By Ross Newhan
Bud Selig will preside over his final owners meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Phoenix, with the owners and a few guests feting the commissioner at the end of the business sessions--as well they should. Industry revenue has soared from $1.2 billion to $9 billion during Selig's 22 years at the helm, and the average franchise is now valued at more than $1 billion, with the Dodgers having sold for $2.1 billion 14 years after Peter O'Malley sold for $311 million.
Selig, who will be in Los Angeles Saturday night to present an award at Dennis Gilbert's 12th annual Scouts Foundation dinner, officially retires Jan. 24. Commissioner-elect Rob Manfred has already made several changes in baseball's administrative staff, but Selig's legacy is embedded even if the patient, ear to the phone, consensus building leadership style undergoes some high tech alterations while operating fully from 245 Park Ave. in New York City rather than 777 East Ave. in Milwaukee.
Never has a tradition bound sport experienced the dramatic changes--on and off the field--than it did under the ninth and second longest tenured commissioner.
His grade, if one has to be given, would be somewhere in the area of an 'A-' or 'B+'.
The cold reality is that no one should be allowed to emerge from the Steroid Era's embrace with a perfect grade and no commissioner can escape the asterik that accompanies cancellation of a World Series--despite the complexities involved at the time.
Nevertheless, it is simply impossible to say the game isn't better off--economically, competitively and relationship-wise (among owners and between management and the players union) than when Selig led the ouster of Fay Vincent and became acting commissioner in September 1992.
While there could be changes in those relationships and threats to what will be 22 years of labor peace when the current bargaining agreement expires after the 2016 season, anyone who had spent his career following and/or writing about the industry would have been hard pressed in 1992--or '94 when the Series was cancelled because of a work stoppage rooted in the owners then perpetual desire for a salary cap--to predict the peace, prosperity and parity that has followed.
Interleague play, realignment, expanded playoffs and revenue sharing have been significant steps under Selig, who took over at a time when the owners were still using revenue sharing formulas from the 1940s and 50s, and the big market clubs treated their smaller brethren with disdain. Selig, in time, convinced his constituents that they were all operating under the same tent, and now approximately $400 million in revenue sharing money changes hands annually, contributing to the fact that 29 of the 30 teams have reached the post-season since 2001 and 12 wild card teams have played in a World Series.
In addition, for a man who doesn't use a computer, Selig has seen his Advanced Media internet operation experience unparalleled success compared to other sports, generating almost $700 million in annual revenue, with part of that stemming from the globalization efforts, which have spawned three World Baseball Classics, five opening days in Japan and Australia and yearly overseas clinics.
While MLB and the NFL can debate which is now the National Pastime, Selig has also seen attendance increase from 1992, when 12 of the 26 teams drew less than two million, to a 2014 average of 2.5 million for the 30 teams, five drawing more than three million and 22 of the 30 opening new ballparks during his tenure (and yes, taxpayers, thanks for your contributions).
At the same time, the Oakland and Tampa Bay stadium situations remain unresolved, the minority hiring program has lapsed badly, dare I even mention that foolish exercise know as contraction, and there is some sentiment--in virtually every corner of the baseball community--that over-reaction to the 2002 All-Star game tie, resulting in an exhibition game now deciding which league gets home field advantage in the World Series, should be corrected.
Then, of course, there is the steroid residue---a polluted era, a devalued record book and a commissioner who will have to carry some of the responsibility into retirement, though the union and media shared in the era's sounds of silence.
The fact that baseball has emerged with the toughest testing and drug program in pro sports and a take no prisoner investigative approach as exemplified in the Biogenesis and A-Rod episodes provides a measure of solace for Selig, but the impact of the era will linger in differing forms for years, if not forever.
And now Manfred, among other issues, will first deal with possible changes to the pace of games in an effort to reinvest a younger demographic and revitalize TV ratings. Manfred has been Selig's chief labor lieutenant, significantly responsible for maintaining a record stretch of harmony with the union. The 20 owners who opposed his election, led by Jerry Reinsdorf and Arte Moreno, did so, in fact, on the very belief he has been TOO easy on the union. If that bloc remains in tact in 2016, when both sides are believed ready to pursue a variety of issues more vigorously than in the most recent negotiations, labor peace could be at stake.
Selig, meanwhile, will be writing his biography with the help of the renowned Doris Kearns Goodwin while also, at 80 and with an unquestioned love of the game he is leaving, teaching history, possibly at the University of Wisconsin. Will he be a tough grader? Who knows? His own history as commissioner is deserving of a high mark, just not quite straight 'A'.