Bud Selig's Legacy: Is the Commissioner Underappreciated?

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Bud Selig's Legacy:  Is the Commissioner Underappreciated?
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Bud Selig

Pitchers and Catchers Report.

For many, those four special words signal the beginning of the end of the long winter months and the unofficial start of the new sports calendar. 

In the recent weeks, I have been compelled to think about the current commissioner, Bud Selig, and his impact on the game of baseball.

Few public figures are more polarizing than Bud Selig, as discussions about him are often in a tone usually reserved for politicians and prostitutes. However, very rarely does the average fan ever show support for Selig’s legacy; on the contrary, most people tend to attribute all of the bad things that have happened specifically to him while giving him little to no credit for the positive developments. 

This is a shame, because when one takes a look at the entirety of Selig’s legacy, it looks a lot better than anybody realizes.

Hear me out on this.

 

Payroll and Parity

Perhaps the greatest complaint toward the Bud Selig era has been the dramatic inequality of payrolls between the big-market and small-market teams, which has led to a belief that the game lacks parity. 

In terms of raw numbers, payrolls are uneven in MLB; the game does not have a hard salary cap (or salary floor), and an explosion in local revenue has given the Yankees a tremendous financial advantage over just about everybody. Last year, the Yankees’ payroll was six times as large as the Pirates, who had the lowest payroll among MLB teams. 

MLB payroll disparity between high/low payrolls

At the same time, people see the NFL’s hard salary cap and massive revenue sharing and assume that there is so much more parity in football than in baseball.

However, this issue is hardly new, as the Yankees have held a financial advantage over the rest of MLB for virtually all of MLB history; if recent trends are any indication, that advantage may be narrowing (see chart), particularly as greater attention is given to what is done with shared revenue.

And contrary to popular belief, MLB actually shares a lot of revenue—more revenue than ever, in fact. Their national television contracts—valued at approximately $670 million per year—is divided up evenly among all 30 teams, as is approximately $500 million generated by MLB.com and other online revenue streams (an idea pioneered by Selig). 

This accounts for about 16.7% of all MLB revenue and works out to about $39 million per team. Add in the $404 million handed out from luxury tax and shared local revenue (which is handed out according to need), and it’s easy to see where some teams could be receiving as much as $70 million in total shared revenue in a given season. 

Perhaps the question we should be asking isn’t why the Yankees spend so much, but why the Pirates spend so little.

Of course, all of this is largely irrelevant when talking about MLB’s parity. Truth be told, MLB has the greatest amount of parity of any team sport. 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Thanks to the sheer number of games in an MLB season, the maximum and minimum winning percentages are naturally going to be closer than in any other sport. As for the playoffs, MLB has had more organizations win the championship (nine) than any other sport; the same number of teams make the championship game as the NFL (14) and more final four teams than the NFL (22 to 21), even though MLB has four fewer teams make the playoffs.

As far as parity is concerned, the thing we should be telling Bud Selig is “Keep up the good work.”

 

Labor Issues

I’ll say this straight-out: The cancellation of the 1994 World Series is the third-worst stain in the MLB history books (behind the death of Ray Chapmen and the Color Barrier, respectively), and it is the one issue of the Bud Selig era that I find to be unforgiveable. 

At the same time, the damage of the 1994 strike was so great that it convinced both sides that they have a serious interest in working together to solve the game’s problems. As a result, MLB has gone longer without a strike (16 years and counting) than it ever has since Marvin Miller was hired to lead the MLBPA in 1966. 

Selig has never gotten credit for this: The 2002 and 2006 Collective Bargaining Agreements are the only ones in MLB history that were ratified without a strike or lockout, and the relationship between the owners and the MLBPA is as strong as it has ever been. 

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As a result, baseball is booming. Last year, MLB pulled in approximately $7 billion in total revenue in 2010. Keep in mind that when Selig started, MLB was at $1.2 million.

Remember these facts during the next year, as the NFL and NBA are expected to have intense and damaging negotiation sessions that could lead to a strike, while the most contentious issues in the MLB negotiations involve the allocation of shared revenue and new bat regulations.

 

Bud the Innovator

Another faulty perception is that Bud Selig has been fiddling his harp as MLB was burning; in fact, the opposite is true. 

Think about all of the ways that MLB has changed during the Selig era: Both leagues went to a three-division format; the Wild Card was created; Interleague play was started; Jackie Robinson’s number was retired by all of MLB (and the anniversary of his debut was subsequently made an MLB holiday); the MLB network and MLB.com were launched; the All-Star game was given actual meaning in the form of deciding home-field advantage for the World Series; and the World Baseball Classic was created to help spread the game’s popularity internationally. 

Selig is also spearheading the discussion about how to improve MLB’s current playoff system with the goal of giving extra incentive to winning divisional titles, though it remains to be seen if any changes will be made in the near future.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Barry Bonds

Now, you may disagree about whether or not these changes are improvements (I, for one, don’t care for the All-Star game impacting the World Series), and certainly not all of these ideas are solely Selig’s—but you cannot say that Bud Selig is not coming up with ways to try to move the game forward. 

And if you are going to hold him accountable for the things you in the game, it’s only fair to give him credit for the things you like.

 

PEDs and Drug Testing

Of course, for many people, the one thing they can never forgive Selig for is the fact that MLB experienced a PED scandal under his watch, which has resulted in the game’s most cherished records being set by a PED user and deep mistrust for the previous generation of statistics. 

The general perception is that Selig drug his feet on the issue of steroid testing and had to be strong-armed in order to get it done, making him the one most responsible for the scandal.

However, blaming Bud Selig for the PED scandal is like blaming Germany for World War I or Gorbechev for the collapse of the Soviet Union: The seeds of the problem were planted long before he ever came along.

I’ve pointed out before that the issue of PEDs in baseball dates back as far as 1889, but it’s also important to keep in mind that steroids—the PED that people really care about—was first determined by the federal government to be widespread in the MLB ranks in 1973. The Mitchell Report makes no secret of this fact.

So why is Bud Selig any more responsible for the PED scandal than Bowie Kuhn, Peter Uberroth, Bart Giamatti or Fey Vincent, all of whom have held the title of MLB commissioner since 1973?

This brings me to another fact about Selig that nobody wants to acknowledge: He got a PED testing program put in place when no other commissioner before him was able to do so. 

It seems rudimentary by today’s standards: One year of “anonymous” random testing, then punishments (a ten-game suspension for a first offense) were implemented in 2005 after it was determined that over 5 percent of players were using. However, it was a testing program, and more importantly, it worked. 

More people were caught in the first year of testing than in any subsequent year, despite an increase in testing and punishments.

 

Conclusion

I am sure there is nothing I can write to convince people that Bud Selig has been good for Major League Baseball; there’s just too much polarization attached to his name. 

This is unfortunate, because Bud Selig’s total impact on Major League Baseball is right up there with Kennesaw Mountain Landis and Happy Chandler.  

MLB is in a great place right now, and Selig is a big reason why.

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