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Bud Selig deserves credit but only so much

Posted: September 30, 2013 - 12:03am

It is entirely possible that we will soon have a Hall of Fame in which Bud Selig is in and Marvin Miller, Tommy John, Pete Rose and Barry Bonds are out.

Whether Selig’s plaque will have room for “canceled playoffs,” “replacement players” and “contraction” is not known.

Selig’s campaign managers point to the current fat years, in which baseball swims in so much luxury that the commish himself makes $18.4 million per year, which, among other things, means the Angels might sign him.

Major League Baseball revenue has rocketed to $7.5 billion and the average franchise is worth $744 million. Even the imprisoned Tampa Bay Rays are worth $451 million. They were bought for $130 million 18 years ago.

The torrents of cash from Baseball Advanced Media and the MLB Network continue to mock those who crowed that, in the mid-90s, baseball had become a niche sport for retirees who wear black socks.

Selig, who was a placeholder in the commissioner’s chair for six years before he became permanent, announced Thursday he would retire after next season.

One can at least say he had a Hall of Famer’s sense of scope.

He pushed for interleague play and began subtly erasing the lines between the leagues, a process that eventually will lead to sensible realignment.

He brought replay. He midwifed the World Baseball Classic, which might deaden American fans but is a huge deal when the Dominican Republic or Japan wins it.

He tried to make the All-Star Game meaningful after he sat mortified in Milwaukee, watching both leagues run out of pitchers in the tie game of 2002.

He sold revenue-sharing to his big-buck owners and, lo and behold, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Oakland are headed into the playoffs, and the Yankees, Angels and Cubs aren’t.

So, if you figure that an officious blowhard like Bowie Kuhn can get into Cooperstown, Selig should have a room named after him.

But everything is on the permanent record in baseball, and Selig’s early stumblings have outlasted the statute of limitations.

He found a way to make peace with Players Association leader Don Fehr, but it took a 1994 strike to do it. That strike was prompted by the owners’ and Selig’s, insistence on a salary cap, and free agent restrictions.

It kept Tony Gwynn from hitting .400 and kept Matt Williams from hitting 62 home runs and kept the Montreal Expos out of the World Series, dooming the franchise.

But even after the wipeout of the postseason, Selig schemed to play the 1995 season with replacements, such an outrage that even Michael Jordan refused to join in. Had Selig succeeded, Stan Musial would have been sharing space in the Baseball Encyclopedia with strike-breakers.

The only person who prevented it was Sonia Sotomayor, now a Supreme Court justice. As a judge in New York, she needed only 15 minutes to decide that the owners were out of line when they unilaterally did away with free agency. Her injunction, in late March, was upheld by an appeals court in time for baseball to play 144 games in 1995.

Selig is given credit for saving the game in the following years. It’s more accurate to say the game saved his hopes of being permanent commissioner.

Three things revived baseball: Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s streak, the Yankees became great again, and then came the McGwire-Sosa chemical home run romance. Selig watched all of that, just like we did.

Eventually the sides signed a Basic Agreement, which expired in 2002. At that point Selig came up with an even worse abomination than replacement players. He pushed for “contraction,” a plan that would have done away with the Expos and the Minnesota Twins, at the very least.

The Twins had won the 1987 and 1991 World Series and ranked first and fifth in AL attendance in 1988 and 1992. They drew 3 million in each of the first two years of Target Field, the palatial ballpark that will house the 2014 All-Star Game and would not exist if contraction had worked.

But Selig’s hard bargaining worked, to a point. Baseball gave up contraction to get increased revenue sharing, steroid testing and a luxury tax in 2002.

Incredibly, some owners still speak wistfully about contraction, and Selig’s rumblings about Tampa Bay’s poor attendance do not help.

As for Selig’s beloved drug policy, it again is playing catch-up to the oblivion that preceded it. It also would not be possible without the insistence of players who were tired of playing against human transformers.

Selig spent his second decade restoring the house that his first decade flattened. It worked out fine, thanks to the kindness of the forces around him, but Cooperstown only has room for one luckiest man on the face of the earth.

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