then-commissioner Pete Rozelle was able to bring together disparate financial interests under one umbrella for the good of the league.

Selig's most lasting accomplishment will be the greatest era of stadium building in the history of the sport. From the time he was named interim commissioner in 1992 until his retirement at the end of the 2014 season, 22 new stadiums were built. One team, the Atlanta Braves, broke ground on two. With the exception of San Francisco's, all of the stadiums were built with a majority of public money. In return for their compliance, Bud Selig made his owners and himself enormously wealthy.

He also brought one of the game's legends back into the fold. As a college student, Selig skipped class to watch the Milwaukee Braves. He was there in 1957, when Hank Aaron hit the 11th inning home run that put the Braves in the World Series for the first time since moving from Boston in 1952, and he and Aaron would become lifelong friends. When Selig took over as commissioner, Aaron was a disillusioned legend, convinced the game had never respected him or his accomplishments. With Selig as commissioner, a generation of baseball people who saw Aaron as a bitter old man now had to face Selig's wrath. Today, Aaron is revered as a legend of the sport -- the Hank Aaron Award, given to the best offensive players in each league, bears his name. None of this happens without Selig's support.

For these accomplishments, Selig's success is not to be discounted. Equally important, however, is another message Selig sent throughout his tenure, and again Monday during the announcement of his induction -- he is an owner, and the rules of accountability do not apply to the people in power. At the core of baseball has always been a never-ending battle between management and labor, and of this Bud Selig is most reflective.

He was a small-market hawk dedicated to curbing the power of the big teams -- most notably the Yankees, the game's most legendary franchise -- but for several of his years as commissioner, he earned a higher annual salary than almost every player. He was a primary force in the collusion battles of the 1980s, when owners were found guilty of conspiring to not sign free agents, destroying an already bitter relationship with the union. He was the face of the coup that toppled former commissioner Fay Vincent and led to the disastrous 1994 strike. Selig's response, as acting commissioner, was to cancel the World Series and allow the installation of replacement players -- until future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ruled that ownership had not acted in good faith.

The Steroid Era players over whom Selig presided -- McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro -- have been barred from enshrinement. Alex Rodriguez is soon to follow. But Selig responded Monday to the position that he ignored the rising use of steroids in the same manner he has responded for the past decade and a half: by blaming the Players Association and relying on the strength of baseball's current drug-testing policy. This position skirts the truth. Selig did not ignore the steroid threat. Instead, like the union, he actively denied a threat existed. He reacted only when the absurdity of the numbers -- the top six single-season home run records were established between 1998-2001 -- as well as heavy pressure from Congress, the IRS and the Justice Department, exposed the game. Selig's leadership did not force change. The sport simply could not deny the facts any longer.

His pronouncement that baseball has the "toughest testing program in America" does not reconcile with his previous behavior: the steadfast refusal to look back and investigate the sport. Selig and the league believed it could stiff-arm Congress until the government forced it to be humiliated at the 2005 hearings. Selig believed his vindication would be the 2007 Mitchell Report, but the power of the report was thwarted both by the union's refusal to cooperate and by Selig's decision to take care of his friends -- his practice of always trying to tilt the deal in his favor: he appointed George Mitchell, who was on the Red Sox payroll, and his law firm, DLA Piper, which worked with MLB. The result was a powerful document that served more to hammer labor than deliver justice: The players absorbed the public shame and have been kept from Cooperstown, but the organizations and front-office employees, also indicted in the document, received no punishment, at Mitchell's urging. Somewhere, Selig knows this, and periodically he will say that he should have done more. In reality, there is a union to be blamed, a press, players and a cynical public, and with that is an immutable truth: the industry failed, it has paid a devastating, irreparable price, and Selig was at its head.

When applied to Selig, Torre's question of whether he left the game better than when he entered will likely live without consensus. The legacy of his enshrinement may very well be the eventual enshrinement of the steroid-tainted players, who so far are the only ones who have paid even a partial price from a ruinous generation of dishonesty that changed the game far for the worse.