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March 4, 2003

Prospectus Today

Tuesday With Bud

by Joe Sheehan

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I don't listen to a lot of sports radio, primarily because there isn't enough baseball content on it to keep me interested, and what little there is isn't particularly insightful. Most of my listening tends to come in the morning, with the radio on as background noise accompanying a shower.

Yesterday, sometime between soap and shampoo, I heard a promo for the Angels/Brewers game on the local ESPN Radio affiliate. The game didn't mean much to me, but the promised interview with Bud Selig certainly did. I was eager to hear what Selig, long the game's worst poormouther, would be saying seven months after helping to negotiate a Collective Bargaining Agreement that is the most favorable to ownership since 1975.

Selig reached the booth in the fourth inning. His opening line was a doozy: "I wish you guys had told me last spring that the Angels would be World Champions."

Well, had someone proposed such a thing, Selig would likely have shot down the notion, pointing to the Angels' mid-level payroll and the presence of the big-spending Rangers in the division, not to mention the Yankees and Red Sox a continent away. It was just one year ago, you'll remember, that Selig was at the forefront of the disinformation campaign that connected payroll with success, and consigned all teams unwilling to spend $100 million on payroll to Clipperdom.

That Selig was nowhere to be found yesterday. He continued: "I like the way the year is shaping up. I think we're going to have a big year." He kept talking about "great races, competitive races." It was by far the most positive commentary on baseball I've ever heard from Selig. I sat at my desk, slack-jawed at the change in this man who couldn't find a positive thing to say about the game just last August.

Selig called the labor deal "historic." "It was something that was good because it dealt with our problems for the first time," he said, praising the deal's provisions on revenue sharing, the luxury tax, and debt service.

"I think you've already seen a change in the economic landscape this winter," he added. "Each year this deal will get better and better."

That may be true, but this winter the change has primarily been to lessen the amount of money the industry, as a whole, pays to players. The Yankees are still outspending everyone, and their core advantages are still what they were a year ago: massive revenue streams and an owner willing to spend what it takes to win, investment taxes and punitive revenue sharing be damned. The other teams capable of carrying large payrolls have been running the other way, shedding salary to avoid paying the tax. Teams in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston and Houston have been the ones adding high-salaried players through trades and free agency. Meanwhile, there's been no flood of activity among teams at the other end of the food chain, and in fact, the Devil Rays and Royals are doing a convincing impersonation of the late-1990s Expos and Twins, slashing payroll to industry-low levels and showing no inclination to invest the revenue-sharing money into the baseball operation.

According to Selig, the agreement reached last year "did reinstall hope and faith." If I take him at his word, then the follow-up question becomes clear: for fans of which teams? The Brewers? They're the team whose bottom line improved the most under the new system, but any resemblance to a competitive baseball team is purely coincidental. The Twins? Carl Pohlad, who made a couple million in interest as I typed this sentence, grudgingly bumped his team's payroll after the Twins embarrassed him and his friend Selig by winning the AL Central. The Reds? Carl Lindner has a new ballpark and a new CBA, and has shown no interest at all in adding to the low payroll of a team that should be in the race for an NL Central title this year.

It probably shouldn't, but the entire interview made me a little angry. For the previous six years, all we heard from Selig was how awful the game was. I, and like-minded writers, tried to get the word out that the game was just fine, and that the game's problem was really Selig and the relentless anti-marketing campaign he led. Selig and his cabal stayed on message for three years, and for their trouble, got a favorable agreement and probably hundreds of millions of dollars over its life.

While I'm glad to hear Selig speaking well about the game, I can't help but feel cheated. What if instead of beating up the game for years, he had been an ambassador for it? What if instead of gerrymandered payroll/performance statistics and endless hand-wringing, we got the man who yesterday promised races in all six divisions? Would baseball be better off today, even with a different Collective Bargaining Agreement? Would a CBA that actually addressed the game's real issues-gaps in marginal revenue that make players and winning worth more to some teams than others-while perhaps not being so favorable to management have come from that environment? Would the game be better off for it?

I do believe that Selig is a baseball fan, but that he can't get the fandom of his youth out of his mind. His is a small-town, small-child fandom, the kind that wishes baseball was just like it was when he was a boy listening to games on the radio and dreaming of the players who never strayed from their teams (unless their owners wanted to be rid of them) while making a little bit of money and being grateful that they had a job playing baseball. He wants the game to be like 1955 again, and if he can't have that, he'll settle for 1965. Or 1985.

