Retiring commissioner Bud Selig’s greatest gift to baseball is labor peace

Former MLBPA head Donald Fehr (left) and Bud Selig were cold warriors in baseball's labor battles of the 1990s, but now that Selig is retiring as MLB's commissioner, Fehr can admit that Selig helped bring about lasting labor peace.

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Let’s hear some different perspectives on outgoing commissioner Bud Selig – perspectives from men who sparred with him in labor negotiations, men who were not predisposed to view his legacy kindly.

Those men, former players union officers Donald Fehr and Gene Orza, did not gush over Selig’s long list of accomplishments as he prepares to leave a job this weekend that he has held since 1992. No, they talked about Selig’s darkest moment and how ultimately it saved the sport.

The players’ strike of 1994-’95 shortened two seasons, forced the cancellation of a World Series and alienated countless fans. But the industry came roaring back, helped by Selig’s numerous innovations and stabilized by perhaps his greatest achievement – 21 consecutive years of labor peace that will extend through 2016.

“The sport basically is where it is because of what happened in ’94 and ’95,” said Orza, who was the union’s associate general counsel from 1984 to 2004 and chief operating officer from ’04 to ‘11.

“The players’ association beat out of the clubs the notion of the salary cap. And when the salary cap was removed from the discussion, the parties could move together towards a better relationship.”

Selig might not take quite the same view, but he, too, has spoken about how past battles helped forge lasting labor peace. And oh, what battles they were: The strike of 1994-95 was the eighth work stoppage in baseball history and fourth in the middle of a season.

For those under 25, the distrust and hostility between the players and owners during that time is probably impossible to imagine. The owners themselves were deeply divided, and according to USA Today, Selig once told Fehr, “We inherited almost an intolerable situation.”

“It broke my heart, ’94, but we had been headed for that for two-and-a-half decades,” Selig said. “As painful and heartbreaking as it was, and it was painful and it was heartbreaking, I’d like to think that maybe it led to those 21 years of labor peace, and I hope a lot longer.”

AROUND THE HORN

Orza offered an interesting parallel.

“The analogy is not precise, but there would not have been a United Nations without World War II,” Orza said. “To say, gee, World War II was great because it gave us the United Nations would be kind of silly. There were a lot of bodies left on the ground. But there wouldn’t be a United Nations without World War II.”

The baseball conflict, as Orza said, was over a salary cap – the owners proposed one, tying it to revenue sharing. But the players never budged on a cap, and haven’t to this day even though each of the other three professional sports leagues – the NFL, NBA and NHL – has one.

Orza recalls the late Cardinals president Stuart Meyer, a club representative, saying that it was better to have an “X-X” negotiation rather than an “X-Y.” The salary cap, of course, was “Y” – a non-starter in negotiations.

As Orza put it, “If I want $10 and you want $15, we’re talking dollars. But if I want a salary cap, and you want free agency, we’re talking ‘X-Y.’ And ‘X-Y’ negotiations are not fruitful. Since then, the clubs have had, ‘X-X’ negotiations with the players’ association.”

The result was four straight labor agreements — in 1997, 2003, 2007 and 2012. The union in ’03 assented to a soft cap through a luxury tax; only five teams have ever exceeded the threshold, and only the Yankees and Red Sox have done it more than once. Revenue sharing, one of Selig’s greatest accomplishments, was a more meaningful step in the sport’s effort to achieve greater competitive balance.

“I think the primary growth of ’94-’95 was that in the end the structure that the union envisioned was in large part adopted and that’s the structure that exists today,” said Fehr, who was the union’s executive director from 1985 to 2009 and now serves the same role for the NHL players’ union.

“If you have real free agency and you have real revenue sharing . . . if you sort of have those twin pillars there . . . that’s what has produced the labor peace that everyone talks about. And when you look at what has happened in the other sports, where it seems clear to me that the presence of a salary cap is the thing that automatically produces a lockout. And you see it in every sport that has it every time they negotiate.”

Baseball revenues, meanwhile, have increased from $1.2 billion at the start of Selig’s tenure to more than $9 billion last season, according to Maury Brown of Forbes. The reasons for the escalation not only include revenue sharing and the luxury tax but also the construction of new ballparks – 22 of which opened while Selig was commissioner – and rise of regional sports television networks.

Selig deserves credit for innovations such as the expanded playoffs, interleague play and instant replay. He also deserves credit for introducing the toughest drug-testing plan in professional sports after initially reacting too slowly – like many of us – to the Steroid Era.

But Selig’s greatest strength, in the view of Fehr, was his ability to build consensus among owners.

“Bud had an attribute unique among commissioners with the possible exception of Al Davis in the old AFL years ago — he was an owner,” Fehr said. “He did come from a struggling market. He did know something about what it takes to interest broadcasters, to interest players, sell tickets, get stadiums built and all the rest of it.

“Which meant that in talking to owners, even without thinking about it, he spoke their language. He would understand what was going on without having to imagine it as an outside lawyer who became commissioner and never had his family’s money on the line.”

Selig also grew on the job, grasping the significance of baseball keeping pace with evolving technology. Under his watch, the sport introduced MLB.com, the MLB At-Bat app and MLB Network (on which I appear). He also benefited from an outside event – the increased demand for live sporting events on television, which triggered bigger rights fees from local and national outlets.

“Sports has a characteristic that television shows do not have – the spontaneity of the event,” Orza said. “(NBA commissioner) David Stern was the first one to point this out. Stern said, ‘You’ll always need sports.’

“You can’t say, ‘I’ll tape the game and watch it on Tuesday.’ You can’t do it with sports. It has to be current. So, sports has become much more important to the survival of the networks. And as a result, they’re spending a lot more.”

Still, baseball would not have been positioned to take advantage of the TV boom if not for lessons learned from the strike of ’94-’95. The industry had to regain the trust of fans, advertisers and networks. Additional work stoppages would have halted or reversed the recovery.

“A lot of people would say – and to a certain extent it’s true – that there was a big wave,” Fehr said, referring to the series of positive developments that occurred under Selig’s watch. “But you also have to ride the wave, and that was done pretty well.”