clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Seligulus Rex? Or A. "Bud" Selig, CEO?

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

"Andy, it's Bud Selig," Andrew Zimbalist recounts in his new book, In the Best Interests of Baseball? The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig. "I want to tell you right at the outset that I am not nearly as villainous as you think I am."

This quotation, which appears in Mr. Zimbalist's preface, obviously provides for an early laugh. As I read the manuscript provided by his editor at Wiley & Sons, however, I came to see the quote provides the perfect context for what I believe to be the fullest review and characterization of Selig yet penned. To put it another way, during the first few moments of a recent telephone interview with the Smith College economics professor, prolific author, and sports business expert, I asked a sarcastically-tinged question concerning whether Selig's handling of the Expos/Nationals franchise---from a $120 million purchase price to a prospective $450 million sale price---was "in the best interests of baseball." Zimbalist seemed to chuckle for a brief moment and responded, "I assume you want something more than a sarcastic answer." Naturally, I took him up on the offer. Similarly, Zimbalist's work provides far more than the typical fare concerning Selig: sarcasm, anger, boiled over yet simplified historical fact, bereft of context. Indeed, In the Best Interests of Baseball offers far more than that; the discerning and inquisitive reader of baseball titles, especially during this ritualistic time of "spring reading," would be well-served accepting the offer.

Zimbalist's book is a story of governance. To a large degree, this story commences in medias res, with a review of the manner fellow sports commissioners responded to the Supreme Court's 1957 decision in Radovich v. NFL, in which the high court held professional football was subject to federal antitrust law; in so doing, the Radovich court noted as dictum that baseball's exemption from the same (established by a 1922 opinion---and namesake of this blog---holding professional baseball did not classify as interstate trade, leaving Congress powerless to regulate it) was "unreasonable, illogical and inconsistent." For instance, the NFL's commissioner, Bert Bell, averred that an antitrust exemption was necessary to support the commissioner. As Zimbalist recounts, Organized Baseball "stood this argument . . . on its head, telling Congress that the commissioner with his plenary powers looked out for the best interests of fans and assured that monopoly abuses would not occur." Consequently, "the commissioner became an argument to support baseball's exemption."

The rest (and, as the reader shall see, the preceding) was history---and, Zimbalist contends, Selig's coronation to the commissioner's post rendered it history.

It is at this point that Zimbalist's response to my sarcastic question and Zimbalist's very thesis merge: "You must look back to the 'best interests' clause," he advised me. This clause provides a frame for a discussion of the historical role of the commissioner and for a review of Selig's stewardship of the game. "Before Selig," Zimbalist continued in our interview, "there existed the concept of the 'mythic commissioner,' all-powerful." With Selig's arrival (on a six-year interim basis) in 1992, a drastic change occurred: instead of a 'mythic commissioner,' MLB had a CEO. In his book, the author demonstrates that this was a fitting and overdue adjustment. Indeed, in a recent interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Zimbalist rated Selig as baseball's best commissioner, commenting that Selig had "moved the game forward."

In essence, Zimbalist provides the story of why the sport needed this change and the manner in which Selig has effected the change, warts and all. By the end of the story, Zimbalist has thoroughly demonstrated that the "commissioner-mythology defense" for the antitrust exemption became archaic---or even, given the attitude with which Congress regards it and with other sports providing a template, alternatively secure or unnecessary. Instead, Selig provided a new paradigm and needed revolution:

Thus, even though there were potential conflicts of interest in having a fellow owner as commissioner, the far more important development was that baseball had finally taken a decisive step toward undoing the ambiguity and the stultifying effects of its governance structure. The owners deserved the right to plot their own course and to have continuity in leadership. They finally buried their mythology of the commissionership and implicitly declared baseball is a business, just like football and basketball, and, henceforth, will act as one.

Selig, despite his shortcomings, was the right person to shepherd this transformation. He had committed his life to the game. He was able to talk and listen to all the owners. He had the uncanny ability of being able to convince just about anyone that he was on their side. He was, in short, able to begin to bring the owners together as partners in a way that had never been done before in baseball.

