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In the Valley of the Gods

This Bud’s for No One

The sad, financially successful legacy of baseball commissioner Bud Selig

The other night, because I had little to do that could not be done by only occasionally hoisting myself off the sofa, I settled in to watch the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees play a splendid little game of baseball. Jon Lester was pitching for Boston against Masahiro Tanaka, who has Taken Manhattan, at least for the nonce. Lester had a no-hit game through five. Unfortunately, in terms of scoring punch, the difference between your defending world champions of baseball and, say, the unfortunate Honduran soccer team is not vast. Lester lost the no-hitter, and he left the mound at the end of eight innings, tied 1-1. In the ninth, Tanaka shook off his catcher twice. He threw the pitch he wanted to throw. Mike Napoli hit it over the right field wall. Koji Uehara came in and did his three-up-and-three-down thing. The Red Sox won 2-1 in a game in which a helluva lot happened considering the teams combined for three runs.

Baseball gets to me like somebody spiked my drink. In general, I am completely agnostic on every one of the sport’s alleged basic appeals. I don’t get the green-cathedral poesy, but I have a greater tolerance for that than for analytics. This is the case because of one of the fundamental rules that have carried me through life — namely, that there is nothing in life that cannot be made worse by the addition of math. I have no problem with the people who are vulnerable to either of these two phenomena, though. Some of them are good friends of mine. So I sit there, watching a game with half an eye and less than half my attention span and, gradually, like a slow-acting (and not entirely unpleasant) drug, the game draws me in and, by the end of things, I am swinging my fist around and yelling triumphantly the three or four Japanese phrases my father taught me from his days as a port director in Niigata during the Occupation.

And the next day, I’m back to normal.

Anyway, that’s me and baseball.

But I am a fan of beginnings and of endings, of the opening of an era and of its closing. So I note with interest that, on July 15, Bud Selig will celebrate his final All-Star Game as the only commissioner baseball has. With any luck at all, this event will come off somewhat better than did the one in 2002, which was his 10th All-Star Game as the only commissioner baseball had. The game went into 11 innings. The two teams ran out of pitchers. Facing a horrendous cluster of that of which you do not want a cluster, unless you’re Caligula, and doing so in his home ballpark in Milwaukee, Selig declared a tie. He declared himself both embarrassed and terribly sad. America declared itself amused and moved on.

In many ways, Selig will be reckoned as one of the great commissioners of baseball. This is because, in the universe of baseball enthusiasts, the commissioner’s office always has been the repository of what Lewis Lapham once referred to as the American “wish for kings.” It was the commissioner’s office that threw out the Black Sox but winked at gamblers in other cities. It was the commissioner’s office that established the color line — thanks, Judge Landis! — and enforced it until Branch Rickey went rogue. It was the commissioner’s office that was the bulwark of the reserve system, defending it right up until the moment an arbitrator kicked it into the Hudson. Even afterward, when successive commissioners attempted to gain back de facto the control they had de jure, the commissioner’s office was central to nearly two decades of labor strife that reached an absurd peak with the collusion strategy of the late 1980s, which ensured another decade of labor strife that culminated in the landmark moment in Selig’s tenure in office — the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.

Luckily for Selig and the game, however, a new generation of performance-enhancing drugs emerged just in time for baseball to come back from this debacle. Selig and the rest of the baseball establishment surfed a pharmaceutical wave unseen since the early ’60s until the country entered one of its periodic drug hysterias, from which it only recently emerged.

Employing bargained testimony, and investigators who leaked like sieves and treated the Fourth and Fifth amendments as though they were mere suggestions, and encouraged by a scandal-happy press made up of far too many people who pretended to be 5 years old, Selig used the very same chemically enhanced performances that saved the sport as a new excuse to reestablish control over the help. In all of this, and because my customary baseball agnosticism leaves me incapable of looking at him as anything more than a uniquely empowered career bureaucrat, Bud Selig has been the perfect man for this peculiar job. He is just authoritarian enough to please the people to whom he must truckle in order to keep his job. What the hell. It’s a living. And a nice one, at that.

