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March 4, 2003
Tuesday With Bud
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: