When the Chicago Cubs take the field tomorrow night, facing the St. Louis Cardinals to open the 2015 season, it will mark the first Opening Day since 1992 that will be played under the auspices of a commissioner other than Allan Huber “Bud” Selig. At the end of last season Selig finally resigned after twenty-two years at the baseball’s helm; his departure has been and will continue to be greeted with hosannas and praise from legions of owners, officials, and journalists — including the Times’s grindingly predictable in-house hack Tyler Kepner — who all feel that he has been an outstanding leader for baseball. They are wrong.
It is admittedly difficult to summon up serious animus towards Selig, who seems fundamentally decent in a way common to Midwestern men of his generation, and whose dedication to baseball is unquestioned. The former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, a sad-sack franchise if ever there was one, the perennially rumpled Selig has neither the autocratic bearing of a Roger Goodell nor the arrogance and pugnacity of a Gary Bettman. It feels somewhat churlish to pick on him, but his stewardship of the game, which has been one of the central facts of the majority of my baseball fandom, and thus of my secret inner consciousness, has been nothing more than a slow-motion disaster.
The central issue, the blot, the eclipse, the apostasy, the annus horribilis, that defines Selig’s legacy, will, of course, be the strike that wiped out the 1994 season and caused the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in the history of the sport. I was living in Boston at the time, suffering through the alcohol-soaked aftermath of a devastating breakup, and perhaps not coincidentally slowly sinking (or rising) into the brotherhood of full-fledged Sox fandom. I doubt that I will ever be able to summon the words that will adequately capture the rage and helpless frustration of watching baseball fall apart that summer. I was twenty-six, and certainly not completely naive in the ways of the world, nor immune to the idea that in American capitalism money interests will always prevail. Nonetheless, for the first time in my life, I felt the force of understanding that the people in charge of something I cared deeply about were not operating under a reciprocal sense of obligation. It was like the owners and commissioner sending every fan in the country a giant twenty-foot high personalized neon message saying we don’t give a fuck about you. I was angry, and then I was angry at being angry; surely it was beneath my dignity to be upset about such a nonsensical, patently contrived institution as a professional sports team, and yet there I was, boiling with impotent fury.
The strike was an extraordinarily complicated affair, with plenty of blame to go around (including for you, Donald Fehr), but it seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, that if you are the commissioner of baseball, and you are faced with a genuinely unique crisis, and you fail to resolve it, it’s on you. That’s what leaders do: they solve huge problems, and if they aren’t able to, then the honorable action is to resign and turn the situation over to someone capable of resolving it. That didn’t happen, of course. I have long since forgotten the miasma of negotiations and counter-negotiations and financial and contractual issues that were at stake, but I do remember saying to myself: I will never forgive Bud Selig for this. I have made all kinds of rash I never statements in my life, most of them breathtakingly evanescent. Not this one.
It is doubtful that Selig would have been able to redeem himself after this historic catastrophe, but as it happens, everything that has come since has been both anticlimactic and depressing: a two-decade litany of failure. I still feel that the steroid scandal could have been forestalled had Major League Baseball showed even a modicum of fiduciary integrity and awareness, rather than willful blindness motivated by the need to win back fan goodwill with the famous home run chases of 1995. Out of the decisions that have been made about the game by Selig and his puppet-masters since, not a single one has been beneficial to the purity and aesthetic integrity of the game. The expanded playoffs have not only rendered the regular season essentially meaningless but have also made playoff baseball into a month-long cold-weather endurance test; my reaction to the merciful conclusion of the World Series in recent years has been mostly a kind of numb relief. The so-called balancing of the schedule combined with the introduction of interleague play means that famous old rivals like the Sox or Tigers and Yankees play each other a handful of times, at most, rather than engaging in the summer-long baseball wars that seemed so narratively dense and sustaining. Moving the hapless Houston Astros to the American League solely for scheduling and marketing reasons was just flat tacky. Adding a one-game wild-card playoff, as baseball did last year, is a cheap, blatantly greedy gimmick that served as an insult to fans and teams alike, ending up with an improbable and (to a true fan) unsatisfying scenario wherein the 89-win Kansas City Royals — a fun and likable but clearly flawed team — could ride a postseason hot streak to an unlikely pennant.
The problem with Selig’s tenure, seen from an Olympian distance, is that he represents the last, final stage in the consolidation of the power of the owners over their sport, the players who play it, and the fans who finance it. In no other sphere of public life would it be considered anything but a grotesque sham for an business owner to be given adjudicatory power over a consortium comprising fellow business owners; that’s what we call “sending a goat to guard the cabbage patch.” Selig’s predecessors, Fay Vincent and the late Bartlett Giamatti, were intellectuals and men of integrity, unapologetic Ivy League elitists who considered themselves curators and protectors of the game they loved. They felt it was their duty to advocate for the interests of the fan, who would otherwise be trampled by the greed and short-sightedness of the owners; a sensible checks-and-balances kind of arrangement that had served baseball honorably and well since the days of the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919, when the formidable Kenesaw Mountain Landis stood down powerful owner Charles Comiskey in thunderously moral terms. Then as now, the men who own the teams are brazen in their contempt for the idea that they should treat fans as anything more than suckers to be bilked of their money and players as spoiled, finicky thoroughbreds whose outrageous pay is to be grudgingly tolerated. I understand this; I can even accept it — I’m not that twenty-six-year-old sitting fuming in a grubby apartment on Queensberry Street. But let’s see it for what it is, not what the misty-eyed romantics or the professional marketers and hucksters who run baseball would have you believe. Bud Selig made his bosses a lot of money over the years; in this, as in so many other aspects of American life, he was successful, and that’s all that matters.