Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 17, 2014

Selig Retires; The Great Game Moves On

In a world in which the goings on at closed-door meetings are routinely made public even before the doors themselves are open, it came as no surprise that the results of the first round of balloting for a new commissioner quickly leaked out of the locked ballroom in Baltimore where Major League Baseball owners were meeting last Thursday. MLB’s Chief Operating Officer Rob Manfred received 22 votes from the 30 owners. The other 8 ballots were cast for Tom Werner, one of the owners of the Boston Red Sox. Since the election required a 75% majority, or 23 votes, there seemed little doubt about the ultimate outcome. Still it took several hours and five more rounds of voting before the dissident minority led by Jerry Reinsdorf, who owns both the White Sox and the Chicago Bulls, finally collapsed and Manfred was confirmed as the Great Game’s 10th commissioner.

Despite protests to the contrary that rang both hollow and silly, Manfred was the hand-picked choice as successor by outgoing commissioner Bud Selig. Thus it is tempting to read some great significance into the difficulty Selig’s choice had in securing that one additional vote needed to win. But ultimately it was probably nothing more than a personal squabble among rich old men. Reinsdorf and Selig had long been the best of friends, but the White Sox owner grew angry over Selig’s efforts to control the process of selecting his successor and his obvious promotion of Manfred, who was already the heir apparent when he rose to the position of COO at the end of last season.

Werner was an 11th hour candidate, and his publicly stated doubts about baseball’s system of revenue sharing made him less than appealing to small market owners. Once the election was over, Reinsdorf said in a statement that “While Rob may not have been my initial choice for commissioner, the conclusion of a very good process was to name Rob as the person best positioned to help baseball endure and grow even stronger for the next generation of fans.” Perhaps he and Selig can patch things up this coming off-season at a Bulls game.

Selig wanted to control the selection of the next commissioner just as he has wanted, and largely been able, to control much of the game throughout his tenure. More than a few pundits have suggested that ensuring the election of his hand-picked successor was an effort by Selig to secure his legacy. But that seems almost as silly as Selig’s assurances that he was neutral in the election. One should never forget, as Fay Vincent seemingly did more than two decades ago, that the commissioner is elected by and ultimately works for the owners. Does anyone seriously believe that anyone chosen by that electorate is going to order teams to reduce ticket prices or umpires to enforce the 12-second rule between pitches or take some other radical fan-friendly action? It was telling that at Manfred’s first press conference he offered no vision for the future and mostly just praised Selig, who remains at the helm until next January.

As for that legacy that he is supposedly so worried about, Selig’s is complex at best. The Great Game is not known for changing rapidly, yet baseball looks very different from what it did 22 years ago when Selig led the putsch that drove Vincent from office. The wild card, interleague play, revenue sharing, and this year, limited use of instant replay, all are now part of the game. Overall revenue is strong, and attendance is at least steady. There has been extended labor peace, though credit for that should perhaps go jointly to the players’ association and Manfred, who has led negotiations for management. There is also a strong drug program in place, or as strong as one can probably be given constant advances in the design and difficulty of detecting performance enhancers.

Yet Selig’s tenure has not all gone so smoothly. The 1994 World Series was lost to a strike, and a chaotic 2002 All-Star Game was allowed to end in a tie. He led a ham-handed attempt at contraction after the 2001 season. Selig was also not above playing favorites. He happily led the charge against Frank McCourt for that buffoon’s treatment of the Los Angeles Dodgers as a personal piggy bank. But he took no similar action against his good friend Fred Wilpon, even as the Mets’ owner has turned a franchise in baseball’s biggest market into one that makes the Kansas City Royals look like big spenders.

Worst of all, before Selig the PEDS super cop there was Selig the PEDS enabler. As the leader of the game Selig led owners, players, the media and fans in a multi-year game of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” over steroids. A generation from now it will still not be clear whether S.E. is shorthand for the Selig or Steroids Era. Perhaps in truth the two will always be interchangeable. No matter the length of the suspension for Alex Rodriguez, one can never forget the sight of the commissioner of baseball, sitting slumped in a cloth raincoat, looking as joyful as a root canal patient as he watched Barry Bonds break Hank Aaron’s career home run record. Meanwhile stars and record-breakers of a decade or more will be denied admission to the Hall of Fame by suddenly righteous baseball writers, many of whom were quite willing to play along at the time, in a new era where mere suspicion is apparently the same as proof. It calls to mind the good old days of former leaders suddenly becoming non-persons in the old Soviet Union.

The legacy that Bud Selig apparently so cherishes is indeed complex. It is also, frankly, of very little concern to those of us in the stands. Once Rob Manfred takes office, we’d like to see him do what he can to continue the labor peace. We’d like to see a reversal in the steady decline of the number of African-Americans on the field. Growing up I read the box scores every day, and at the very bottom the length of the game was noted, as it is to this day. I can’t count the number of times the child that was me read 2:07. We’d like to see more 2:07s, and fewer 3:03s, the average and record-long game time this season through last Sunday.

Mostly, we’d like him to know that for all the doubters who are constantly predicting the Great Game’s demise, we know otherwise. One day after Rob Manfred was elected to be baseball’s next commissioner, small to mid-market teams in Kansas City, Oakland, Milwaukee, Seattle and Pittsburgh were in line to make up one-half of the squads making the playoffs. The famous franchises in Boston and the Bronx, and for that day at least Detroit, were on the outside looking in. That could change of course, there’s still six weeks to go. What cannot change is that the day after Manfred was elected, 13-year old Mo’Ne Davis pitched a two-hit shutout while striking out eight, to lead her team to victory in the first round of the Little League World Series. She’s the first girl to record a “W” at the LLWS, which is now in its 75th year and being broadcast on ESPN and ABC. It’s worth repeating to the doubters, we know otherwise.

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