With the impending re-un-retirement of Brett Favre in the air, my mind recently drifted back to 1992, as it is wont to do when I consider the quarterback’s longevity. That was the year Favre’s streak for consecutive games-started began, a streak that will likely continue this season with the Minnesota Vikings. 1992 was 17 years ago, but it seems like longer. That was the year of the Rodney King riots, the year Microsoft released Windows 3.1, and the year Ross Perot was taken seriously as a presidential candidate (for a while). Sure, some things have endured longer: Law & Order and The Simpsons remain staples on TV, Ted Kennedy is still hanging on to his job, and the Earth continues to revolve around the Sun. But one streak I hadn’t thought about in a long time started in 1992 and is still going strong: The baseball commissionership of Allen H. “Bud” Selig.
A lot of baseball fans hate Bud Selig, and I guess that is to be expected. The office of baseball commissioner was borne out of controversy and scandal, after all: Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis was brought in to “clean up” Major League Baseball following the 1919 Black Sox scandal. (And, with the exception of segregation, gambling, steroid use, wife swapping, and the occasional pitcher on acid, baseball’s been clean ever since!) Like a president or a tribal chieftain, a commissioner of an athletic organization is going to be faced with tough decisions, and he’s liable to piss off a large number of his employees, to say nothing of the sport’s fans.
Well, I don’t count myself as one of baseball’s many fans, if we are defining “fan” as someone who a) follows passionately one or more teams, b) cares deeply about the history of the game and its future, or c) bets on games, thus suffering manic mood swings from their outcomes. I like baseball, at the ballpark, or maybe on TV in October. I watched/rooted for the Yankees during their recent salad days of 1996-2000 and a little after. (I think I just heard the collective groan of every Red Sox, Mets, and small market team fan in the country.) I watch Field of Dreams at least once a year. I’ve read and enjoyed books about baseball, studied the history of its ballparks and franchises, and even stood on one of the purported sites of the first game ever played (Hoboken, NJ, 1846 – 0-0 tie called after four hour rain delay).
I just don’t get excited for baseball the way I do for football, basketball, or Batman films. Part of this is Selig’s fault. I long ago abandoned any pretension of rooting for the Milwaukee Brewers when Selig—then the team owner1—refused to pony up the cash to keep Paul Molitor, arguably the most beloved Brewer of all time. I suppose ownership was still drunk on success after a 92-70 season in which the Crew barely missed the playoffs. Nevertheless, Molitor signed with Toronto as a designated hitter and won a World Series (and a Series MVP award), the Brewers embarked on a 15-year odyssey of mediocrity (or worse), and I found other things to do with my time than give a shit about them.
Nevertheless, I never actually hated Bud Selig. He had a financial decision to make, and he made it. Although I found the sport of major league baseball uninteresting, I still paid attention to the major news stories surrounding it in the ensuing years: Work stoppages, home run records falling, Congressional hearings, interleague play, etc.—the game’s history in action. As someone who has no emotional investment in MLB or any team, I believe I can offer a sober and fair judgment of the former used car salesman who now governs the game.
And damned if I’m not going to use a shopworn sportswriter’s device based on a Clint Eastwood movie title to do it.
1Okay, technically, Selig transferred team ownership to his daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb, in 1992, and even more technically, Sal Bando was the general manager in charge of signing players. But… come on.
1) Realignment. People forget about this now, but in 1993, there were 28 teams in baseball, but only four divisions: the AL and NL East and West. In the American League, Milwaukee played in the East, while Chicago played in the West. In the senior circuit, Atlanta and Cincinnati played in the West and St. Louis the East. (Atlanta is 570 miles east of St. Louis.) With seven teams per division, and only four playoff spots, division title races were crowded, and second place finishes were worthless.
Selig spearheaded an ambitious realignment, from four divisions to six. The new alignment made more geographical sense and helped foster or maintain rivalries: Atlanta was now pitted with New York, Florida, Montreal, and Philadelphia. Cincinnati would join St. Louis in battling Pittsburgh, Houston, and the Chicago Cubs. And more divisions meant more division winners, which meant…
2) Playoff expansion. A divisional round was added to the playoffs, as well as one wild card playoff spot per league. Critics will argue that an upstart wild card team can render the pennant races meaningless, but so what? is my response to that. If you win your division and can’t handle a lesser team in a 5-game series, you don’t deserve to move on. If we’ve learned anything from the NFL playoffs and March Madness—arguably the two most popular tournaments of the Sports Year—it’s that spectators want upsets, or they at least want the potential for an upset. Expanding the playoffs was the best way for baseball to boost ratings and maintain fan interest into September and October.
