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April 25, 2003

Bye Bye, Bud?

Will Selig Be Commissioner in 2007?

by Doug Pappas

Yesterday, Commissioner Bud Selig announced his intention to retire when his current five-year term expires on December 31, 2006. I'll believe it when I see it.

Selig claims never to have wanted the Commissionership. Less than a month after becoming Acting Commissioner on September 9, 1992--after leading the insurgency which forced his predecessor Fay Vincent to resign in midterm--Selig told Hal Bodley of USA Today that he planned to remain in office "two to four months." In December 1992, he assured Claire Smith of the New York Times that he had "zero interest in the job."

Another baseball insider was very interested in the job: the managing partner of the Texas Rangers, one George W. Bush. As Fay Vincent relates in his autobiography, Bush called him several months after his ouster to say, "Selig tells me that he would love to have me be commissioner and he tells me that he can deliver it." Vincent responded that he thought Selig wanted the job for himself. Months passed. Selig continued stringing Bush along--"he told me that I'm still his man but that it will take some time to work out." Finally Bush had to choose between running for Governor of Texas or waiting for Selig to deliver on his promise. As Vincent told the Miami Herald earlier this year, "If it hadn't have been for Bud Selig, George W. Bush wouldn't be President of the United States."

The owners appointed a search committee. By early 1994, the search had narrowed to two finalists--Northwestern University President Arnold Weber and USOC Executive Director Harvey Schiller--but somehow no vote was taken before the 1994-95 labor dispute put the search on hold. In July of 1996, Selig said on "Meet the Press" that MLB would hire a new Commissioner once a labor agreement was signed, and "it's not going to be me."

It was. Selig was unanimously elected to a five-year term as Commissioner on July 9, 1998. On November 27, 2001 the owners unanimously extended Selig's tenure through December 31, 2006, then stood there beaming as Selig told a packed press conference, "The economics of our business have greatly deteriorated. When you have an industry that loses over $500 million and 25 clubs are in the red, that is a business profile that is just not acceptable. It's stunningly bad."

Welcome to the Alice in Wonderland world of Major League Baseball, where the man who presides over such performance receives a raise and a new contract.

But for all the abuse I and others have heaped on Selig during his tenure, it's hard to see who can replace him. Selig became Commissioner at a time when the owners were at one another's throats over revenue sharing. He calmed them down and kept them essentially united through two rounds of labor negotiations. During Selig's tenure the owners have consolidated unprecedented power in the Commissioner's office, eliminating the league presidencies and all other independent power bases--but the selection of the next person to wield that power requires a three-fourths majority of all clubs. That's not going to be easy.

Moreover, the end of Selig's term will come just as the owners are forced to confront all of their most important issues at the same time. MLB's single largest source of guaranteed revenue, its contract with Fox Broadcasting, expires after the 2006 season. MLB's fundamental governing document, the Major League Constitution, expires on the last day of Selig's term. And the current CBA expires on December 19, 2006, 12 days before Selig is due to leave office.

The number of baseball fans who believe that the owners can simultaneously hire a new Commissioner, negotiate a new TV deal, adopt a new Constitution and open talks toward a new CBA is probably smaller than the number of people backing Lyndon LaRouche's 2004 Presidential campaign. Indeed, the owners shouldn't try to do all these things at once. If Fox and MLB can come to terms, the next TV contract should be in place before the current one expires. Hiring a new Commissioner and drafting a new Constitution go hand in hand: if the owners want an activist Commissioner, they must retain the autonomy Selig enjoys, while if they prefer a figurehead, they can shift authority from the Office of the Commissioner to the Executive Council.

Negotiation of a new CBA is the most important of these issues from the fans' perspective. It's also the one most likely to affect the timing of Selig's replacement. Since the Major League Constitution gives the Commissioner "executive responsibility for labor relations," the owners are unlikely to replace the Commissioner in the middle of negotiations, or to bring in a new Commissioner just before talks begin. The owners and players have never agreed on a new CBA prior to the expiration of the previous CBA. They are unlikely to do so in 2006 unless the owners' satisfaction with the current deal--or Selig's concern for his legacy--induces them to accept several more years of the status quo.

More likely, the owners will push for additional concessions. If so, to maximize their leverage they will want to be in a position to declare an impasse and impose the terms of their last offer if an agreement is not reached before the start of the 2007 season. That will require them to open negotiations sometime in mid-2006--and that, in turn, means that whoever is Commissioner on July 1, 2006 is likely to remain Commissioner until after a new CBA is signed.

I would be surprised if Bud Selig retires as planned on December 31, 2006. He might leave earlier if the owners can agree upon a successor. More likely, his tenure as Commissioner will end as it began, with Selig serving on an interim basis well into 2007. If three-fourths of the owners can't agree on a successor, or can't agree how much authority to give that successor, Selig's second term as Acting Commissioner could last almost as long as his first. Either way, I expect to be resetting the countdown clock at the top of my weblog several times before Selig finally leaves office.

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