Bud Selig, 79, the former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and the longest-serving Major League Baseball commissioner since the original, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, announced Thursday (and this time people believe him) that he will retire after the 2014 season. In absolute terms, he was unlikable and pro-management. Graded on a commissioners curve that includes Gary Bettman and Roger Goodell, he comes off looking pretty well. He was a man. Take him for all in all. Shrug.
He will be remembered for several things. All the ticky-tack changes of small and medium importance: The introduction of wild cards and interleague play; awarding home-field advantage in the World Series to the team representing the league that won the All Star Game; aggressive expansion, from 26 to 30 franchises, in the 1990s; bringing baseball back to Washington, D.C. (even while evacuating it from Montreal). He was the first (though almost certainly not the last) commissioner who—arguably excepting his immediate predecessor Fay Vincent, a transitional figure—was less of an honest broker between the owners and the players and more a servant of the owners, as the commissioners of the other leagues are. He scowled a lot. He upheld Pete Rose’s lifetime ban. He oversaw the first season without a World Series since 1904. Finally: steroids steroids steroids steroids steroids.
In fiscal terms, he presided over astounding growth. I’ve seen estimates of rising inflation-adjusted revenue ranging from 300 to 400 percent. In prestige terms, the record looks less good. The National Football League definitively overtook the MLB as America’s pastime over the past two decades, and over the same time period, the National Basketball Association arguably grew the most in profile, made itself the most culturally relevant league, produced the most stars (by far), and positioned itself to capitalize the most on international growth. Yet somehow during this time baseball also came to seem indispensable—or, to phrase it slightly more precisely, not-going-to-be-dispensed-with. One can imagine the NBA losing its head of steam, whether through scandal, sloppy play, or overextension; one can certainly imagine an eventual world bereft of football; and one can imagine soccer threatening the predominance of those two sports. But if the steroid era and its aftermath proved anything, it is that baseball will always be with us. It is not clear how much this is a function of MLB’s management or of the dynamics and quirks of the sport itself, but one can at the least say that Selig did not botch this.
He did botch steroids, at least for a long while. I still don’t know exactly what was banned when and how it was tested. I still don’t know who actually holds the single-season home run record. I still don’t know how much I should care! This was a colossal mess, and it is only hindsight that allows us to say it was never really at risk of killing the game. Then again … it wasn’t really at risk of killing the game, clearly. In fact, banned performance-enhancing substances, as the season-ending suspension of Ryan Braun and the Alex Rodriguez opera demonstrate, are still a thing, and hardly anyone cares anymore.
Ten months ago, we eulogized Marvin Miller, a genuine hero, a left-wing labor lawyer who set the Major League Baseball Players Association on a path to becoming the pioneer among sports unions as well as the most powerful. Yet it remains the case that, under Selig, revenue sharing was introduced but a salary cap was not, and the league continued to experience a good extent of competitive parity. Owners got richer; players got richer; and fans still received a generally accessible product. There is no way to know if this was guaranteed, and in the absence of that guarantee, we again have to credit Selig.
I can’t understand how those between the ages of 15 and 55 can find the time or willpower to be truly obsessed with baseball. But I also can’t understand how anyone would not welcome baseball into their lives to varying degrees—something I can’t say about any other sport. Selig is an imperfect steward, but he got baseball this far with the added confidence that pitchers and catchers will report for many Februarys hence. Thanks? Thanks.