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In The Hustler’s Handbook, Bill Veeck wrote prophetically that, “In these days of corporate ownership, the Commissioner has become of particular importance to the hustler. Corporate ownership brings company men, company policy, and company cards with little holes in them. Corporate ownership, in short, brings committee-think, and with ComThink comes the banishment, discouragement, and attrition of colorful characters. The hustler is dependent upon colorful characters, because color is what is salable. Corporations don’t want to be regulated. They don’t want a Commissioner with any powers … The hustler needs a Commissioner who will throw his weight against the stuffiness, the routine, the deadly boredom of the executive suite. He needs a Commissioner who will help baseball, in spite of itself.”

(An aside: That Veeck was never commissioner, even for 15 minutes, is proof that, if there indeed is a God, He doesn’t have a healthy enough sense of the absurd, not even if you count the platypus.)

By all the standards that drove Veeck up the wall, Selig has been an enormous success. He leaves baseball an $8 billion industry, with the average franchise valued at nearly a billion dollars. There has not been a serious labor problem in 19 years. There have been 22 new ballparks built or utterly overhauled while he’s been commissioner, and the revenue-sharing money is well into nine figures a year. He has managed the drug hysteria. He will go down in the official history as a stern drug warrior who nonetheless was willing to compromise for a settlement. There seems little doubt that Selig is headed for a big afternoon in Cooperstown one day.

But the long view of history is going to say that, with Bud Selig, the office of the commissioner of baseball finally, completely, and probably perpetually became a management position. For a long time, at least theoretically, and in the dreams of people like Bill Veeck and Charlie Finley and others who would not be welcome in the world of Corporate Partners, the commissioner’s office also seemed to have a kind of ombudsman’s function. It was somehow supposed to sit in a place between management and labor, and between the game and the paying customers, in which place it was hoped the commissioner would arbitrate disputes, and that out of that arbitration would come solutions that would benefit everyone in the game, including those who devotedly followed it. This was often a standard honored primarily in the breach; surely, no fans benefited from segregated baseball that kept them from seeing Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson. The reserve clause froze player movement, and what’s happened since that system collapsed has made liars out of all those people back in 1972 who said the game’s economics could not bear up under free agency. No fan benefited from collusion, which was both fundamentally immoral and economically stupid. However, even through all of that, commissioners from Landis down through the unfortunate Bowie Kuhn received the benefit of a considerable doubt as regards their independence from the people who pay their salaries.

That collapsed with the elevation of Peter Ueberroth, a creature of the rising corporate class of the 1980s who’d ramrodded the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games by hanging a sponsorship on everything except the grave of Pheidippides. It was under Ueberroth that baseball management decided to collude against the marketplace in violation of a collective bargaining agreement they’d freely signed. (And, coincidentally, it forced their general managers to “throw” their jobs as grotesquely as Eddie Cicotte once threw his.) Bart Giamatti was the president of the National League at the time, and he defended the infrastructure of obvious lies that collusion required. He became commissioner. Then, there was Fay Vincent, who seemed to be inching a little bit back toward the middle. He jugged George Steinbrenner for a couple of years over Steinbrenner’s inexcusable harassment of Dave Winfield, and Vincent was openly derisive of the strategy of collusion, although he absolved his friend, Giamatti, of criticism in that regard. In an interview after he’d left the job, Vincent specifically mentioned Bud Selig as one of the chief boosters of that plan. (That Vincent, in retirement, has become something of a hysteric on the subject of PEDs is unfortunate.) This doesn’t seem like much, but it was enough to get Vincent a vote of no-confidence from the owners in 1992. Selig was instrumental in forcing Vincent out, and he was named to replace him, first on an interim basis, and then permanently. There were no illusions left anywhere about the commissioner’s office. He was the company man running the company policy that Bill Veeck had warned us about in 1965.

That will be Selig’s legacy — success and labor peace and nothing that ever would disturb the horses to discomfit the folks in the luxury boxes. Those people were his primary constituencies anyway. The rest of the game’s fans will be told to cheer Bud Selig into retirement for all he’s done for The Game. He has been a successful steward of the game’s economy. Why anyone outside of a boardroom would raise their voices for that is beyond me, but, as I said, I don’t get baseball at all.

Filed Under: MLB, bud selig, MLB All Star Game, Baseball, Milwaukee Brewers

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Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire, is the lead writer for Esquire.com’s Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.

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