At Cooperstown, a Good Day for Bud Selig, but Not a Perfect One


Ivan Rodriguez, the catcher with the rifle arm who spent most of his years with the Texas Rangers, recalled how, as a boy, he would hang by his arms from rails to stretch his small frame. John Schuerholz, the architect of consistent contenders in Kansas City and Atlanta, told how he got his first job with the Orioles only because the Baltimore executive Frank Cashen knew and respected the Schuerholz family.

Selig experienced more uneven vibes, for several reasons. Because of Raines, many Expos fans were in town, and they still hold a grudge about Selig’s role in that team’s departure from the city. But other issues also hovered over Selig as he stepped to the podium.

Selig began as an acting commissioner in 1992, believing it was “a temporary assignment I was sure would only last only two or four months.” After 22 years in the post, he left behind a complex legacy that he at times addressed over the course of the weekend.

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Rodriguez, a longtime catcher, mostly with the Texas Rangers, during his Hall of Fame induction speech at Clark Sports Center.

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Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Under his leadership, baseball enjoyed great leaps in television revenue and signed eight-year extensions beginning in 2014 with Fox Sports, Turner Broadcasting System and ESPN worth a total of $12.4 billion.

Television viewership, however, did not always match such increases, a problem other sports have also encountered. In 1991, the World Series — the last one before Selig took over as acting commissioner — attracted an average viewership of 35.68 million. By the 2012 World Series, that number had fallen to 12.64 million.

Revenue sharing among franchises, a fresh concept introduced under Selig, created a more level playing field for smaller markets, although baseball remained the only major sport in America without a real salary cap.

“We needed to restore hope and faith to fans of every team, not just those who live in the largest cities,” Selig said in his acceptance speech in reference to the revenue-sharing strategy. And he noted that every major league team has participated in the postseason since 2001.

Selig was also a forerunner in acknowledging the pioneering impact of black athletes, and he proved a determined champion of civil rights and of recognizing the contributions of Jackie Robinson. Yet Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians’ criticized mascot, still adorns that team’s caps.

And Selig was chastised as too slow in reacting to steroid use by his players, although baseball, under his later prodding, went on to enact one of the tougher drug-testing policies in professional sports.

In Cooperstown this weekend, Selig still bristled at any possible complicity on that front.

“People said: ‘The commissioner should have done this. The commissioner should have done that,’’’ he said. “They never understand that drug-testing is a collective-bargaining issue.”

On the scorecard for Selig, it should also be noted that baseball’s internet and analytics divisions thrived under his leadership, as did the sport’s television network.

As well, Selig oversaw two periods of expansion, in 1993 and 1998, that added four clubs. And he survived run-ins with George M. Steinbrenner.

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Houston fans turned out in Cooperstown to support Bagwell, a slugging first baseman who spent his entire career with the Astros.

Credit
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

“We never agreed on anything,” Selig said in his acceptance speech. Recently, he found a letter from the former Yankees owner, and it was more affectionate than one might have expected. Steinbrenner even ended the missive, “your loyal friend.”

Ultimately, Selig said his most troubling memory remained the unfinished 1994 season, a historically unique disaster for baseball, with no champion crowned.

“It was painful, very painful, I don’t want to minimize it,” Selig said on Saturday. “But it was the eighth work stoppage, and the system was broken. Disparity was settling in. It broke my heart. But here it is 20 years later, and maybe we had to go through that to go where we are today.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done, but it didn’t come easy,” Selig said.

He noted, with pride, that baseball will have had “27 years of labor peace” when the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season. In contrast, other team sports have endured labor turbulence in recent years.

Selig, who now teaches a class in the Sports Law and Business Program at Arizona State, said again in his speech on Sunday that what he most cherished was bringing baseball back to his hometown, Milwaukee, in 1970.

“We would try, and we would fail. We would try, and we would fail. But we never quit,” Selig said, looking back at his successful effort to buy the Seattle Pilots and bring them to Milwaukee. “I loved the baseball life, living and dying with each game.”

The player honorees on Sunday made their statistical bones in the so-called steroid era, and two of them were not immune from suspicions of using performance enhancers. Jose Canseco has claimed that he used steroids with Rodriguez, which Rodriguez has disputed, while Hall of Fame voters fretted for years about Bagwell, even as he denied all rumors.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Selig did not use the induction ceremony to talk about this vexing matter from the podium. And he ended his speech by describing his own personal journey as “a little boy’s dream come true.”

He was done, and at that moment in Cooperstown nobody seemed in the mood to jeer.

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