Bud Selig, The Commissioner Who Didn't Matter

There is a popular line of thinking among statistically minded baseball fans that declares the manager more or less irrelevant. In the course of 162 games, over tens of thousands of pitches, the impact of his strategic decision making is statistically negligible compared to the inherent quality of his players and luck. Managers and coaches may alter a player's performance by instructing or motivating him particularly well or badly, but the effect is impossible to quantify. Miguel Cabrera would probably still be the best hitter in the world if his manager was Benjamin Netanyahu; the Houston Astros would probably still lose a hundred games if John McGraw was reincarnated to manage them.

In other words, the players play the game. They determine its content. The owners run the game. They determine its form. And just as a manager's performance is ultimately judged by factors out of his control, a commissioner's performance is ultimately determined by interests greater than his own. Which brings us to Bud Selig, the arch-commissioner who will—he swears—be stepping down in January 2015. This World Series feels like the unofficial start of his valedictory tour; it's time to consider his legacy.

For the last two decades, Selig has been less a dictatorial overlord than a steward whose job has been to guide the functioning, faux-competitive monopoly of Major League Baseball with an even, unobtrusive hand. When you look at his tenure this way, you begin to notice not just that it has been enormously successful for the people he serves—the owners of baseball teams—but that his great achievements have an air of passive inevitability. Like a manager with a steady grip on his team, Selig's style has been to let the game grow without fucking anything up too badly.

When Selig began as acting commissioner in 1992, he was still an owner himself. He had become one in 1970 by orchestrating the move of the bankrupt Seattle Pilots to Milwaukee just one year after the team's expansion. He was among the owners charged with collusion in the 1980s, and in the aftermath of that debacle, ousted his predecessor, Fay Vincent. (Commissioner Vincent was seen as mildly unfriendly to the interests of the faux-competitive ownership club.) In 1998, Selig dropped the "acting" from his title and just became commissioner. He unburdened himself of any conflict-of-interest accusations by selling the Brewers to his daughter—a move displaying the usual Seligian probity and rectitude.

If Selig has done one thing right over his 21 years at the game's helm, it has been the implementation of MLB.tv., the subscription service that allows baseball fans access—subject to regional and postseason blackout—to excellent quality broadcasts of every game of the season, live or after the fact, even allowing them to choose which local broadcast they prefer. The service is imperfect, and not especially cheap, but it is a triumph, far superior to any option offered by the NBA, NFL, NHL, or MLS.

For example, on the final day of this year's baseball season, I watched Miami Marlins pitcher Henderson Álvarez throw one of the most unusual no-hitters in history. The game was a scoreless tie going into the bottom of the ninth, and Álvarez had already thrown nine no-hit innings. Then, with two outs and the bases loaded, he found himself waiting in the on-deck circle as his Marlins scored an improbable winning run. A no-hitter sealed on a walk-off wild pitch—and I got to watch the whole thing in high definition from my apartment in Mexico City.

Selig's other great triumph has been the addition of the wild card, and the lucrative extra round of playoffs that came with it. The wild card—jury being very much still out on the recently added second wild card and ensuing play-in game—has led to more playoff baseball and more exciting races, and also mitigated the occasionally unfair regional imbalances of the divisional system. The 2004 postseason may have turned Boston Red Sox fans into insufferable monsters, but few fans outside of New York would give back the thrill of watching David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez lead that comeback against the Yankees. We have the wild card to thank.

MLB.tv and the wild-card system, between them, provide enough material to allow the wistful elegist to build out a story about the forward-thinking man who led baseball out of darkness and into a new century. In truth, though, Selig's baseball—the baseball we currently enjoy—is a product of the times, of the market, of systematic biases. It has little to do with Selig himself.

The great invisible success of the era has been the sustained playing of baseball. In the 20 years since the 1994 player strike interrupted Tony Gwynn's run at .400 and derailed the Montreal Expos' inevitable march to what would have been their first and only World Series, baseball hasn't suffered a single canceled game. Hockey, meanwhile, lost a whole season plus parts of another, while the NBA has scratched parts of two seasons, and the NFL took things to the brink.