This is not to suggest that Zimbalist, commonly considered a critic of Selig, presents an artificially sympathetic portrait of the present commissioner, nor a particularly ethical or decent one. To be sure, Zimbalist is sympathetic on some issues---for instance, steroids, concerning which he concurs in Selig's defense that "from 1998 on, . . . baseball has come a long way" on the issue:

In this evolving and confused environment, Selig and MLB proceeded ahead to learn what they could and to move policy forward given the political constraints. Before the mid-1990s, the substances of choice in the clubhouse were amphetamines and recreational drugs. The prevailing view was that top offensive performance in baseball demanded quick reflexes, good eye-hand coordination, quick feet, flexibility and strong risks---not bulky muscles.

. . . But as baseball became more aware of this as a growing issue, the commissioner's office did, in fact, act [including commissioning research into androstenedione that produced "a seminal study on the substance and was subsequently published in a leading medical journal" and early testing regimes that yielded more probing and punitive regimes]. . . .

It would be easy to go back and identify instances when Major League Baseball might have gotten the message sooner. It would be equally easy to argue that baseball might have acted more quickly or punitively. It is a safe bet that today Selig and others wish they had done more earlier. But it is also proper to remember that baseball was hampered by the confidentiality of doctor-patient relationships, the sanctity of the clubhouse culture and union concerns about Fourth Amendment privacy rights.

As noted, though, Zimbalist provides a full portrait of Selig's stewardship to the game, and not all of Zimbalist's impressions are as conciliatory. Notably, as revealed in his book and reinforced in our telephone interview, his regard for MLB's handling of the Montreal Expos serves as an example. "Montreal was a successful market," Zimbalist told me. In particular, he recalled that the Expos, directly preceding the 1994 strike, were a successful franchise---sporting a 74-40 record and, as the Retrosheet game logs demonstrate, steadily escalating home attendance figures up to the strike date of August 12. Instead, in the wake of the strike and its subsequent resolution, "Montreal was neglected . . . it was given short shrift." When, in October 1998, Quebec's premier, Lucien Bouchard, informed Selig, "We will not make the [public] funds [for a new ballpark] available," owner Claude Brochu looked to move the franchise and/or sell it. Zimbalist writes that Brochu talked to potential buyers in the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia, and Portland (sound familiar?), but "Selig stood in his way and counseled patience." Brochu then sold the franchise to Jeffrey Loria, ertswhile art dealer and future owner of the world champion Florida Marlins.

To mix some metaphors, Loria provided a lot of sound and fury but was essentially a do-nothing with the Expos. At the most critical point of the franchise's history, "[t]his team needed to be coddled," Zimbalist told me. But Loria "made no investment" in the Expos. He was an absentee owner, Zimbalist writes, entrusted the team's operations to his step-son, David Samson, a/k/a "Little Napoleon." Loria pledged money to a new park but never delivered, instead making a cash call to his fellow owners. These fellow owners offered to buy him out, but he refused and made more cash calls. His ownership share of the franchise increased. Like Brochu, Loria was not enabled to move the team, and as rumors of contraction approached a seeming reality, Loria threatened an antitrust action. MLB responded by doing one of the things it has historically done best: lobbying.

When contraction was thwarted (not in Washington, but in Minnesota), Selig effected what Zimbalist characterized in our interview a "triangulation"---a perverse sort of three-team-trade involving the ownership stakes of the Expos, Marlins, and Red Sox---and, as well-told story goes, the sequence of events that transformed Montreal's Expos into "our Nats" began to unfold. With MLB now in control of the team, DC was just as attractive as before but not subject to an encumberance created by . . . well, MLB itself:

First Brochu and then Jeffrey Loria had been interested in moving the Expos to Washington, DC. Who wouldn't? It is the country's eighth largest media market, fifth largest host to large corporations and the nation's capital. The latter afforded any DC team the golden opportunity to cater practically daily political fundraisers at its stadium. The antitrust exemption, though, would help baseball thwart any relocation attempt by Brochu and Loria.

