John McGrath: Selig, despite his flaws, is better than alternatives

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comMay 25, 2014 

Bud Selig’s failures as baseball commissioner should have gotten him fired years ago.

Bud Selig’s accomplishments as baseball commissioner are worthy of a place in the Hall of Fame.

Reasonable cases can be made defending either of those arguments about Selig, whose plans to retire have created still another controversy surrounding the sports world’s most polarizing man.

Despite his slob-in-a-business-suit demeanor — or maybe because of it — Selig is likable, a people’s commissioner incapable of eating a hot dog without leaving mustard residue on his white shirt. He can be charming. His ability to remember first names while taking questions from nationally prominent reporters is an underrated skill.

But he’s also the self-serving bureaucrat who conspired to overthrow commissioner Fay Vincent, a good man with a powerful intellect. If Vincent is snoring and drooling on the couch pillow during an afternoon nap, he’s still twice as smart as Selig on a coffee binge.

Selig’s detractors — the Anti-Buds — cite that as acting commissioner in 1994, he failed to achieve a peace with the players’ association that would have avoided a cancellation of the pennant races, playoffs and World Series.

Selig’s supporters — the Pro-Buds — cite that while the NFL, NBA and NHL have had more recent owner-player squabbles, he has presided over 20 years of serenity and stability, with few labor pains.

Anti-Buds: His push for the wild card has diminished the value of a playoff berth.

Pro-Buds: Only 10 of 30 teams advance, easily the lowest ratio among North American pro sports leagues. Selig’s determination to add wild cards, along with the implementation of interleague play, are his crowning achievements.

Anti-Buds: He has allowed World Series television ratings to be dwarfed by NFL regular-season games between inconsequential teams.

Pro-Buds: Lucrative local television deals are one reason MLB’s revenues exceeded $8 billion in 2013, a 264 percent increase from 1995.

Anti-Buds: He conveniently disregarded the obvious correlation between the spike in home run numbers during the late 1990s and the suspiciously enlarged thighs and biceps (and heads) of the guys hitting home runs.

Pro-Buds: Selig might have been late to intervene on the steroid plague, but who wasn’t? Besides, baseball now has strict rules regarding performance-enhancing drugs — much tougher, for instance, than the NFL.

And so it goes.

Given the commissioner’s stormy reign, it’s no surprise that the quest to identify his successor has turned into a food fight pitting Selig on one side and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf on the other. Reinsdorf, I should point out, is Selig’s closest friend.

When a business that pulls in more than $8 billion in annual revenue is faced with a chain-of-command change, it typically hires an independent consulting firm to pursue candidates. Not baseball, a business so fraught with closed-door power plays and covert deals, it makes the Kremlin look like a beacon of transparency.

Selig’s original plan for a successor was to form a seven-person search committee comprising such owners as — brace yourself — Jerry Reinsdorf. Selig wanted to keep the committee a secret because, well, that’s just how these things are done.

Turns out the 78-year-old millionaires and billionaires who own baseball teams are as helpless at keeping a secret as the rest of us are, forcing Selig to acknowledge the committee’s existence.

In the meantime, Selig launched a campaign behind the scenes to turn his job over to Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball’s chief operating officer. Manfred, a lawyer with an extensive background in labor relations, is to Selig what Adam Silver was to former NBA commissioner David Stern: a clear-cut, no-brainer choice.

Everybody’s on board, right?

Uh, not quite.

According to The New York Times, “the White Sox owner is concerned that his power could wane under Mr. Manfred.”

A longtime foe of the players’ association, Reinsdorf apparently fears Manfred will capitulate to the players when the next collective bargaining agreement is negotiated after the 2016 season. In lieu of hiring Manfred, the Times reported, Reinsdorf wants to abolish the commissioner’s office and convert it into a troika that includes — brace yourself one more time — Jerry Reinsdorf.

Three baseball bosses instead of one? With two of them presumably serving as puppets for Reinsdorf, whose perfect world would turn back the clock to the 19th century and require players to behave as hired hands subservient to owners?

How could any of this go wrong?

Compared to that calamity, I’m OK with the thought of Selig remaining in place for another year or two, fighting things out with his ex-best friend while another gob of mustard falls upon his rumpled white shirt.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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