Twenty-one years ago Saturday, four days after owners had voted 18-9 in favor of a no-confidence vote against him, Fay Vincent resigned as the commissioner of baseball. The owners immediately approached one of their own, Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, about leading them, and on Sept. 9, 1992, they officially elected him as the chairman of the Executive Council, a designation that made Selig the top executive in baseball. He officially was named commissioner in 1998.
Only the first commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, oversaw baseball for a longer tenure than has Selig. At 79 years old, he has said he intends to retire when his contract expires after next season. He made a similar pronouncement in anticipation of the end of his last contract, in 2011, only to sign a three-year extension at the request of owners.
As Selig approaches his 21st anniversary as the head of Major League Baseball, and as the penultimate September pennant race of his tenure begins, I spoke with him for an exclusive interview. I questioned Selig about whether he intends to follow through on retirement this time, about charges of being slow to respond to steroids in baseball and then overreaching when confronted with the Biogenesis scandal, and about how his commissionership should be judged.
SI: Your contract ends after the 2014 season. Can you say with certainty that it will in fact be your final season as commissioner?
Selig: Yes, I can.
SI: What if the owners come back, as they did last time, and say, 'Commissioner Selig, you're the best at this job. We need you to stay on.'
Selig: Look, I've told everybody that I've got another 16, 17 months to go and I've got obviously lots of things I want to do and will do. But I am convinced -- I think it's Jan. 24, 2015 that is the actual date -- that I will be done. I believe that and I think everybody now understands that I will be done.
SI: Are you aware of any search committee or process that is underway to find a replacement?
Selig: There isn't, but there's time for that. Those things don't really take all that long, and I will set up the right procedures at the right time. There's really no need for that right now.
SI: Your last year-and-half to two years have been especially busy. You added the second wild card, decided on expanded replay and of course the Biogenesis investigation. Let me start with the Biogenesis investigation. There was a story in The Economist that said, "By overreaching in the Biogenesis investigation and alienating the union, Mr. Selig may have gravely hindered his own effort to clean up the game." Is there any validity in the charge that you were overreaching in the investigation?
Selig: Not in my opinion. Not in the opinion of anybody around me. No. In fact, I think that's so bizarre I'm not even sure I want to comment. Look, the first 13 players went without a debate, and with union approval. So that took care of that. And the other one [Alex Rodriguez, who has appealed his suspension], I don't really want to talk about it except that, as I always do after a lot of thought and consideration, I did what I thought was in the best interest of the sport. And for somebody to think that's overreaching, they don't know what the facts are, they don't know what the evidence is, so how would they know? How would they know?
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SI: How would you describe your office's relationship with the union these days?
Selig: I think it's okay. Yeah. I think it's okay. Rob [Manfred, an executive VP at MLB] assures me that it is okay and I believe that it is. I have talked to Michael [Weiner, the head of the MLBPA], not recently, whom I have a great deal of respect for, so I think it's fine. Look, some writer whom I never met, who never asked, is entitled to his opinion, but his opinion ought to be based on some facts, I would hope.
SI: Let me bring you back to years ago when, if people were complaining about baseball, what they were complaining about was that baseball was slow to respond to steroids in the game. Now with some time elapsed since then, how would you respond to that criticism?
Selig: I would respond by saying that's a typical historical myth that has been repeated over and over again by people who have no understanding. Let's think about this from the late '90s. Story surfaces [about andro in the locker of Mark McGwire]. At that point nobody had brought it to my attention, and I know people say, "Well, he should have known . . ." Well, there were writers in clubhouses, there were . . . people I respect, John Schuerholz, those kinds of people, Andy MacPhail -- I've talked to them since then and they didn't know, and I believe that and I respect that.
But what did we do? Within the first year we went to Harvard [for a study], with the union, after the union had fought it. Think about it. Anybody who makes that strange charge [that baseball was slow to respond to steroids] -- this sport had no drug testing. None. Zero. And the next thing that happened . . . we didn't have a labor negotiation until '02. This is a subject of collective bargaining. This is not something the commissioner can unilaterally do. There was no drug testing. There was no program. There was no drug testing and no program in the '80s when we had a very significant cocaine problem.
The minor league program is now 13 years old. In '02 we finally had a program. Yes, it was weak. It was the best we could do [with] a union that was fighting us. And the union, in all honesty, they wouldn't deny that. Gene Orza today couldn't deny it, could he? They were very public about it. Okay, so now we've strengthened this program every year, and nobody will ever understand the pressure and the things that we did to do that. Then, after some congressional hearings, which actually started out not well because people didn't understand, but ended very well in '05 -- people understood it was not us that was fighting it -- I went to [former U.S. Senator] George Mitchell. In that process, [it was] the only time a sport ever went outside, because I just thought it was important. And I think that helped. We put in all kinds of internal procedures. It was an evolution as this program got tighter and tougher.
