It's Time for Bud to Go

September 8 will mark the tenth anniversary of the owners' ouster of Commissioner Fay Vincent. They should mark the occasion by removing his successor.

Bud Selig came to power during a nasty dispute over revenue sharing that divided teams into large-market, middle-market and small-market camps. After reopening the collective bargaining agreement, the owners spent more than a year fighting one another before agreeing on a proposal to present to the players. At that time, Selig's skills as MLB's consummate insider proved crucial in holding the owners together...not that it ultimately did them any good.

But once a labor agreement was finally reached, Selig's usefulness was over. He should have been replaced by a real Commissioner, independent of any one club, who could have looked out for the best interests of the game as a whole. Although several such candidates were interviewed, the owners stuck with their Buddy.

That was a mistake. Selig's most valuable skills are working the phones and counting votes. These are the skills of a top aide -- the chief of staff or majority whip, not the CEO. While Selig can lead the owners, deciding where to lead them is a task best left to someone else.

Selig's preferred tactic is to blame all of MLB's real or imagined problems on everyone but his employers, the owners. That's great for job security, but does nothing to solve the problems. Some teams are perennial losers? That's because "small markets can't compete." Player salaries are rising too rapidly? That's not the fault of the owners who offered the contracts -- the players should have accepted artificial restraints on their salaries to save the owners from themselves. Owners want the revenues from a new ballpark without investing their own money? "Build us a new park or we'll disband your team."

Of course, as the long-time owner of a bad small-market team, Selig has a lot of experience making excuses and shifting blame. Selig and his family have run the Brewers since 1970. They haven't made the playoffs since 1982, and haven't had a winning record since 1992.

Although Milwaukee is MLB's smallest market, the Brewers' problems run far deeper than a lack of money. They've outspent the Expos in each of the past dozen years, yet over that period Montreal, the poster child for contraction, is 25 games better than the Commissioner's team. The Brewers' 2002 payroll is $10 million higher than the Twins' or Athletics', $5 million higher than the Reds', yet Milwaukee has the NL's worst record and their farm system is a shambles. If Selig won't take responsibility for his family's mismanagement of the Brewers, why should he admit, or even recognize, that he's floundering in a higher position?

Compounding the problem, Selig has consolidated MLB's power in his own office and packed that office with loyalists. He induced MLB President Paul Beeston, a moderate on labor issues who enjoyed the trust of the MLBPA, to resign, then replaced Beeston with his personal lawyer. Selig has expanded MLB's traditional gag rule on labor matters to prevent teams from discussing labor strategy with one another, under threat of a $1 million fine.

Unfortunately for Selig, sometimes he must emerge from this cocoon and interact with the real world. When he does, the experience is usually unpleasant for all concerned, because Selig whines. He whines to Congress about the money MLB is supposedly losing. He whines to state legislators that they need to subsidize their local teams with new stadiums. He whines endlessly to the press and public about baseball's problems.

In fact, MLB's gross revenues have doubled in the past five years. Its network and cable TV contracts are more valuable than ever. Even the labor battle is being fought on the owners' terms, with the only issue being how many concessions the players will make. Any normal CEO would celebrate these accomplishments, but Selig virtually ignores them to dwell, loudly and publicly, on what might go wrong.

What other business would allow, let alone encourage, its chief executive and most visible spokesman to disparage its product with remarks like "At the start of spring training, there no longer exists hope and faith for the fans of more than half of our 30 clubs”?

When Michael Jordan's Bulls went 141-23 over two seasons en route to six NBA titles in eight years, the NBA built its marketing campaign around Jordan. When the Yankees won three World Series in a row, Selig told fans their teams could never compete with the Yankees. His incessant negativism can only depress attendance in the very markets Selig claims to be trying to help.

The least Selig can do is to shut up and stop whining. The most he can do is to resign in favor of a knowledgeable outsider, and insist that this outsider be given the necessary authority to solve anything the owners themselves describe as a problem. But since mortality tables suggest that the 67-year-old Selig is likely to live another 15 years, don't expect a new Commissioner much before 2017. Like Selig, his fellow owners would rather wallow in self-pity than correct their mistakes.

Copyright © 2002 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the July 2002 issue of Boston Baseball.

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