There was that moment during Tuesday’s All-Star Game when the reporter had to trudge up to where the commissioner was sitting and conduct the obligatory interview to mark the final time Bud Selig presided over what Major League Baseball still laughingly refers to as the Midsummer Classic.
Let me say right here that with each of these milestones — the last time Bud oversees a World Series, the last time he throws out a pitch, the final time he congratulates himself at an owners’ meeting — there is reason for celebration. We are finally, finally, getting to the end of the line with a guy who has been good for all the things that won’t last forever, and terrible in his stewardship of the game, which is supposedly the primary concern of a baseball commissioner.
The reporter finally got around to asking if Selig would have done anything differently in the 22 years he has served as interim commissioner and, since 1998, as commissioner. Unsurprisingly, Bud couldn’t come up with anything.
If there was irony that the commissioner was so stunningly satisfied with himself at the All-Star Game — which has nearly disappeared from the national consciousness during his term — it was, as so many things are, lost on Selig.
Viewership for the All-Star Game is almost exactly half what it was when Selig and his executive council cabal forced the resignation of Fay Vincent in 1992. It has gone from 22 million to 11 million over that time, a drop that has more to do with Selig’s fondness for gimmicks than with the general decline in network ratings. The NFL’s Pro Bowl even has better ratings than the All-Star Game.
What made the All-Star Game special, when it was still special, was the uniqueness of the meeting between the two leagues. Aside from the World Series itself, it was the only time players from the National League and American League were on the field together. It was different, it was enticing.
Selig pretty much killed that with the implementation of interleague play in 1997. It was in keeping with his general homogenization of the game, a trend that has removed much of its flavor. He did away with the separate league offices — which dated back to the game’s infancy — combined the umpiring staffs and smoothed out all the little wrinkles that gave baseball some of its quirky character.
For a very short while, interleague play was a novelty, but that has long since worn off. Teams play a total of 20 interleague games this season and, by its very nature, interleague play ensures that some teams will always have an easier schedule than others. Major League Baseball chooses to ignore this basic inequity, which, characteristic of Selig’s reign, places a premium on appearance rather than reality.
Trying to fix the declining interest in what is essentially an exhibition game, Selig decided that the winner of the All-Star Game would have home field advantage for the World Series and that nonsense has been in effect for the past decade. Never mind that All-Star managers can’t run the game that way, and never mind that a retiring legend like Derek Jeter might be served up a popsicle pitch from an opposing pitcher as was the case on Tuesday. It’s a gimmick, so Selig grabbed for it.
Selig’s supporters — which mostly include the owners who have gotten rich — are more likely to point out the game’s financial health, which is impressive at the moment. There is now a revenue-sharing system to help smaller-market teams, and that glosses over the fact that baseball has never had the courage to negotiate what it really needs, a hard salary cap that will provide more than just the appearance of parity. As baseball’s fans age rapidly, as the price of tickets threatens to eliminate the average family, as the pace of the damn game slows to a crawl, the financial future isn’t as secure. Baseball has just kicked the can down the road rather than address those issues.
What Selig will be most remembered for accomplishing in his labor negotiations is the cancellation of the 1994 World Series and a failure to achieve meaningful drug testing until the most sacred records of the game had been laid to ruin. That last part is the sorest of points with Selig, who still insists baseball was not slow to act once it realized there was a problem. This is nonsense, of course, and history will report that baseball’s steward willfully ignored the inflation of the game’s figurative biceps because business was suddenly very good again.
Before history gets its whack at him, Selig will get his farewell tour and he will probably get to choose his successor, although no mechanism for how that will take place has been announced. The new guy will be called the commissioner, too, but Vincent was really the last commissioner, the last in a line that began with Judge Landis.
You expect the commissioners in other sports to be servants of ownership, but baseball was always a little different. The commissioner could disagree and make his rulings and stand for something that was in the best interest of the game, even if it didn’t bring an immediate dividend.
Baseball isn’t different any more, just as the All-Star Game isn’t special. If you want to know the true legacy of Bud Selig, it is that he took the national game and made it like all the others.