Selig a great Commissioner, an even better man
By Richard Justice 9/26/2013 3:00 P.M. ET
Bud Selig's legacy is about as uncomplicated as it gets. He's the best Commissioner baseball has ever had. Is that uncomplicated enough?
All the good things that have happened to baseball the past 21 years have been a byproduct of Selig's leadership, persistence and vision. To plenty of owners, players, etc., it's difficult to comprehend the sport without him.
That's what A's owner Lew Wolff had in mind a couple of years ago when he sent Selig the following e-mail: "You will not retire until I expire."
Selig announced Thursday that he will leave the job when his term expires in January, 2015. He has flirted with retirement before, but has never been so definitive in his statements about leaving.
He said the time has come to get on with the next chapter of his life, that is, writing and teaching, and to take a deep breath or two. He assumed the sport's top job in 1992 at a time when teams were drowning in red ink, and players and owners were constantly fighting.
Twenty-one years later, baseball has been transformed by labor peace, revenue sharing, drug testing, competitive balance, affirmative action, new ballparks, expanded playoffs, television coverage and a little Internet startup, Major League Baseball Advanced Media, that has become one of the most remarkable success stories in the history of American business.
Selig's fingerprints are on every single one of those accomplishments. He wanted a sport that embraced and honored its past, but was not limited by it. His management style is to hire smart people and give them the resources and freedom to do their jobs.
He's also a master lobbyist. When he wanted something done, he worked the telephones tirelessly to cajole, persuade, and if necessary, find a middle ground that was acceptable to all -- or almost all -- 30 owners. As former Astros owner Drayton McLane once said, "I've voted for things I was against because the Commissioner wanted it so badly. You didn't want to disappoint him. And at times, he saw things in a way the rest of us couldn't. That's one of the definitions of leadership, isn't it?"
Even the things Selig has been most criticized for -- cancellation of the 1994 World Series and recognizing baseball had a problem with performance-enhancing drugs -- have become two of his hallmarks.
Baseball has had 18 years of uninterrupted labor peace as players and owners have learned that great things can happen when they work together. This change happened, in part, because Selig convinced the owners to speak with one voice and to be resolute in growing the game while being fair to both sides.
Likewise, baseball has the crown jewel of drug-testing programs. It has been tweaked and toughened through the years, but it's the program every other is compared again. While other sports drag their feet on things like blood testing for human growth hormone, baseball has moved full speed ahead, players and owners in agreement.
Beyond the bottom line -- and the bottom line with its eight-fold increase in revenues since 1992 is dazzling -- there is an essential decency about the man, an everyman quality that makes him virtually impossible to dislike.
And every owner, player, business partner and reporter knows that his first priority in every decision is to do what he believed best for the sport.
When someone asked him recently if it would be awkward to perhaps have Alex Rodriguez participating in a postseason series while baseball was trying to suspend him, Selig answered quickly.
"I'm comfortable with doing the right thing," he said, "and we did the right thing."
He gave baseball a human face in a way few other Commissioners ever have. He decided that baseball must honor Jackie Robinson every year. By doing this, plenty of players and owners who might have known of the man only as some abstract figure came to understand him and his contributions, not just to baseball, but to the Civil Rights movement in this country.
Once, many years ago, Selig met Dixie Walker, a former Dodger who'd resisted playing with Robinson. It was as if he'd waited his entire life to have this conversation.
"How do you feel now about the way you treated Jackie back then?" Selig asked.
Walker seemed taken aback by the bluntness of the question.
"I made it right with Jackie before he died," Walker said.
Hank Aaron was the only player Selig ever acquired on his own while he owned the Brewers. That was in November, 1974, because Selig wanted baseball's home-run king to return to Milwaukee for the final chapter of his career.
They became fast friends, and through the years, there have been days when Aaron, reflecting on the racism and stress he endured while pursuing Babe Ruth's record, needed someone to talk to. Selig became more than Aaron's boss and his friend. He became his confidant and sounding board.
Long before the NFL's Rooney Rule, Selig ordered teams to include minority candidates in its interview process.
"Why keep recycling these same guys?" he asked one general manager. "There are other candidates out there."
Baseball under Selig has gotten consistently high marks for its hiring of women and minorities in its executive offices. This effort begins with the man in charge, with his belief in trying to do the right thing.
Two years ago, during a visit to his Milwaukee office, he handed me a folder.
"Read this essay," he said.
It was by Meggie Zahneis, the winner of baseball's 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest. In it, she articulately and poignantly compared her own struggle to overcome physical problems with Jackie Robinson's fight against racism.
When I finished reading, he began to talk about Meggie and about the essay and how he'd been moved by it. Tears welled in his eyes as he spoke of meeting Meggie at the World Series and of being captivated by her energy and spirit.
He decided Meggie should be part of baseball's family, that her ideals and values were the same ones he wanted for the sport. That's why she's our youth reporter at MLB.com.
To some of us, Selig's personality, his sense of humor and accessibility, will outweigh every other accomplishment. To know him is to like him.
When I began covering the Orioles in 1983, I knew what to expect on every trip to Milwaukee. Somewhere around the third inning, the team's owner -- that would be Selig -- would sweep into the press box to make small talk with every single person he encountered.
Mainly, though, he was there to check out how many local reporters were at the game. He literally would count. Once when a Milwaukee columnist named Bud Lea hadn't been at County Stadium for a few games, Selig saw he'd returned and pretended to be shocked.
"Buddy!" he said loudly.
Lea looked over his shoulder and smiled.
"What brings you out, Buddy?" he asked. "Did the Packers cancel one of their 20 minicamps."
With that, the press box roared with laughter. That incident led me to believe Selig didn't like the Packers, that he might have seen them as his competition for sports fans in Wisconsin.
Later, I found out Selig himself was among the biggest Packers fans on the planet. A couple of years ago during a visit to his second home in Scottsdale, he couldn't get a Packers playoff game on his condo's television.
So he looked up a local sports bar that had it and drove to the place and found himself a good seat. There while having a Cobb Salad and a few Diet Cokes, he held court with dozens of fans and cheered for the Packers.
"I had so much fun I may go back," he said.
As he prepares to leave the sport he transformed, that single image of Bud Selig, this good man, this smart, funny man who remade a sport, is the one that will endure.