That Selig has (at least since he canceled a World Series) presided over fairly peaceful labor negotiations doesn't mean this is his doing, though. It has more to do with Marvin Miller, Donald Fehr, and the strength of the Major League Baseball Players Association, and with the fact that decades after the onset of free agency, a younger generation of owners with no memory of the days when players were utterly at their mercy, and no illusions about returning to those days, has come to power. (Think of the 1994 strike as a delayed reaction to the Selig-led collusion of the 1980s, and the final, necessary spasm of labor unrest that began with the introduction of free agency in 1975.) The fanciful notion of the salary cap has been abandoned in favor of the more moderate luxury tax; a new collective bargaining negotiation is no longer seen as an opportunity to screw over the players.

While its labor stability is unusual, baseball has come increasingly to resemble the other major American sports, structurally and otherwise. The Selig era coincides roughly with the David Stern era in basketball (1984-2014), the Paul Tagliabue era in football (1989-2006), and the Gary Bettman era in hockey (1993-apocalypse). These were the commissioners who were in charge as the United States was wired first for cable and then for the Internet, and perhaps not coincidentally they were the ones who saw American sports become engines of unimaginable profit.

Under Selig, baseball has been diluted and homogenized at the behest of those profits. Rapid expansion, the onset of interleague play, weird alternative uniforms, and the widening postseason pool have all made baseball less like itself, and more like other sports, with the introduction of gimmicks—the second wild card, home-field advantage in the World Series being determined by the All-Star Game, etc.—robbing the game of some of its smug, staid superiority. You could say that baseball is becoming more conscientiously modern. It still leans on George Will-style traditionalism, but mainly as a means of branding, a veneer covering the way the sport has been turned over to the market. Baseball's steroid era was also its retro-ballpark era.

All of this makes the drug scandals that have blighted Selig's tenure seem, in retrospect, not only inevitable, but a perfect expression of his management style. Many have argued that the league was too slow to face down the MLBPA and create a testing program; others have argued that baseball has been overzealous in its attempts to rid the game of drugs. Neither argument has much to do with what actually went on.

Selig's actual policy on steroids was, for a long time, to let capitalism do its work, enjoying all the many benefits of the incredible popularity that Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, record-breaking seasons, and increased offense brought to baseball. When public opinion shifted, the policy was to look concerned, and to wield traditionalism in service of "integrity." Selig rode the wave and then took credit for its inevitable break, playing a passive masterpiece on steroids and allowing him to give the public the kind of game it wanted, according to its whims. Baseball is bigger than its players. If Alex Rodriguez or Ryan Braun or a measly Rafael Palmeiro needs to be squashed for the sake of business, so be it. Many stars have fallen before them.

And this is Selig's legacy: the successful maneuvering of circumstances and systems greater than himself. His mission—like that of his fellow commissioners—was simply to maintain the blissful profitability all but guaranteed by baseball's longstanding antitrust exemption. It may not have been an ethical mission to begin with, and may not have been a particularly difficult one considering the innate profitability of major professional sports in America, but it is hard to see Selig as having been anything but successful in carrying the mission out. (If you're a baseball fan in Montreal, or a taxpayer in Miami, you might say he has been devastatingly successful.)

But consider whether the blame belongs to Selig himself, or whether baseball would have evolved the way it has—steroids, Jeffrey Loria, postseason commercials starring bad comedians, games broadcast online all over the world and all—regardless of the name of the owners' servant at the helm. Then consider whether Bud Selig has anything to do with the continued eloquence of Vin Scully, or the absurd postseason heroics of Carlos Beltran. The owners determine the form. The players determine the content. Everybody counts from the same giant pile of money.



Eric Nusbaum lives in Mexico City. He is a co-founder of The Classical and his work has appeared in Deadspin, Slate, Outside, The Daily Beast, and The Best American Sports Writing. You can reach him on Twitter @ericnus.