(Of course, I’d prefer if some other NFL team could have been the two-touchdown favorite that let Terrell Davis walk into the end zone and converted John Elway from prima donna choker to NFL hero overnight, but hey… where was I going with this? Oh yeah, let’s hear it for wild cards!)
3) Interleague play. This was even more of a sacred cow than the playoff format. Ask any grizzled, old-timey baseball fan at your local tavern what he thinks of interleague play, and you’ll think you’ve just asked Pat Robertson if he wants to gay-marry you. The leagues were separate entities, goddamn it, and if that means we were going to have to wait for a World Series to see the Expos and Blue Jays square off, then so be it. They just weren’t meant to be a-mixin’ like that in the spring and summer.
Well, give Selig credit for standing up to the crotchety, purist, mesh-capped old-timerati. Yeah, a hundred years ago, the National League and the American League were separate leagues, whose champions clashed in the Fall Classic to determine which was the true champion. But you know what? A hundred years ago, people smoked cigarettes and sniffed prescription cocaine because they thought it was good for them.
(A sidebar to interleague play is the elimination of the office of American League President and National League President, as well as the sharing of umpires between leagues. I defy you to find ONE thing that any president – Obama, Bush 43, Clinton, or Bush 41 – so effectively reformed the way Selig reformed league play and governance. If a president had the guts to eliminate two cabinet positions and merge two federal bureaucracies, he’d either be voted out of office or the greatest president since Roosevelt. Obama is on the clock; I’ll be monitoring this.)
4) The World Baseball Classic. Go ahead, laugh. I think this was a great idea. In this “global economy,” or whatever, MLB has to compete with the NFL, NBA, MMA, soccer, the Olympics, and tennis for an international audience. The NFL is playing regular season games in London and preseason games in Tokyo and Mexico City; the NBA draws talent from Europe, Asia and South America as steadily as from the States. With the dominance of Latin players and influx of Asian players in baseball, it only makes sense to stage an international tournament and get some old-fashioned tribalism cooking. I mean, in a sport that’s not soccer. And even though the players bitch about it and the fans pay little attention, the fact that Japan is already dominating by winning the first two should at LEAST get some people fired up. Anyway, Selig was instrumental in organizing the WBC, though I doubt the same could be said for its 70s throwback logo.
1) World Series home field advantage determined at All-Star Game. In order to boost interest in the Midsummer Classic, Selig in 2003 ordained that the league that wins the All-Star Game will also have home-field advantage during the World Series. (Does that better explain it for you?) Thus do we risk the possibility of an 81-81 team having home field advantage over a 111-51 team. It could happen, and when it does, the crotchety, purist old timers will hole up in Montana and form their own nation.
I’m sure the Nats’ Ryan Zimmerman was swinging for the fences Tuesday night, just to give the Dodgers every advantage they need in the playoffs. And while we’re on the All-Star Game…
2) All-Star Team Selection. Time was, All-Star games were for All-Stars. Now, every team, no matter how dreadful is represented by at least one player (see: Ryan Zimmerman). Everyone’s a winner! Yay! Excuse me while I pop a Rolaids and mull over what’s wrong with this country. What? Now I’m sounding like a crotchety old fart?
In addition to the more democratic rosters, baseball is also plagued by a despicable presence that haunts All-Star games in other sports: Fan voting. Now, I know that fan voting helps bolster fan interest and ratings, and I know that only allowing a select number of sportswriters to vote for All-Stars screams of elitism, but I want you to consider one thing: Fans are idiots. Go to any game, and three out of four of them barely possess the basic rudimentary skills to speak, let alone make an informed decision on a voting ballot. (In Philadelphia, that statistic goes up to five out of four.) Besides, most of them are too busy with their jobs and families to pay attention to a guy who’s quietly hitting .333 in Kansas City, and rightfully so. But do you think Peter Gammons is too busy? That IS his job. And ESPN is probably his family. They’re building an assisted living wing for him in Bristol as I write this.
