Give Selig credit for MLB’s success

For a guy who claimed he never really wanted the job of commissioner of baseball, Bud Selig sure has grown into his work.

When he assumed the job on an "interim" basis back in September 1992, he said he would hand over the reins as soon as a permanent replacement was found. Six years later, he became the permanent replacement, and he’s been in charge ever since.

Oh, each time his contract is supposed to expire, Selig will talk about his plans to teach at the University of Wisconsin, even recently pointing out that he already has office space at the campus in Madison. But before the expiration date comes, Selig eventually accepts an exemption.

It was the same story in January of this year. With his contract set expire in December, Selig accepted a two-year extension, which runs through December 2014.

And while he has said this will be his final deal, Selig doesn’t shut the door on hanging around for at a little bit longer. Hired in September 1992 when Faye Vincent was voted out of office, Selig will have served 22 years, 4 months on the job at the end of his newest deal.

That will be the second longest tenure among commissioners, after the original commissioner, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who took office in January 1921 and was on the job until his death in November 1944, a span of 23 years 11 months.

Selig, who turns 78 on July 30 this year, admits the idea he could “go by Judge Landis may entice me a bit.

“I’ve thought a lot about that. In this day and age, with all the controversy we have, it is hard for me to believe somebody stays in this job 20 plus years, which I know have. That is a little appealing, but nothing more than that.”

For a car dealer, who was heartbroken when his Braves fled Milwaukee for Atlanta in 1966, and got involved in the game by putting together a group to bring Major League Baseball back to his hometown, Selig has made quite a mark on the game.

Turned down in initial overtures for teams, including an expansion club when baseball awarded two in 1969, his big-league dream became a reality in spring 1970, when he was able to buy the financially troubled Seattle Pilots after their first year of existence, and moved them to Milwaukee.

It was a drawn-out affair, escalating to the point when when the team’s equipment truck left Tempe, Ariz., at the end of spring training, and the driver was told to head to Salt Lake City and check in, at which time he would be told whether to continue to Seattle or Milwaukee.

Forty-three years later, in addition to bringing the Brewers to Milwaukee, his legacy includes having been in charge of the sport during one of its stormy periods. Selig weathered the storm, and has brought about the most prosperous eras in the history of the sport, including the top eight attendance totals in baseball history the last eight years, and soaring values of franchises.

Selig could well go down as having had the biggest overall impact of any commissioner in history of the game.

Landis has long been lauded for bringing integrity back to the game, having been hired and given total autonomy in the aftermath of the Black Sox Scandal, in which members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox were found to have conspired to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. He also was in charge when the All-Star Game was instituted, but what can’t be forgotten is that he also worked hard to maintain segregation in the big leagues, including making sure Bill Veeck was denied permission to buy the Philadelphia Phillies when Landis found out Veeck planned to integrate his team.

Selig had his challenges, including cancellation of the 1994 World Series because of a player strike, and the steroid scandal of the two previous decades.

A positive, however, came out of both. The strike that began on Aug. 11, 1994, and extended into April 1995, was the game’s eighth work stoppage in 25 years, but also the last work stoppage the game has experienced. The damage inflicted by elimination of the postseason wasn’t lost on the owners and players, and is considered a key to creating the two sides being able to reach agreements in negotiations since.

“In 1994, if I told you that we would be looking at a stretch of 21 years of labor peace you would have thought I’d been standing too long in a hot shower,” said Selig. “After that event, I kept telling (former players union head) Donald Fehr we were hurting ourselves. Both sides put a lot of thought into what happened.”

Long an advocate of a drug-testing policy, but unable to get the Major League Baseball Players Association to accept one as part of the Basic Agreement, Selig now speaks proudly of baseball having the “strongest testing program of any professional sport.”

While PEDs got the nation’s attention, Selig admits his concerns grew out of the early ’80s when cocaine issues led to public scandals in Pittsburgh, where the team mascot was involved in a drug ring; in Kansas City, where four members of the 1983 Royals (Willie Aikens, Willie Wilson, Vida Blue and Jerry Martin) went to prison; and in other MLB cities. Milwaukee infielder Paul Molitor and Montreal outfielder Tim Raines also were involved in legal issues during that time.

“When I think back to the cocaine era,” he said, “I think of the heartache, even on the Brewers, and we couldn’t get a program. … We kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing, and the players finally pushed from their side and we got it done.”

Selig’s tenure has included the building of new stadiums for 20 of the 30 major league teams, the expansion from 24 to 30 teams and realignment into three divisions per league. Selig also oversaw the introduction of a single wild card team in each league for the postseason in 1995 and a second wild-card team in each league beginning this year; World Series home-field advantage to the league that wins the All-Star Game in 2003; interleague play in 1997; use of instant replay and much more.

Nothing, however, ranks in Selig’s mind like the revenue-sharing plan he was able to get the teams to adopt, the key element of “an economic overhaul.” Selig feels that has provided the impetus to the growth of the game’s annual venues from $1.2 billion in 1993 to $7.5 billion last year.

That has helped the game create better parity on the field, Selig said.

“I heard people say in the old days the game was more competitive,” he said, “but from 1949 to 1964 the New York Yankees won 14 pennants and 10 World Series. That doesn’t happen anymore.”

Since Selig took office in September 1992, every major league team except Kansas City and Washington has reached the postseason; 19 of those teams have advanced to the World Series, and 11 have won World Series.

And more than anything else, Selig’s tenure has underscored the value of having a commissioner who is what he is — a representative of the owners.

“When I took over the big question was how an owner could be commissioner,’’ he said. “It turns out it works well. There is nothing I have faced in this job that I didn’t have to deal with as a club owner.”

More important, when it comes to dealings with the players, there’s no question whose side Selig is on.

There’s no pretense that he is a neutral party.

There’s also no question that his priority is the good of the game.

And the game has been good during his regime.