With some time to reflect on it, I'm not as upset about the interview as you might expect. I know why Selig did the things he did for the past six years, and while I found them distasteful and insulting, well, a flag flies forever. If anti-marketing was a significant problem for baseball from 1994-2002, its absence is an absolute good, no matter what it tells us about its primary practitioner. A commissioner who works to promote the game will be a big gain for baseball, and I'm happy to hear Selig taking that role.

Check back in 2006, though, to see how sincere his efforts are. If his tone changes again, we'll know that Selig is little more than a child who tantrums and extorts when he wants his way, then shapes up when he gets want he wants, only to kick and scream again when he wants more.

Miscellaneous notes from the interview:

  • Selig called the Expos' games in Puerto Rico "part of [our] internationalization process," which may be the single greatest example of reframing a situation I have ever heard.

  • Selig told an entertaining anecdote about President George Bush, relating how the former owner of the Texas Rangers hitched a ride with Selig to see Robin Yount's 3,000th hit:

    "[Bush] called me after the labor deal and he was really happy. With all due respect, though, he wasn't nearly as happy as I was."

  • The game's announcers didn't shy away from asking Selig about some controversial topics. When the issue of stimulants came up, Selig demurred: "We're going to wait for the autopsy report on Steve Bechler." Selig seemed quite proud of banning ephedra and its ilk at the minor-league level, however. Baseball likes to dictate to minor leaguers, who can't use chewing tobacco and are subject to steroid testing, and may be required to wear electronic monitoring devices and take saltpeter if current trends continue.

  • "David Eckstein reminds me of what a player should be. A wonderful, wonderful player."

    I don't dislike Eckstein, but is there any chance that we can talk about the elephant in the room? He's not a shortstop! Generally speaking, guys who have to run four steps towards first base to make the throw on a routine grounder get moved off of the position in varsity tryouts. Eckstein has become a hero for doing something that would get him dumped from a Division II school's recruiting list.

    I think he has skills, particularly at the plate, but all things considered I think the Angels would immediately be a better team if they ran a full shift in the infield: Eckstein to second base, Adam Kennedy to third, and Troy Glaus to shortstop. If that's too radical, just flipping Eckstein and Kennedy around the bag at second might be enough to make a difference.

  • On the sole living member of the permanently ineligible list: "Pete had the chance to apply for reinstatement. He's done that, I let it sit for a long time. There's nothing new on it. I'm going to honor his ability to apply for reinstatement." Whatever movement on the issue may have been in play last month appears to be dead, although there's talk that Rose and Bob DuPuy, who sits at Selig's right hand, will meet later this month.

Notes

  • Jarrod Washburn blasted his GM, Bill Stoneman, for renewing some of his teammates' contracts without negotiating. Mark Buehrle is having his second set-to with the White Sox, who appear likely to renew him at something close to the minimum salary. Eric Gagne, who was one of the two or three best relievers in baseball last year, signed for $550,000.

    It's all nice pay for good work, but when these guys go to arbitration next year, lose, and make $3 million, don't be fooled by the "Pitcher Loses...But Wins 400% Raise" headlines. The hammer teams hold over players in their first three years is a big one, and they're becoming less shy about using it. Arbitration simply allows players to get a larger fraction of their true market value, as opposed to the 10% or less they get without that outlet.

    There are good reasons for the reserve system, and I'm not advocating sympathy for the players affected, or some radical change. I'm simply asking that you be critical in evaluating the coverage of the raises these players will get next year, because it's a pretty innumerate part of baseball journalism.

  • I caught some highlights of weekend baseball, including one I hope to never see again: the Mets and Orioles both wearing garish orange jerseys on Saturday afternoon. Just because most players on both teams can remember disco is no reason to replicate the worst mistakes of that era. Mo Vaughn looked like he should have been roaming the sidelines at the Syracuse/Georgetown game, pumping up the crowd.

  • I haven't written about Derek Jeter v. George Steinbrenner, and I won't write about David Wells v. sanity. I may, however, dig The Bronx Zoo out of whatever storage space it's in and see just how much of this Sparky Lyle predicted.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Bud Selig,  The Who,  Interview

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