Obviously not by Selig himself, though. And so, after three league-run seasons playing out the string in Montreal---two of which were winning campaigns; how quickly we forget---Selig and his gang moved the team to DC, positioning themselves to reap the aforementioned leap from 120 to 450. Best interests of baseball, indeed, but as Zimbalist demonstrates, there is a deeper story to how we reached that point, one that fits his thesis.  Zimbalist tracks the evolution of Selig's relationship with Baltimore Orioles' owner Peter Angelos; Selig courted Angelos' attention and interest, earning Angelos' respect and appreciation---and within a decade, Angelos had gone from an opponent of Selig's revenue sharing plans to a member of the negotiating committee for the 2002 Collective Bargaining Agreement, which ushered in advances in revenue sharing. When Angelos again threatened to rebel, this time over baseball in DC, Selig again sought to reach an understanding with Angelos.

In the meantime, through sheer luck or master negotiation skills, Selig dealt with Mayor Baseball, Anthony Williams, in short order. "I don't know Williams," Zimbalist told me. Nevertheless, his appraisal of Williams' performance was frank: "Williams blew it," Zimbalist remarked, noting that public funding for baseball stadia had been trending downward. In another sense, Williams almost did blow it, presenting an "offer [that] was almost too good," as Zimbalist writes in his book. This observation was made in light of the Linda Cropp-inspired drama of late 2004 but seems just as applicable to events that occurred after Zimbalist's book went to the printer's, including a seemingly spineless relationship with MLB's negotiators with respect to cost overruns and an apparent inability to market the deal effectively even to eventually-supportive DC Council members. There is a reason why Williams has quipped that "the only thing everybody agrees on is they don't like me."

That said, I was interested to get Zimbalist's impression of the DC ballpark deal, mindful of the skepticism with which sports economists and academics tend to view publicly-funded stadia. I was particularly interested in hearing his thoughts on a common contention that, given the unique political and geographical arrangement of the DC metro area, this situation is an exception to what is known as "the substitution effect." As Zimbalist wrote in a previous book, May the Best Team Win:

The vast majority of consumers has a largely inflexible leisure budget. If a sports team moves to town, the money one spends taking the family to a game typically is money that is not spent at a local bowling alley, golf course, restaurant, concert hall, or theater. The net effect on spending in the metropolitan area then is zero, or very close to zero. Although sports teams may relocate the spending and economic activity within an urban area, they are not likely to add much to it.

Zimbalist, as you might expect and appreciate, sounded respectful and protective of economic terms of art during our conversation. Thus, he stressed being quite precise in advising me that it is "economically imprudent to expect a positive effect" from a new ballpark and that indeed there is in general "no statistically significant positive effect" from the construction of one economically. He noted that there may be other justifications for building a ballpark, and he added that he had not studied the issue with respect to Washington's stadium deal specifically. But he seemed skeptical of sufficient anecdotal-type claims that "I wouldn't spend a dime in the District but for the ballpark" to anticipate a statistically significant positive economic effect from the park.

Perhaps the most fascinating DC-related insight contained in In the Best Interests of Baseball? relates to Selig's handling of the negotiation with Angelos over television rights for the Nationals. Zimbalist presents compelling justifications for Selig to take a hard-line approach---in fact, justifications not to negotiate at all: 1) MLB's Constitution did not guarantee Angelos the television rights to any specific area in perpetuity, and 2) negotiating and subsequently acquiescing to Angelos would set a precedent for future negotiations between teams in the same market or closely-situated markets. Nonetheless, Selig did negotiate with Angelos and eventually agreed to terms favorable to the latter. Why? Zimbalist offers two rationales. First, MLB was afraid of what the discovery phase of a lawsuit would reveal. Second, and "[p]erhaps even more important to Selig," Zimbalist states, the commissioner sought not to threaten "the tenuous, inchoate partnership that [he had] been able to forge" during his three-plus decades in baseball. To that end, Selig expressed his rationale for not playing hard-ball with Angelos in an interview with Zimbalist:

