You probably know by now that baseball commissioner Bud Selig kind-of, sort-of, officially made his pending retirement official with a press release on Thursday.
And if so, I hope you noticed that he did it in the most Bud Selig way possible:
Easily mocked, a little awkward, sort of confusing, but with an underlying point and purpose that furthers his and baseball’s interests.
Selig has been saying,repeatedly
, for years that he will be done commissioning after next season. But he’s done this before, setting two previous retirement dates that he blew through, so he’s always been in on the joke with people who don’t believe him. All indications are that it will happen this time. Selig is most likely trying to convince baseball’s owners that he’s leaving, and that they should stop trying to talk him into staying. He wants the process of naming his successor to be thorough, and he thinks this is the best way.
But assuming he does mean it this time — for whatever it’s worth, he’s never sent a press release about it before — let’s take a second to recognize a very successful commissioner.
Yeah, you read that right.
The image of Selig cupping his ear and squinting into TV lights to hear a question at some press conference (often about steroids) has made him a bit of a punching bag. For many, the indelible image of Selig’s 22 years in charge — the longest since Kenesaw Mountain Landis died in 1944 — will be him helplessly shrugging his shoulders while deciding to end the 2002 All-Star game in a tie^.
^ Selig has often repeated the same retort to criticism of how he handled that game, and it’s classic Selig: "We were out of (freaking) pitchers!" Selig might be sports’ greatest admirer of the f-word.
But that misses a bigger point about the man who has impacted the game more than anyone in the last generation. This is a creature of careful habit, who gets the same $20 haircut at the same place, eats the same lunch, wears the same clothes, and often makes the same points about baseball’s "golden age."
Look, Selig has his failures. He cancelled the 1994 World Series, for goodness sake, and was too slow to act on a widespread and institutionally supported steroids problem. To some, he will always be the Steroids Commissioner. He’s also been far too slow to embrace instant replay, and his otherwise brilliant and forward-thinking Advanced Media initiative is tainted by a silly blackout policy.
But fairness will recognize that Selig has been pitted against what might be the most powerful union in the world. Certainly, the MLBPA is the most powerful union in sports. Selig tried to break the union in ’94, and failed spectacularly. The union also fought drug testing for far too long, which is a bigger black eye on the players than Selig.
The point is that Selig’s failures have been largely institutional, and baseball’s recent successes are largely covered with his fingerprints. He took over a failing league with archaic policies and pushed it into the modern world. In the process, he created a cash machine. The union and owners despised each other when Selig took over, and now the game is set for 21 years of labor peace. He rightly brags that baseball now has the toughest drug policy in American sports.
The game Selig took over took itself too seriously and clung to outdated and counterproductive traditions even if it meant stunted growth. Selig’s ideas were often mocked at first, but ultimately proved good for the game: interleague play, more playoff teams, division realignment. Baseball’s annual revenue was around $1.2 billion when he took over. Last season, it was more than $7.5 billion. He’s overseen the opening of 20 new ballparks, and has pushed the game to embrace technology.
Kansas City is the wrong place to make this point, but baseball’s parity is at an all-time high and in many real ways is comparable to the NFL, NBA and NHL.
Just like his weird retirement "announcement," Selig is fun and easy to mock.
But step back for a second, and you see a very effective commissioner who took over an injured sport and leaves it thriving.
Whoever follows him has big shoes to fill, even as they’ll almost certainly be wearing better shoes than Selig.