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March 10, 2011

Span and Sain and Pray for Rain

The Man Behind the Curtain

by Emma Span

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Because he is soft-spoken, polite, and a stupefyingly dull public speaker, Bud Selig may not always come to mind as one of the sports world’s more dictatorial figures. He has none of the bite or flair or arrogance of someone like George Steinbrenner, with whom he often clashed. Yet, in a very soft-spoken, polite, and stupefyingly dull sort of way, Selig has a habit of making unilateral decisions and then refusing to explain them. Because the powers of the MLB Commissioner are so broad, and because of the indefensible legal loophole that is baseball’s antitrust exemption, there’s not much anyone can do to change that, but we—fans and writers—seem to have given up even pressing him on anything.

It’s often hard to know whether Selig’s fiats are wise or not, since he rarely announces them, elaborates on them, or answers questions about them. The most recent example came last month, when Selig decided to veto a huge FOX loan to Frank McCourt, who’s struggling to keep his Dodgers solvent in the wake of a bungled and very public divorce. A few days afterwards it emerged that Selig had previously authorized an MLB loan to the also-struggling Mets of some $20 million, which neither he nor the Mets ever made public, apparently simply hoping that no one would notice. Whether one millionaire authorizes loans to other millionaires is an issue I find it hard to get too worked up about generally, but I can’t help feeling that huge franchise-altering transactions ought to come with at least some level of transparency.

The Dodgers’ proposed agreement with FOX would have used the team’s future TV rights as collateral—a deal that, so far as I’m aware, would be unprecedented in major league baseball history. And given McCourt’s history of major debt and default, Selig may very well have had good reasons for nixing that deal. But giving the imperiled, Madoff-entangled Mets a direct loan at nearly the same time, while shrouding all these transactions in secrecy, does not induce confidence. If Selig would deign to explain himself in detail I might very well agree with him. Instead, knowing as little as we currently do about his actions, I’m inclined to trust him about as much as I am “Mrs. Sandrah Nanah,” a “Libyan widow” suffering from “stroke sickness” and eager to transfer her fortune “from a Finance Firm oversea” into my bank account, according to her email of last Wednesday. 

I have heard from people who’ve met him that Bud Selig is a nice man, and that may well be true. However, due to circumstances beyond his control, his charisma level is somewhere between roasted cauliflower and dead halibut. When he appears on TV, no matter how thrilling the playoff game that proceeded him, all energy and excitement is immediately vacuum-sealed out of a room. This, again, is not his fault, but it means that if he wanted to be a dynamic and compelling leader he would have to actually discuss his policies with the public. Given that he has been commissioner since the Pirates last won their division and is putting off retirement like it owes him money—next year’s the supposed date, but I’ll believe it when I see it—it seems unlikely he’ll decide to change now.

And then, why should he, when the owners—who pay his salary—seem entirely happy with him? He’s one of them, on their side, even implicated in collusion back in his Brewer days (although he has never admitted to that or—surprise!—extensively discussed it). More to the point, he’s helped them make a lot of money. Fans have seen plenty of great baseball since 1992 but also a devastating strike, a canceled World Series, skyrocketing prices, more ads than ever, and the steroid mess. Selig ignored steroids while they were rampant and scolded players for them in the aftermath, while never taking on a shred of responsibility for their prevalence in his sport—and while I’m not someone who gets too morally outraged by steroids, if Selig is going to take that tack, he ought to at least apologize for being at best remarkably oblivious and at worst indifferent to a problem that, by 2000 or so, even casual fans had become aware of. I don’t know why Selig didn’t say anything earlier, but based on his behavior as a whole I’m inclined to think that it’s because he dreads bad publicity more than any other single thing in this world, more than cheating, or player health issues, or lava, or high winds.

Even with the owners, his fellow members of MLB’s old millionaire white guy club, Selig doesn’t appear to be exactly forthcoming, so I guess you can give him points for consistency there. Selig’s old frat brother, A’s part-owner Lew Wolff—and I’m not being snarky there, they actually were frat brothers—has had to wait a long time on Selig’s ruling on his team's future. The Commissioner formed a committee in March 2009 to evaluate the situation facing the A’s and Giants and their territorial rights, two full years ago; with Selig’s customary opacity, not a peep has been heard from them since.

"The committee is working and I do not know when their work will be complete," said Pat Courtney, Selig's spokesman.

Illuminating, thank you.

It’s hard to feel too bad for Frank McCourt, whose divorce proceedings revealed major mismanagement and also Vladimir Shpunt. Still, particularly in conjunction with the Mets loan, I have to wonder whether he got a fair shake here. It sure seems like he’s being shoved out, and maybe that’s best for the Dodgers; I’m inclined to think it is. But whether MLB is going about that in an aboveboard way is another matter, and by being so secretive, the Commissioner’s office just gives us reason for doubt.

Selig’s had to deal with a number of financially floundering franchises lately—the Rangers last year, now the Dodgers and Mets—and that’s got to be tough to navigate. Of course, since Selig also exercises immense control over just who is allowed to become a baseball owner, it’s also, at least in the cases of Tom Hicks and McCourt, a mess he opened the door to himself. It's not an easy job, and I suppose the close-lipped way Selig approaches it is designed to make things run more smoothly, but I wonder if it really has that effect in the end.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown… which is an internal MLB matter and cannot be commented on at this time. A committee of former and current MLB officials will be formed to examine the crown's heaviness, and may or may not issue a report on this extremely serious matter at some time in the future.

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

Related Content:  Bud Selig

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