But I think that we are partners off the field and I do think that in unusual circumstances where it becomes obvious there will be some economic damage that we ought to think about something that at least is fair. . . . [T]hat's my philosophy, and it's just as simple as that. And I've told Peter Angelos that, over and over again. There are some commissioners, I'm sure, who would just say, "Hey, listen, tough luck, but Washington's not part of your territory and you've got to go do what you have to do but . . . " If we're going to avoid the owners' wars of [past decades], for good or bad, I'm a little reluctant to say this but I'm going to say it anyways: I think these people all, at every level, trust me because they know in the end I'm going to bend over to be fair. And I do."

Zimbalist remarked to me that this episode was representative of Selig's tendency to be "too conscious of making deals." Because of this tendency, MLB "gave away more than it had to" in the deal with Angelos; however, Zimbalist writes that the deal was "not a giveaway." He laughed at my characterization of Selig's "Solomonic concern." (This result stands in stark contrast to an acrimonious 1993 owners' meeting in Kohler, Wisconsin, presided by Selig early in his tenure as commissioner and that has clearly affected Selig---the meeting is referenced several times in the book, invariably as an example of the type of owner disunity Selig strives to avoid.)

In general, Zimbalist told me that he finds Selig is "able and intellectually capable" for the commissioner's role even if he doesn't "always agree with [Selig's] choices." Interestingly, he told me that he "thinks highly" of Bob Dupuy---certainly a different perspective than that held by most Nats' fans.

One more area explored in the interview with Zimbalist: potential owners. Zimbalist offered no particular prediction of how the ownership derby would result, but he did serve to allay concerns about Jeff Smulyan based on Smulyan's past statements about getting back into the ownership game, particularly in Washington. "Don't hold that against [him]," Zimbalist said. "Things have changed." He then added, humorously, that people in baseball reverse position all the time; for instance, Selig professed no desire in serving as permanent commissioner. Whoops.

As noted, Zimbalist's review of Selig's life in baseball is not uniformly positive---not even close to being in the ballpark of that, actually. Bud Selig's story is nearly forty years of conflicts of interest in and around baseball, including this incredible example of two-faced chutzpah:

[T]he state of Wisconsin filed an antitrust against the [Milwaukee] Braves, and the other NL teams, [in] 1965. In its brief trial . . ., the state asserted that "Milwaukee is an excellent baseball town, that it is a disgrace to all baseball that it no longer has a major league team, that baseball is a monopoly, and that if it can't behave better than it has, it deserves to be regulated."

The 31-year old Bud Selig provided logistical support for the state's suit, helped to prepare some of the state's witnesses and testified himself as a state's witness. Yet the suit posed a conflict for him. He wanted the state to win to force the Braves to return to Milwaukee for the 1966 season, but he also knew that it was likely that the team would be allowed to leave. That being the case, Selig's next goal was to bring a new team to Milwaukee and to succeed in doing so would require at the very least that he remain in the good graces of the NL owners. Thus, when Selig testified during the trial, he stated that he was not in support of the suit.

Other notable conflicts include a 1995 bank loan from Minnesota Twins' owner Carl Pohland that was a clear procedural violation of the MLB Constitution and the fact that Selig held an ownership stake in the Brewers for twelve years after becoming commissioner.

Zimbalist offers other criticisms of Selig---an illogical and largely ineffective revenue sharing system being a prominent one---and details issues that must be addressed in the future.

But, for all of this trademark stuttering and stammering, Bud Selig is a commissioner without the patriarchical pretense of commissioners past---and, for what that represents, it cannot be more villainous than his predecessors. You'll have to read Zimbalist's book to see that, though---and, by the way, I highly recommend that you do.