Monday January 26th, 2015

On Sunday, Bud Selig's 22-year run as Major League Baseball commissioner officially came to an end. Barring a change in the voting process, he's likely to be elected to the Hall of Fame by the Expansion Era Committee during its next go-round in December 2016, for July 2017 induction. Perhaps it shouldn't be so easy.

Selig has exited the game at a high point, with industry revenue topping $9 billion in 2014, up 13 percent from a year ago, and up 321 percent from 1995. Nearly every market features relatively new stadiums built during his tenure, numerous innovations both on and off the field have been introduced and the game has enjoyed a 19-year streak without a work stoppage. Even so, Selig’s legacy is much more complicated than that. While he has a fairly strong case as the greatest commissioner in baseball history, that title says as much about the shortcomings of his predecessors as it does Selig's own successes. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis fought to keep the game segregated. Bowie Kuhn defended the Reserve Clause and found the wrong side of virtually every major issue that crossed his desk. And Peter Ueberroth presided over a collusion scandal that cost owners $280 million in settlement damages.

At a time when strong candidates have difficulty being elected to the Hall because of voters’ intense scrutiny, it’s only fair to remember Selig’s shortcomings. If he were to be held to the same standard, he might have to wait much longer for enshrinement. So consider the following factors, which don't necessarily undo the positives of his tenure but do counter them to at least some extent. I've ranked them roughly according to importance.

1. Canceling the 1994 World Series

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After seven separate work stoppages between 1972 and '90 -- five of which were resolved before regular season games were canceled -- the ongoing war between the Major League Baseball Players Association and the owners reached its peak with the 1994-95 players' strike, which centered around the latter's attempt to impose a salary cap. The strike lasted 232 days and resulted in the cancelation of more than 900 games, including the entire 1994 postseason, the first that would have been played under the new three-division/wild-card format. While baseball had lost as many as seven weeks of a season before -- the 1981 strike forced the imposition of an awkward split-season format -- this marked only the second time since the introduction of the World Series in 1903 that no champion was crowned.

The first, in 1904, resulted from a personal feud between John McGraw, the manager of the National League champion Giants, and Ban Johnson, the American League president. McGraw and Giants owner John T. Brush declared that they would snub any champion of the upstart league, which had only come into existence three years before. That cancelation had no commissioner on which to hang the blame, for Landis wouldn't be appointed until 1920, when the Black Sox scandal and other allegations regarding the influence of gamblers posed a grave threat to the sport.

In 1994, though he was only “acting commissioner” following the coup against Fay Vincent, Selig took the hardline stance of hawkish owners, such as the White Sox’s Jerry Reinsdorf, who were prepared to sacrifice the entire 1995 season along with the remainder of '94. On Sept. 14, with no progress having been made in discussions because of ownership's refusal to negotiate in good faith, Selig formally canceled the World Series, giving the sport an unprecedented black eye. Not only was there no champion that season, but the aftereffects of the lost postseason dealt a crippling blow to the future of baseball in Montreal, home to the majors' best record when the strike hit. The Expos never did reach the postseason again before moving to Washington for the 2005 season and becoming the Nationals. 

2. Allowing the proliferation of steroids

Performance-enhancing drugs had been part of the game for decades in the form of amphetamines, which were widely distributed throughout clubhouses and used even by star players as a pick-me-up that helped them endure the daily grind caused by the lengthening of the schedule and increased travel. Steroids began trickling into the game in the late 1960s and early '70s according to reliever Tom House, who in 2005 famously declared, "We were doing steroids they wouldn't give to horses," and estimated that as many as six or seven pitchers per team were experimenting with such drugs.

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If nothing else, the positive test that resulted in the stripping of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson's gold medal during the 1988 Olympics should have spurred baseball (and other sports) to take the growing threat of steroids more seriously. But Vincent's 1991 memo to MLB teams placing the drugs on baseball's list of banned substances was toothless without a collectively bargained testing program and enforceable penalties. He was pushed out of office before he could pursue that fight, and Selig and his cohorts were so focused on trying to break the union and preserve their profit margins that there was no way that the two sides could implement a forward-thinking program during the 1994-95 strike. Once play resumed, the owners were more than content to ride their way to profitability on the backs of hulking sluggers such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, all of whom were eventually linked to PEDs.