So when people say that [we were slow to respond], they either are ignorant of the facts or just don't understand. I think it's remarkable that today we not only have the toughest drug testing program in America, [but we also] test for human growth hormone, we banned amphetamines on our own. I've had a very, very close relationship with the professional athletic trainers. I have enormous regard for them. They know that. And they have been helpful in this process, as have the team doctors. We use a great lab in Montreal. We have Dr. Gary Green and Christiane Ayotte . . . I mean, we really have done everything that we can do.
So that to me is a historical myth and it's absolutely inaccurate.
SI: I would say that if you claim that in 1998 your eyes were opened to it, via the andro found in Mark McGwire's locker, it was 10 years earlier that the fans in Boston were chanting "Steroids!" to Jose Canseco.
Selig: I understand that, but I never had any problems with steroids on my own club. They may have been chanting it for Canseco, I guess. But nobody did anything. The union as late as '02 was not only denying it but fighting it. The fans in Boston may or may not have been chanting, okay? But I'm telling you people that have been in baseball all their lives, people who I respect, including a lot of writers who were in the clubhouse every day, were not aware of the existence of it. How do you explain that?
SI: Do you mean [not aware of] the existence of it, or the depth of it?
Selig: Well, um, well, all right, the depth of it. If you want to do that I guess I can't quarrel with that. I think the second-guessing on it is just not factually correct. I don't know how else to say it to you. That's the way I feel. I can tell you the morning I walked into my pharmacy was when Steve Wilstein wrote the story about andro. I didn't know what the hell andro was. I had no idea. No idea. And I remember I walked in and the pharmacist, who had taken care of us for years and is still there taking care of us, said, "I know why you're here." And he showed me andro, which you could buy. There was so much confusion, but the fact was we didn't have a program, we didn't have a labor negotiation before that, so by putting the minor league program in I did everything I could do. And they did fight it. And they fought it for a long time. And the whole world knew it. So there was no secret.
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I went back, even with my old players, about steroids on the club, and all of a sudden it was, "We didn't have any on our team." So I don't know what was going on. If somebody does, fine, let 'em come forward. I've never seen anybody come forward.
Would I do anything differently? No. No. No.
SI: Instant replay. In 2005 you said, "Do I believe in instant replay? No, I don't. Human error is part of our sport." Then in 2010 you said, "Most people in baseball are really against instant replay. There's no question about that." So here we are with expanded replay coming next season. What changed?
Selig: Well, I'll tell you what changed. I spent a lot of time, as I always do, watching games, thinking about it, trying to figure out if there are some ways to make the sport a little better. I worry about the pace of the game. I worry about a lot of things. I said that to Joe Torre and then to John Schuerholz, who had that committee, and I think they began to convince me that this is something we ought to think about. And the more I talked to them, and when I had my special 14-man committee, which is wonderfully helpful, with Jimmy Leyland and [Mike] Scioscia and Tony La Russa and four GMs, four owners, George Will . . . they felt the same way. But I guess what I would say to you is I do listen. There are times in life sometimes when you have to reconsider something. And that's what I've done.
SI: The second wild card seemed to be very popular last year. At this point of this season four teams in the bottom half of payrolls are in playoff position: Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Oakland and Tampa Bay. The two words that, let's face it, baseball lost a World Series over, "competitive balance," we don't seem to hear these days. Are you happy with competitive balance?
Selig: I'm proud of it. Very proud. This is what we set out to do on Sept. 8 of 1992. When I had my first blue-ribbon committee of Sen. Mitchell, George Will, Paul Volker . . . they were stunned at the lack of it. We have more today than ever before. I must tell you something: Of all the major sports, there's no question, if you look at the last 10 years, the last couple of years, have been great. And by the way I think the second wild card setting up September is great. That was the objective. It's done exactly what we thought it would do. We had petered September away, but not any more. Not any more.
Yeah, I'm very happy with it. I think all the economic changes, everything in life that we've done . . . so you have Oakland today and Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and St. Louis and on and on . . . Yeah, we're doing great.
SI: If we get to Jan. 24, 2015 and in fact your tenure as commissioner ends, how would you like people to remember your tenure?
Selig: Well, I'm a history buff and I will teach some courses when I'm done with all this. I've often said I'll let historians make that judgment. It's hard for somebody to say about themselves, "Well, this is what I hope people remember." But I would say this to you: if you look at where we were in 1992 in terms of attendance, revenue, popularity, game itself, competitive balance, labor peace, go on and on, I think the last 21, 22 years of baseball have been really remarkably good. But I've got to let others draw those conclusions.