Bud has a long memory, but forgets quick, too

Bud Selig prides himself on being a student of history. In two
judgments last week, though, baseball’s long-serving steward
reminded us he can be a fan of selective memory, too, so long as it
suits his purpose.

First things first: In a decision that generated little comment
but has far-reaching implications, Selig said he would let Barry
Bonds’ career (762) and single-season (73) home run records stand –
that, despite the slugger’s recent conviction on an obstruction of
justice charge that grew out of an investigation into the use of
performance-enhancing drugs in sport.

That was Selig at his best. The decision displayed pragmatism,
since it’s almost impossible to erase one set of facts from the
record book without altering all the related ones. But it also
showed a healthy respect for the connective tissue that makes
comparing the feats of one era with another possible, and so binds
each generation of fans to the next.

By handling the Bonds dilemma as he did, Selig reaffirmed his
trust in the game’s fans to get it right on their own; to
understand both the times and the context in which those records
were set. That way, those upset by the idea of a chemically fueled
Bonds – and who-knows-how-many other players during the supersized
era – soaring past several of the most important offensive
milestones can add as many asterisks to the retelling as they see
fit.

Not surprising, perhaps, Selig’s decision kept faith with both
well-established precedent and his own recent history.

Fifty years ago, as Roger Maris closed in on Babe Ruth’s
hallowed single-season home-run mark, there was plenty of talk –
including from then-commissioner Ford Frick – about adding an
asterisk to the record book to note an expanded schedule gave Maris
eight more games to eclipse the Babe. Eventually, though, the
dissent turned out to be just that – talk – and fans decided for
themselves which version of events was the more impressive.

Similarly, Selig refused to amend the record book and award a
perfect game last season to Detroit’s Armando Galarraga, even after
replays showed that umpire Jim Joyce clearly missed the call on
what should have been the 27th and final out of the ballgame. By
doing so, Selig understood the controversy swirling around the
”imperfect game” guaranteed it would be as memorable as all the
other perfectos, yet remembered in its unique context.

That trust in the game’s fans, Selig said at his annual meeting
the Associated Press Sports Editors last week, guided his hand in
the Bonds’ decision.

”I think that anybody who understands the sport,” he said,
”understands exactly why.”

But more than a few people who understand baseball were stunned
by another decision Selig announced Thursday, this one to expand
the playoffs by two teams.

”It doesn’t seem very fair, and personally, I don’t know where
his head is at,” Giants pitcher and reigning Cy Young Award winner
Tim Lincecum said a day later.

”Players like it the way it is,” he continued in an interview
with the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times. ”It’s dog-eat-dog. People
know they need to win 11 games to win the World Series.”

Lincecum was one of several players voicing displeasure,
although the union is already on board to expand the postseason
from eight to 10 teams.

”Ten is a fair number,” Selig said, adding that details on
have yet to be finalized on whether the new wild-card round would
be best-of-three or winner-take-all.

Selig no doubt drew some comfort that the postseason expansion
he presided over beginning in 1995, despite withering criticism
from traditionalists, was a commercial success. Two wild cards were
added then as each league went to three divisions, thus
guaranteeing an even number of teams for a playoff.

”If I had defiled motherhood I don’t think I could have gotten
ripped any more than I did,” the commissioner recalled not long
after. ”But now it’s fascinating to me. Now they not only like it
so much, they want more of it.”

Not exactly.

While fans of every team in the AL East save the Yankees might
be on-board, even they would have to concede the season is already
way too long as it is. Adding more teams will only make the
divisional races even less meaningful. While 12 of 32 NFL teams
make the postseason, and 16 of 30 teams in the NBA and NHL,
baseball’s season is so much longer that every contender has a
more-than-fair opportunity to earn a berth.

And while Selig may also remember the excitement generated by
three straight seasons requiring tiebreakers (2007-09) to determine
the postseason field, two more wild-card teams also will increase
the possibility that a so-so team like the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals
will get hot at the right time and steal a World Series.

”Why mess it up, other than for monetary purposes,” Lincecum
said, ”and that’s probably what (Selig) is looking at.”

Possibly. A half-dozen clubs are skidding along at historic lows
in attendance for the month, which would be even more troubling
were it not for the fact that much of the lost income from ticket
sales has been offset by increasingly lucrative TV deals with local
or regional networks. Whether those numbers reveal a new model or
simply mask an underlying problem remains to be seen.

Either way, though, the game is headed into uncharted waters,
where Selig’s sense of history and his business instincts are going
to wage a fight to see which becomes his guide.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated
Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org.