Having been acting commissioner since 1992, Bud Selig was officially elected to the role in 1998. (AP)
Reiterating what he had already announced under less formal circumstances, MLB commissioner Bud Selig issued a statement announcing that next season will be his final one, and that he will step down from his post on January 24, 2015. He had previously turned down a five-year contract extension in favor of a two-year one that expired shortly after he turned 80. When he finally departs after 22-plus years on the job, he will leave behind a complicated legacy. While he has presided over unprecedented growth and modernization within the game, his lesser moments produced the cancellation of a World Series and the game's biggest scandal since the Black Sox.
Selig came into baseball as a minority owner of the Milwaukee Braves, and became their largest public stockholder before they moved to Atlanta following the 1965 season. After a failed attempt to purchase the White Sox in 1969, he became the principal owner and club president of the bankrupt Seattle Pilots in 1970, moving them to Milwaukee and rechristening them the Brewers, a name that had been used for an American League team in 1901 (the future St. Louis Browns and Baltimore Orioles) and minor league team in the American Association from 1902-1952.
As a small-market owner, Selig formed alliances with other small-market owners and those big-market ones — such as the White Sox Jerry Reinsdorf — who were willing to take a hard-line stance against the Players Association when it came to rising player salaries. He was part of the game's collusion scandal in the mid-1980s, which eventually resulted in a $280 million damages payout to players. He built up enough support to lead the other owners in ousting commissioner Fay Vincent; as the chairman of the Executive Council of Major League Baseball, he became acting commissioner on September 9, 1992. He held officially held that title until July 9, 1998, when upon a vote of the owners, he gained the full title.
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Not blessed with a charismatic public persona, Selig has survived in his post for more than two decades thanks to his ability to build and maintain consensus among the owners, who — as was made clear with the Vincent coup — were the ones keeping any commissioner in power. He has presided over a tremendous volume of change: two rounds of expansion (in 1993 and 1998) to bring teams to Denver, Miami, Phoenix and Tampa Bay, realignment to three divisions (1994), the wild-card format and three-tiered playoff system (1995), revenue sharing to redistribute some money from wealthier teams to poorer ones (1996), interleague play (1997), the collectively owned MLB Advanced Media to allow distribution of audio and video broadcasts over the internet (2000), lasting labor peace via the negotiation of Collective Bargaining Agreements without labor stoppage (2002, 2006, 2011), the use of the All-Star Game to determine home-field advantage in the World Series (2003, following an embarrassing tie the previous year — in Milwaukee), a competitive balance tax on big-spending teams (2003), the implementation of a policy to combat performance-enhancing drugs (2004, with several upgrades since), the return of Major League Baseball to Washington, DC (2005), the inauguration of the triennial/quadrennial international World Baseball Classic tournament (2006 and again in 2009 and 2013), the introduction of instant replay via reviewable boundary calls (2008, with bigger changes ahead for 2014) and the introduction of a second wild card (2012), not to mention a building boom that resulted in new ballparks for 22 teams during his tenure.
Most of those changes have their critics and their drawbacks, and they didn't necessarily stem from Selig's own mind. Even so, collectively they form a staggering body of work, one that has helped the industry's gross revenues grow from $1.2 billion in 1992 to over $8 billion now, while sending individual franchise values through the roof.
At the same time, his tenure and even some of those changes have produced some embarrassments and dark chapters in the game's history. As acting commissioner, he presided over the owners' ham-fisted attempt to eliminate salary arbitration, restrict free agency, and institute revenue sharing tied to a salary cap, the issues that led to the players' strike in August 1994, resulting in the cancellation of the World Series. It took a court injunction to prevent the use of non-union replacement players to restore order the following spring.
Amid that lasting labor war, Selig and the other owners turned a blind eye to the influx of performance-enhancing drugs until scandals such as BALCO had become news, some of the game's biggest stars had been implicated, and he himself had been dragged in front of Congress. He commissioned former U.S. Senator George Mitchell to investigate the game's ongoing drug problem, the result of which, issued in December 2007, focused on only a few distributors and raised more questions than it answered. In the wake of this year's Biogenesis scandal, his overzealous pursuit of stars Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun saw him threaten to disregard the tenets of confidentiality and due process built into the Joint Drug Agreement by exercising powers that threatened the game's hard-won labor peace.
Furthermore, Selig threatened to contract two teams from among a group of four low-revenue ones following the 2001 season, ultimately resulting in the destruction of Montreal as a major league market and an unseemly ownership transfer where that franchise's angel of death, Jeffrey Loria, was allowed to purchase the Marlins; meanwhile, the other 29 owners took control of the Expos, stripped them for parts, and eventually moved them to DC. Selig allowed the unscrupulous and overleveraged Frank McCourt to purchase the Dodgers in 2004, continues to let Fred Wilpon hang onto the Mets despite mountains of debt and implication in the Madoff scandal, and to let Loria conduct fire sale after fire sale. He has dragged his feet when it comes to finding a resolution to the A's ongoing territorial dispute with the Giants that would enable them to build a new ballpark. Oh, and as for those parks, virtually all of them have been built with local taxpayers footing the largest share of the bill while the owners reap nearly all of the financial benefits.
Overall, it's a messy mix of good and bad that's taken place on Bud Selig's watch, and the ramifications of his tenure will be felt for years to come. Exactly who will succeed him is a mystery at this time — I've got my nickel on Zombie Judge Landis, personally — but one thing is for sure: whoever it is will be hard-pressed to match his legacy, for better or worse.