After over 20 years on the job, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig will step down Saturday, as his longtime right-hand man Rob Manfred takes over.
Selig leaves a complicated legacy. The game is as profitable as it has ever been. In 1995, MLB made $1.4 billion in gross revenue. That number has continued to steadily climb to the record $9 billion in gross revenue in 2014. Thanks to revenue sharing, there has been more parity in the league, with nine unique champions since 2000. The Wild Card has been a huge success since its inception in 1995, with five different teams winning the World Series as the wild card. Both the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals, the two teams in the World Series this past year, both won the wild card.
But his tenure is still shrouded by the cloud of the steroid era. Selig was slow to require drug testing, but he was hampered by a group of owners and players who were adamantly against it. It took Congress to force the issue. Fans and writers remain suspicious of almost anyone with a power bat or arm who excels at the game. But outside of the Olympics, many say Major League Baseball now has the best testing system in all of sports. Selig may have been too slow to change things, but eventually made the right choice when pushed.
Selig’s path to commissioner was nothing short of controversial. Back in September of 1992, Selig, then owner of his hometown Milwaukee Brewers, along with 17 other owners voted “no confidence” in then commissioner Fay Vincent, who was forced to resign due to the “no confidence” votes. Nine owners voted with Vincent. Selig and his fellow owners were angry with Vincent over his intervention in the 1990 lockout.
The seeds of the 1994 players strike were planted in that 1990 lockout. Some of the owners wanted to install a hard salary cap to help keep the small market teams afloat. MLB Players’ Association head Donald Fehr believed it was just a way for owners to impose some self-control, with no benefit to the players. The players went on strike on August 12th and the strike didn’t end until April 2nd of 1995 - the longest work stoppage in MLB history. Owners ultimately were found to have colluded on setting free agent salaries and mistrust of the owners continued and still does to this day.
Selig almost immediately installed the Wild Card, effective starting the 1994 season. But, because of the player’s strike it would not debut until 1995. Initially there was a huge backlash against it. Many traditionalists blasted the idea since it took away focus from the pennant races and instead make the true race be for second place in the division.
They weren’t wrong about the focus changing but since the start of the Wild Card, there have been five different teams to win the World Series from that spot, with the Florida Marlins winning it twice. In 2012, MLB added an extra wild card and a one and done play-in round between the two wild card winners to re-emphasize the importance of winning the division.
In July of 1998 Selig was elected to the position full-time, becoming the first owner to ever hold the position. Despite his protestations about being commissioner over his 20+year tenure, he has remained on the job ever since.
In 1999, Selig introduced revenue sharing as a means to even the playing field between teams. Once a team crosses a certain threshold in spending, they would pay a percentage in luxury taxes to MLB. Teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and other big spenders paid the other smaller market teams so they could use the monies to sign their own stars and pursue free agents. It took a while for the process to gain steady traction. The league almost eliminated both the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos back in 2002 because they were not competitive, but since then the league has flourished and the Expos became the Washington Nationals.
When players and owners finally agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 1995, fans were slow to come back. It wasn’t until 1998 that fans began flocking back, thanks to the home run race. But there was a price to pay for that race. Many players in the league, including those in the home run race, were using anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, and other performance enhancing drugs, and for the longest time the owners and the players’ union simply ignored the issue.
Home run kings like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez, and power pitchers like Roger Clemens and Éric Gagné, who were considered heroes of the game in the late 1990's and early 2000's, have now become cheats and villains in the eyes of many fans. It wasn’t until 2005 when Congress stepped in and reamed Selig and several big name players on live television that anything was done. From there, MLB’s drug testing has become one of the best in professional sports.
There are a bunch of little things that Selig has done that fall on either side. On the plus side there were two new franchises to come in to the league, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays (now Rays) that are thriving. Selig also installed an instant replay system to ensure the calls are either correct or are corrected, if a faulty call is made. Interleague play has been a big positive. Interleague games between natural rivals the New York Mets and New York Yankees or between the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles almost always sellout.
On the negative side, after the tie in the 2002 All-Star game, Selig stated there would be no more ties; that the game would matter. It would decide which league gets home field advantage in the World Series; meaning where Game 7 is played. The All-Star game is meant to be an exhibition, something played for fun. The decider should be which league has the better record in interleague play. Others have suggested that the best record between the two teams should get Game 7.
Selig and Friends
Another negative is Selig’s cronyism. Just this past week, Selig’s appointed replacement Rob Manfred just tapped New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon as Chairman of MLB’s Financial Committee. Wilpon, a longtime Selig ally, reportedly lost a whopping $700 million investing in the largest Ponzi scheme ever with Bernie Madoff. Wilpon’s team, the Mets has been strapped with massive debt as a result and has been paralyzed with payroll limitations.
Selig’s legacy is a complicated one. He has done many great things for the owners, and certainly the league has benefitted from the installation of the Wild Card and Revenue Sharing. But his inaction over steroids can’t be overlooked and remains a huge black mark on the MLB.
Could Selig have acted faster on eliminating steroids? If he did, would baseball have enjoyed the return to popularity it achieved via steroid-driven stats, and the prosperity that followed? Evaluating the Selig era is complicated, but Selig has left the game in a healthy state, and his tenure has been a net positive.