NEW YORK — Bud Selig began his 8,173rd and final day in charge of baseball by waking up in a Manhattan hotel, having breakfast and working out. After nearly 22 1/2 years that began with unprecedented labor unrest, unfolded with rapid innovation and ended with unparalleled prosperity, he predicted a future filled with more transformation, perhaps with expansion to other countries.
“My dream is for this sport to really have an international flavor,” he said Saturday during a half-hour interview with The Associated Press. “Does it need teams in other countries? … If one uses a lot of vision it could.”
Selig headed the group that forced Commissioner Fay Vincent’s resignation in September 1992. Owner of the Milwaukee Brewers since 1970, he was put in charge as chairman of the executive council and finally elected commissioner in July 1998 after years of saying he would never take the job.
His reign saw expanded playoffs and wild-card teams, interleague play, video review to aid umpires, expansion to Arizona and Tampa Bay, the formation of baseball’s Internet and broadcast companies and the start of drug testing — too late for some critics. The only person who headed baseball longer was Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner from 1920-44.
“Bud will go down in history as the No. 1 commissioner that has served baseball, and without question,” said Peter Ueberroth, baseball’s commissioner from 1984-89. For Ueberroth, Selig’s time heading baseball can be compared only with “what Pete Rozelle has done in football and David Stern has done in basketball.”
Selig’s final task was to accept a long and meritorious service award from the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America at a black-tie dinner Saturday night. Now 80, Selig becomes commissioner emeritus Sunday when Rob Manfred, his top deputy, takes over as the 10th commissioner.
“It’s been quite a journey, and the journey I think has changed me in a lot of ways,” Selig said. “I wish I knew in 1992 what I knew today.”
Revenue has risen from about $1.7 billion in ’92 to just under $9 billion last year. Attendance, which averaged 26,978 in 1992, has been above 30,000 in 10 straight seasons, peaking at 32,785 in 2007 before the Great Recession.
With the start of revenue sharing and a luxury tax that has slowed spending by large-market teams, every club except Toronto has made playoffs this century.
Selig emphasized consensus over confrontation.
“All these 30-0 votes that everybody is now talking about were important to me because I learned over the years that unity was so important,” he said. “We had no unity in the ’70s and the ’80s and early ’90s. It was very fractured, and that was destructive.”
And that infighting led to stasis.
“The sport had been not active, really had spent two decades stuck in neutral,” he said. “It was harmful because other forms of entertainment and sports were gaining in great popularity.”
To many, he seemed like a rumpled uncle or grandfather. But owners listened to him because he was one of their own.
“I had a style that was I guess unique, to say the least,” Selig acknowledged. ‘I was always very cautious, always very thorough but maybe even became more so over the years. But it worked out well, because I understand my political constituency. A lot of people would be critical. They would say, well, after all, ‘Why does it take him so long to do that?’”
He calls canceling the 1994 World Series his worst moment. Players struck for 232 days, fearful owners would implement a salary cap. Since then, the sport has had labor peace, and Manfred has two seasons before the current labor deal expires.
“The foundations of the stability that have been present in baseball and not in the other three sports since then come from the agreements that were made then,” said Donald Fehr, then head of the baseball players’ union and now head of the NHL players.
Selig’s best nights were when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak in 1995 and when players and owners agreed to a labor deal in 2002, ending a streak of eight work stoppages dating to 1972.
He lists Ripken, Derek Jeter and Edgar Martinez as his favorite players to dine with, although he quickly adds “and others” in fear of leaving someone out. He won’t compare players of this era with the stars of his youth, because the game has changed so much, but his voice softened with nostalgia when he said: “Henry Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial — they don’t get any better than those guys.”
Selig leaves Manfred with several unsolved issues.
While 20 new ballparks opened during Selig’s tenure, Tampa Bay and Oakland want new ones, and the Athletics want to build in San Jose, which is on the territory of the San Francisco Giants. Baltimore and Washington are in court over their regional sports network. There is the need to attract young fans and cut down on long game times. Selig never ruled on Pete Rose’s 1997 application to end his lifetime ban.
“I wish that’s all I had in 1992,” Selig said.
Even though Selig helped force him out, Vincent concludes Selig has done an exemplary job.
“He is a masterful internal baseball politician and he was able to keep the owners from fragmenting, from looking for a salary cap, which some of the new guys used to scream about,” Vincent said.
Selig already has started teaching at the University of Wisconsin and Marquette’s law school. He’s getting help from Doris Kearns Goodwin to organize preparations for his memoir — he doesn’t plan to sit in front of a computer parsing prose.
“I’ll be talking into something, a little microphone of some kind,” he said.
He plans on going to Wimbledon with wife Sue. And, as usual, he’ll be on the telephone with baseball buddies.
“I’ve had a lot of calls today,” he said, “and they all said, ‘Well, I’ll talk to you tomorrow or on Monday.’”
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