Selig and the Limits of Consensus

Bud Selig's qualifications to serve as Commissioner begin -- and probably end -- with his fellow owners' insistence that "he's a consensus builder." Selig defuses conflict among the 30 owners by deferring action on controversial issues until they can find common ground.

This works fine on the smaller issues. Unlike predecessors Fay Vincent and Bowie Kuhn, Selig's term hasn't been marred by endless sniping attributed to "an unnamed owner" in the pages of the Globe or New York Times. But on the bigger, high-stakes issues which can't be finessed, Selig's style causes serious problems.

The limitations of Selig's approach became clear soon after he was named Acting Commissioner in 1992. The following winter, large-market and small-market owners faced off over the issue of revenue sharing. Although Selig's Milwaukee Brewers are a quintessential small-market team, he allowed the debate to rage unabated for more than a year until the owners agreed among themselves on a compromise: large-market clubs would accept revenue sharing, so long as the money ultimately came out of the players' pockets through artificial restrictions on salaries. When the players had other ideas, the ruinous 1994-95 strike ensued.

The owners ultimately accepted revenue sharing without significant checks on salaries -- and without the mandatory minimum team payrolls which had been part of the original scheme. As a result, when George Steinbrenner and Peter Angelos wrote revenue-sharing checks to the Twins and Expos, their owners simply pocketed the money rather than use it for the intended purpose of improving the team.

Selig's latest problem involves the schedule. Everyone agrees it's a disaster. By the end of June, the Sox had already completed their season series with Toronto and made their last scheduled visit to Yankee Stadium. So much for any hope of late-season showdowns for the pennant. Everyone even agrees on a solution: unbalance the schedule to give teams more games against their divisional rivals. But since 100% of the owners can't agree on the same way to implement this solution, the problem drags on for years.

This particular mess began when the leagues realigned from two divisions to three in 1994. The process went smoothly in the NL, but because the American League has only three teams west of the Central Time Zone, the Texas Rangers were exiled, kicking and screaming, into the AL West. They've been agitating for realignment ever since.

Adding Tampa Bay and Arizona should have solved this problem, since Arizona was a natural geographic fit for the AL West. But Arizona demanded a National League team, and the other owners foolishly assented. They reserved the right to move Arizona without its consent, so long as they did so prior to the 2001 season. After next year, the Diamondbacks will have the same right as every other team to block any move it doesn't like.

MLB's Schedule Committee, headed by one John Harrington, is trying to untangle this web. The Selig/Harrington plan calls for moving Arizona to the AL West, reassigning Tampa Bay to the NL, and shifting the Texas Rangers to the AL Central. But this would create still more problems. The AL would feature four-team Eastern and Western divisions and a six-team Central division, whose teams would have a much harder time qualifying for the playoffs.

The NL would be totally reconstituted. Its sixteen clubs would be split into four divisions, with no wild-card. The revised NL East would consist of Montreal, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, along with a Southeast division of Atlanta, Florida, Houston and Tampa Bay, a Midwest division of Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and St. Louis, and a Western division of Colorado, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.

Under the Selig/Harrington plan, an NL club would have to beat its three divisional rivals to make the playoffs. An AL East or AL West club would have to beat three divisional rivals or finish with the best second-place record. An AL Central club would have to beat five divisional rivals or finish with the best second-place record.

AL Central teams rebelled. After calling an owners' meeting for late June to ratify this proposal, Selig had to cancel it when he realized he didn't have the votes. Some owners even hinted that they preferred the Players' Association counterproposal: move Houston from the NL Central to the AL West, thereby creating two 15-club leagues with five-team divisions. Each club would have an equal shot at the playoffs. But Houston doesn't want to move, and others object to 15-club leagues in principle because they would mean at least one interleague game every day.

Meanwhile, the 2001 schedule sits in limbo. Teams don't know what division they'll be in, let alone whether next year's schedule will be balanced or unbalanced. At times like this, MLB needs someone who'll bang heads until someone gives in. Instead it has Consensus Builder Bud -- and that's not good enough.

Copyright © 2000 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the July 2000 issue of Boston Baseball.

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