Highs And Lows: Bud Selig’s Legacy

With the ascent of Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball will have only its tenth commissioner since 1921. In that time, the United States has had 16 presidents occupy the Oval Office. The 10th commissioner, Allan “Bud” Selig, has left behind a legacy as perhaps the most impactful and important commissioner in the history of the sport.

Beginning in 1970, when he purchased the bankrupt Seattle Pilots franchise and moved them to Milwaukee to create the Brewers, Selig was an owner. The franchise alternated between fairly successful and underwhelming under Selig’s stewardship, and was also the home to Hall of Famer’s Robin Yount and Paul Molitor.

A black eye to Selig’s tenure was his part in owners’ collusion during the mid and late 1980’s. The cases were settled in 1990, with the owners divvying up $280 million to the players union. Selig’s predecessor in the commissioner’s office, Fay Vincent, blamed the 1994 players strike on player distrust and anger with ownership over such matters as the collusion cases.

In 1992 the owners gave an 18-9 no confidence vote to Vincent and he subsequently resigned. Selig, the chairman of the Executive Council of Major League Baseball, then took on the role of acting commissioner. Beginning in 1998, the “acting” portion of the title was dropped and he was voted commissioner by the owners.

Whatever his failings or missteps as an owner, Selig’s years as commissioner cannot be argued as anything but a success. From the product on the field, to the financial health of the game and the amount of clamor surrounding baseball, Selig presided over several grand initiatives, though a few aspects cast a pall over most of the achievements.

Firstly, the implementation of a wildcard team in each league, as well as the realignment of the divisions and the advent of the Divisional round of the playoffs, was seen as blasphemy by baseball purists and old school fans. The main argument was built upon the idea that the wildcard would rob the excitement of a pennant race, while also bemoaning that more teams in the playoffs would water down the most important games of the season by allowing “undeserving” clubs a chance at the World Series. In addition, fans argued whittling down divisions to only five teams would allow for the opportunity for weaker divisions to send a spoiling representative to the playoff tournament.

Almost instantly, the wildcard became a hit as the sport’s most prominent franchise, the New York Yankees, captured the American League’s first extra playoff spot and proceeded to have an epic and all-time classic series with the Seattle Mariners. That one series may have been more important than any other playoff series in the tenure of Bud Selig, as it validated his first major policy initiative and began what has begun a very worthy baseball tradition (though, the efficacy of the 2nd wildcard spot can be debated).

A second major alteration to the game was the introduction of interleague play, which was another proposal that rankled the traditional baseball fan. Since the Houston Astros switched leagues, each league has an even 15 teams. As a result, interleague play has become a daily occurrence. This has had the effect of erasing the allure and aura of once mythical rivalries, and as such, the 2000 Subway Series loses a lot of its luster in hindsight due to interleague play’s present-day regularity. However, a major boon for the sport has been the unquestioned ability of such games to draw huge amounts of money when they take place. With the assurance of these games taking place, it gives fans the dream matchups that they might never see in their lifetimes, like Cubs fans waiting for a World Series win. It is detrimental to tradition, but it is a fine move that fans can be happy with.

Other triumphs of Selig’s term include the commemoration of April 15th as Jackie Robinson Day, the expansion of the league with the Arizona and Tampa Bay franchises, the implementation of an instant replay and managers challenge system, as well as his spearheading of the triannual World Baseball Classic. Though the Classic has not reached the dizzying heights that many fans had envisioned or hoped, it is still a global competition for baseball and brings attention to the game from all corners of the world.

Along with each of these singular accomplishments it is not hard to find the resoundingly negative and controversial aspects of Selig’s tenure.

In 1994, while acting commissioner, Selig presided over one of the darkest moments and blackest eyes that the sport had endured since the 1919 Black Sox scandal. For the first time in 90 years, the World Series was cancelled due to a players’ strike, one which transpired due in part to the inability of the players union or the owners to see eye to eye and conduct honest, fair business with one another. Many in the baseball community, chief among them Fay Vincent, have laid partial blame at the feet of Selig himself for fostering hostile feelings due to his part in the collusion cases less than a decade earlier when he was owner of the Milwaukee Brewers.

The second blow to Selig’s reign in the commissioner’s office was the PED and steroids era in Major League Baseball that seemed to reach its climax (or, more appropriately, nadir) in the mid 1990’s through the mid 2000’s, smack in the middle of Selig’s commissionership.

The correlation between the World Series cancellation and the PED era are too eerily intertwined to not add further acridity towards Selig and his governance of baseball. The game took a major hit in popularity and fan acceptance after the players strike in 1994, to the point that baseball in Canada has never truly recovered the great fan bases it boasted at the time, and the Expos no longer exist after being moved and transformed into the Washington Nationals. The game needed new heroes, exciting and interesting personalities, and astonishing physical and statistical barrages of Herculean proportions to shepherd back the droves of fans it had driven away. Enter the likes of Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Raphael Palmeiro, and a group of others, all of whom are still suspected, or in some cases proven, of using performance enhancing drugs to better their performances and ravage baseball’s hallowed record books. Selig did nothing to precipitate or encourage this culture, but when calls were made for investigations and suspicions began to surface about player performance, Selig did not crack down on the toxic atmosphere swiftly. In fact, it wasn’t until Jose Canseco began to open up that Selig was compelled to do what was truly best for the game.

The past two decades have undoubtedly been a rollercoaster for Major League Baseball under Selig’s watch. Revenues from TV deals, attendance, and merchandise are better than they’ve ever been, and Selig can always hang his hat on the fact that the financial health of the game has led to new stadiums popping up from coast to coast, all massive shrines to America’s pastime. However, while that is so, MLB faces a long-term crises with regards to growing new fans, as well as youth interest in the sport. The numbers of black players have been dwindling for some time, as have the amount of young black players, hence the RBI program. Ratings for the World Series are being outclassed by Sunday night football games in September. MLB is desperately trying to stay relevant in a sports climate that works against the hardworking, blue-collar character of the baseball culture, and while that may not be Selig’s fault, but more of a societal trend in America, it is still a major consideration for a future without him—and to perhaps learn from Bud’s mistakes or missteps.

From interleague play and the addition wildcard, to attempted contraction of teams, and the ridiculous idea of World Series home field advantage being decided by the All-Star Game, Bud Selig’s tenure can be described as a little bit of both bad and good, controversial and exciting. However, regardless of how one passes judgment on Selig’s duration as MLB commissioner, it is irrefutable that his highs have been more monumental than most past leaders of the game, and his lows have been just as equally dark. Sometimes, as the old saying goes, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs; and Bud Selig was the king of omelets.

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