Bud Selig’s Complicated Legacy


April 4, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; MLB commissioner Bud Selig in attendance before the opening day game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins at Marlins Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig announced his retirement this week, stating that he would step down in January of 2015. By that time, he will have been commissioner for 23 years (factoring the years he served as “interim” commissioner from 1992-1998).

Selig has been controversial. Every baseball fan, player, ex-player, owner, or GM has a strong opinion about him, negative or positive. One thing Selig cannot be accused of is simply being a caretaker. He made significant changes to a league that had traditionally been resistant to change. Whether those changes were positive or negative, Selig has always erred on the side of action, with one notable exception, PEDs.

It took Bud far too long to crack down on Performance Enhancing Drugs, but once he did, he implemented what is now the toughest drug policy in American professional sports. And he did so with the MLBPA’s approval, which is quite an accomplishment based on the history between the owners and the union.

When Selig took over for an embattled Fay Vincent in 1992, he found himself in the middle of a labor war which eventually led to the 1994 work stoppage. Selig’s appointment as interim commissioner was a result of an aggressive group of owners, who wanted one of their own running the sport (Selig was the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers).

The 1994 strike was the first black mark on Selig’s record. That year, the playoffs were cancelled. Along with all of the revenue and fan confidence that was lost, the Montreal Expos saw their possible franchise-changing season derailed. The Expos had the best record in the league, and had a great chance to make it to the World Series. Instead, they never repeated their success, faded financially, and headed to Washington, D.C. in 2005. To Selig’s credit, however, there have been no cancelled games due to labor strife since.

Baseball slowly began to heal after 1994. Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played, and fans started to come back. When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa battled to see who could break Roger Maris’s single season home run mark, fans came back in droves. But the Summer of ’98 turned out to be an illusion. By that time, PEDs were running rampant in the sport, and the two sluggers were among the most notable violators. In addition, their success that year is reportedly what drove Barry Bonds to allegedly begin PED use in 1999.

Selig has been accused of turning a blind eye to the issue – after all, it was good for business. In the early 2000s, he started to crack down on PEDs, and eventually, along with the union, set out to rid the game of the stuff completely. Players such as Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun still try to find a way around the system, but in the end, they are found out and punished. In every sport, PEDs are a reality. Bud Selig is the only commissioner who has taken great steps to eliminate them.

Speaking of business, the league’s financial success skyrocketed under Selig, as revenues increased by six times in 21 years, from $1.2 billion in 1992 to $7.5 billion this year. Franchise values (with a few exceptions, i.e., the New York Mets) also reached new heights, as evidenced by the Dodgers setting an all-sport record sale price of $2.15 billion in 2012.

While Selig was not technically inclined (he still doesn’t have a computer in his office), MLB.com, MLB TV, and the MLB Network all enjoyed huge success and growth during his reign.

On the field, the league has never been more competitively balanced. Nine separate teams have won the World Series in the past 12 years, and 26 of 30 teams have made the playoffs in the past 10 years. Not even the NFL, perpetually lauded by the mainstream sports media for their parity, can boast that kind of record.

Two large factors for the more level playing field are revenue sharing and the addition of wild card playoff teams. It’s not perfect, but the shared revenue has, over time, allowed a franchise like the Pittsburgh Pirates to enjoy their first winning season since 1992.

The wild card round, introduced prior to the ill-fated 1994 season, has kept more franchises in the playoff hunt deeper into the season. Selig opened up another wild card slot last year in an attempt to replicate the frenzied final day of the 2011 regular season.

Perhaps Selig’s best idea was to honor Jackie Robinson. The first Jackie Robinson day was held in 1997, and since then, once a year, every player wears Robinson’s number 42 on their backs.

There have been some bad ideas, too.

After the 2002 All-Star Game ended in a 7-7 tie, Selig overreacted. Subsequently, he deemed that the winner of the All-Star Game, an exhibition, would determine home field advantage in the World Series. It’s been the rule for ten years now, and really does nothing to prevent another tie game.

He took far too long to adopt instant replay reviews, and now that he has, they are going to an obviously flawed challenge system.

And finally, the Oakland Athletics are still stuck in an obsolete dump of a stadium, the Tampa Bay Rays are struggling to draw fans, even after several years of success, and owners Jeffery Loria of the Miami Marlins and Fred and Jeff Wilpon of the Mets remain at the helms of the teams they ran into the ground.

Ticket prices are also at an all-time high, but that’s the trend in all sports. And compared to the prohibitive costs of the NFL, going to a baseball game is still a relative bargain.

Selig’s legacy will be a mixed bag, mainly because he tried to change the game, but was in charge during one of the league’s darkest periods. He deserves blame for the steroid era, just as he deserves credit for the league’s growth and competitive balance. That comes with the territory when you’re running the show.