Bud Selig is taking the deliberate, Mariano Rivera path to retirement rather than waiting to the end and springing the news on the public Todd Helton-style. He has confirmed that he will call it quits after the 2014 season, which leaves him all of next summer to take a victory lap and collect rocking chairs and oil paintings during a heartfelt farewell tour of ballparks across America.
Or maybe not.
Sports commissioners have a difficult job, and Selig receives firsthand evidence of the downside each time he takes the microphone at the All-Star Game or the Hall of Fame induction ceremony and boos cascade from the stands. You don't need binoculars to see the assembled dignitaries squirming in their seats in Cooperstown each time it happens.
Anyone with an ounce of objectivity knows it's more a matter of style than substance or achievement. Selig is not a commanding orator in the manner of A. Bartlett Giamatti, and he lacks the Fortune 500 presence of Peter Ueberroth. It was only fitting that in the midst of one of the lowest points of his career -- the 7-7, 11-inning tie at the 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee -- Selig reacted to the chaos with a beleaguered expression and his hands thrown plaintively in the air.
In an age of image makeovers and knee-jerk opinions, he's a convenient target for abuse. Fay Vincent, the man Selig replaced in the commissioner's seat, is convinced that's why he's not regarded more favorably by baseball fans in general.
"Bud suffers because he's not comfortable in the public eye," Vincent said Thursday. "He's not a comfortable speechmaker or talker. Early on he got pounded, so he stays away from that. You don't see him out doing too much talking or lecturing, whereas Giamatti and Ueberroth were much more comfortable in that venue."
When viewed through the prism of time rather than the emotion of the moment, Selig should be treated more kindly -- as a commissioner who guided baseball through numerous innovations and leaves the game in a stronger position than when he arrived. His role in the cancellation of the 1994 World Series and the steroid era tarnish his legacy and will be fodder for baseball historians to dissect. But there's a lot more positive than negative in the final record.
Changed the game
Just think about the seismic changes that have taken place under Selig's watch. His tenure resulted in new ballparks and attendance records, and the advent of the wild-card system and the World Baseball Classic. PEDs remain an ongoing issue, but baseball has aggressively pursued offenders though a testing system that MLB hails (justifiably) as the most stringent and demanding in sports.
Revenue sharing and the luxury tax have also made for a more competitive environment. A total of nine clubs have won the past 12 World Series, and 26 of the 30 MLB teams have made the postseason in the past decade.
Above all, Selig presided over unprecedented growth and two decades of labor peace that will continue through the end of the current bargaining agreement in 2016. Since he took over as commissioner in 1992, MLB's revenues have risen from $1.2 billion to $7.5 billion -- an increase of 600 percent.
"I think he's going to be regarded very positively, because baseball economically has been on an enormous run since the mid-to-late '90s," Vincent said. "After the punishing '94 disaster with the World Series and the strike, the game really turned a corner. A lot of it was the Internet and TV revenues. But look, when you're there and the money has been flowing in as it has been for the last 15-20 years, he gets a lot of the credit."
Selig survived -- and thrived -- because of his ability to work the phones and build consensus the way politicians did in Washington before gridlock and brinksmanship became the new norms. He cajoled here, twisted arms and traded favors there, and found a way to make the end result palatable to teams in different markets with wildly disparate agendas.
The timing of his exit is certainly appropriate. As a native son of Milwaukee, Selig has always had a soft spot for small-market teams trying to compete with the big clubs. So it's only fitting that he's announcing his retirement in the same year the Pittsburgh Pirates are making some history of their own.
In 1992, the Pirates went 96-66 and fell a game short of the World Series that October before taking a 20-year walk in the sub-.500 baseball wilderness.
In September 1992, baseball's owners forced out Vincent and named Selig his replacement on an interim basis. "This is all very flattering," Selig told USA Today later that year. "But I have no interest in becoming permanent commissioner."
Selig survived -- and thrived -- because of his ability to work the phones and build consensus the way politicians did in Washington before gridlock and brinksmanship became the new norms.
Ultimately, Selig became "interim commissioner" in the same way the pyramids are an interim tourist attraction in Egypt. He loved the job, the owners valued his contribution enough to pay him a reported $22 million per year, and he blew off enough retirement proclamations that it became a running industry joke.
But this time -- judging from the list of dignitaries who hailed his achievements in the official MLB news release -- Selig really means it. He wants to work on his memoirs, and he's apparently run out of excuses to give his beloved wife, Sue.
The people who have dealt with Selig on a professional basis through the years will remember him more fondly than the public at large. I have had fewer interactions with Selig over time than some media members, but he will occasionally call and express displeasure over something I've written. Once he bristled when I quoted an image consultant who suggested ways he could improve his public relations. He also took offense when I wrote that some of his early comments on steroids failed to jibe with subsequent remarks that baseball was oblivious to the problem.
Those phone calls were uncomfortable, but that is part of Selig's appeal. He will call directly rather than engage a battery of consultants and intermediaries. And when he scolds you, it feels as if you are getting a lecture from your Uncle Bud.
There is a comforting sameness to Selig. Each July, during the All-Star Game, he attends a Baseball Writers' Association of America luncheon and answers the same obligatory questions about steroids, instant replay and the nettlesome stadium issues in Oakland and Tampa Bay. He will squirm and artfully evade questions about Pete Rose, use the word "frankly" a lot, speak proudly about baseball's "remarkable renaissance," and summon the inevitable references to Gussie Busch and John Fetzer from owners meetings long ago.
Selig's methodical approach to change could make him appear stubborn at times. While everyone railed for expanded replay, he expressed concerns about the pace of game and the removal of the "human element" from the equation. As a result, MLB has adopted replay too slowly for some people's tastes. But when baseball finally does ramp up its commitment to new technology, it will have considered the issue from every possible angle.
In the end, Selig valued his contribution as a caretaker because he's a fan to the core. The economic landscape changed with time, and the steroid issue got ugly, but he never forgot how thrilling it felt to watch Billy Bruton homer off Gerry Staley in the Milwaukee Braves' first-ever home game in 1953.
Sometime over the next year, we'll find out if Rob Manfred, Tim Brosnan, George Will or someone else will assume the mantle of leadership as the game's next commissioner. Bud Selig will be free to kick up his feet at home and watch a game, secure in the knowledge that baseball is in a better place.