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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.
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