Not until 2005, when Congress called MLB to a formal hearing, was a testing program with any teeth enacted. By that point, the game's credibility had been greatly damaged in the public mind, and while Selig took steps to clean it up, those steps weren’t perfect. The Mitchell Report, which was issued in 2007, identified what had to have been only a small percentage of the game's users, many of whose names were already public knowledge. Yet drug use continued, and particularly when it came to investing the Biogenesis scandal in 2013, Selig was more than willing to play dirty. On his watch, MLB aligned itself with lowlifes and paid for stolen evidence in order to implicate users, then threatened to deprive them of due process in administering punishment beyond what was allowed in the Joint Drug Agreement.

In the minds of many, that's worse than anything that the players themselves did in order to gain a competitive advantage. If Bonds and Roger Clemens can't get elected to the Hall of Fame despite overwhelmingly strong credentials that put them in the discussion for the best position player and hitter in the game's history, respectively, then maybe the best commissioner ever doesn't deserve to waltz his way into Cooperstown, either

3. The contraction sham and the destruction of baseball in Montreal

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Amid one of the most exciting World Series in recent memory, in the fall of 2001, Selig hatched a plan to contract two teams from among a list of four (the Devil Rays, Expos, Marlins and Twins). Shortly after the Diamondbacks’ ended the Yankees’ three-year run as champions, the owners voted 28-2 to back the plan. Selig did so while armed by a report from a so-called "Blue Ribbon Committee" that claimed that three-quarters of all franchises were losing money, yet let teams continue to hide their finances from public view. The ploy -- which had little chance of actually going through -- was another attempt by owners to keep their costs down and to push those markets into building new ballparks heavily subsidized by public funding yet designed to enrich only private interests

Ultimately, contraction proved unfeasible, as the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission (which operated the Twins' Metrodome) won an injunction requiring the team to play there in 2002. But before it could be laid to rest, a three-way franchise swap that was famously termed "a bag job" by Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly took place. The result was that Marlins owner John Henry purchased the for-sale Red Sox despite not having the highest bid, Expos owner Jeffrey Loria bought the Marlins after choking the life out of baseball in Montreal and the other 29 teams collectively took over the Expos, whom they then ran on a shoestring budget and even sent to Puerto Rico for 22 games while preparing for an inevitable franchise relocation -- to Washington D.C., as it turned out.

4. Enriching corporations at the expense of the average fan

Baseball became a $9 billion industry on Selig's watch thanks in large part to publicly subsidized stadiums that not only didn't deliver the local economic booms they promised, but also often pushed average fans farther away from the action, thanks to the addition of corporate-targeted luxury boxes and premium seats -- all while raising ticket prices, of course. What's more, the costs of the increasing television revenues brought into the game were inevitably passed along to customers whose cable and satellite bills have skyrocketed, and yet odious, antiquated blackout rules prevent fans in some markets from watching as many as six teams in their general vicinity.

5. Sacrificing the importance of the regular season to feed the postseason

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From 1969 through 1993 only four teams made the postseason. That number doubled starting in 1995 thanks to the introduction of the three division/wild-card format and it increased to 10 when a second wild-card entrant was added in each league. Thus instead of limiting a chance at a championship to only the very best teams in the AL and NL, now a full one-third of MLB clubs receive an invitation to what's become a postseason tournament, where even a humble wild card entrant such as the 89-win Royals can carry their dream all the way to the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series. While the format change has done much to keep fans in more cities attuned to baseball in August and September thanks to their outside shot at a wild card berth, it has devalued the outcome of the regular season races. Despite that, television audiences for the World Series are smaller than they were a decade or two ago, and while the increased competition produced by the proliferation of cable television is a major factor there, it's fair to wonder the extent to which the diluted format has played a role.

None of the aforementioned issues are likely to keep Selig from being elected to the Hall of Fame, and to be fair, the former commissioner's long tenure owes plenty to having learned from some of the mistakes outlined within the top three items. Even so, his record shouldn't be whitewashed. Many of his actions did damage baseball -- temporarily in some areas, perhaps permanently in others -- and before he gets his bronze plaque, the Expansion Era voters and the general public ought to be as mindful of the marks against his name as they are for those of Bonds, Clemens and company.

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