3) Instant replay. I absolutely hate instant replay. It’s hurting the NFL, and it’s been taken beyond the limit of acceptability in college football. I didn’t mind it quite as much when it was used on major, game-turning calls, and I believe that giving coaches three instant replay review per game is sensible. The problem is that the officials take it upon themselves to review anything and everything, from the spotting of the football (which is already almost completely arbitrary), to whether someone ran out of bounds and then back in, to every single instance that a ball pops out of a player’s hands. It slows the game to a grind, and leaves announcers like Greg Gumbel and Phil Simms with long stretches of awkward silence. I realize that some bad calls have been overturned, but I honestly feel that given the opportunity to call the game and not be second-guessed, referees will usually make the right call – and the bad ones will even themselves out.
I understand that baseball’s instant replay is only used for disputed home run calls. But that’s how it starts. First it’s home runs, then it’s whether a player’s safe or out. Next thing you know, they’ll be reviewing every pitch to make sure it’s in or out of the strike zone. Be afraid… be very afraid.
4) Contraction. This didn’t happen, but it almost did. In 2001, MLB owners voted 28-2 to eliminate two teams, Montreal and Minnesota. (Guess which two voted against?) MLB purchased the Expos with every intention to dissolve the team that same year. But when a court injunction forced the Twins to play out their lease in the Metrodome, MLB was forced to abandon the idea of contracting the teams. (Eliminating one would have resulted in an odd number of teams—a scheduling nightmare for a 162-game season.)
You would think that MLB owning one of its teams might constitute a conflict of interest, and you’d be right. In 2003, the Expos found themselves in the thick of the wild card race. Yet MLB (read: Selig) refused to allow the team $50,000 to spend on minor league players in September, when rosters limits are expanded. The team went 12-15 down the stretch and sat out the playoffs. In a year they were sold and became… the Washington Nationals! (Currently in last place.) At least the team is now privately owned, but the meddling by Selig to keep the Expos from the postseason smacked of Chavez-like manipulation. (It should be noted that Selig and then-owner Jeff Loria were charged with racketeering in the wake of the contraction vote, and settled out of court.)
Steroids: The Bud Selig era also has coincided conveniently—or inconveniently—with the Steroid Era. And it’s no overstatement to say that in spite of all the good accomplished (realignment, expanded playoffs, interleague play, the WBC), all the poor decisions (tinkering with the All-Star game, instant replay, attempted contraction), and anything else (18 new stadiums built, two new expansion teams, two World Series appearances by those expansion teams), steroids remain and always will be the defining subject of this period. And the Steroid Era as we know it is far from over, despite whatever drug testing upgrades MLB and the Players Union agreed on in 2005. Investigations have been launched, reporters imprisoned, and careers sullied by performance-enhancing drugs. Names that were once thought to belong in the pantheon of Greatest Ever – Bonds, McGwire, Rodriguez, Clemens – are today spoken with disgust, contempt, and the kind of look people usually have on their faces when they drink expired milk. Hallowed records broken during these years are considered suspect, belonging as much to another dimension as simply a different era. As a result of the steroid story, baseball’s reputation sunk so low that Congress – Congress! – was able to take the moral high road and berate players and officials for a few days, including Mr. Selig. Remember, these are politicians known for extramarital trysts in Argentina, extramarital homosexual trysts in airport bathrooms, and, on at least one occasion, a drunken tryst that resulted in the drowning of a woman. No wonder Sammy Sosa pleaded “No Hablo Inglés.”
Is it Bud Selig’s fault that players take steroids? Certainly not. But the criticisms lodged from one side assert that Selig not only did not take action early enough, but that he was too blinded by the profitability of steroids’ alleged results. Simply put, the explosion of offense and the famous home run records that fell drummed up interest in a sport that was still smarting from the players strike of 1994. That argument is simple and a little one-sided, and it paints Selig as a profit-first Gordon Gekko type with little to no regard for the sanctity of the game. It also ignores the complicity of Donald Fehr, head of the Players’ Association. And that’s not to mention the sports media themselves, who stood just as much to gain from baseball’s popularity. (There were reports as early as 1998, particularly by Steve Wilstein, of McGwire’s use of then-legal Androstenedione.)
Be that as it may, Selig is guilty of waiting to act until the steroid negatives outweighed the positive. Although the blame does not rest solely on his shoulders, inaction must be judged alongside action. It’s not a president’s fault when a hurricane is about to hit a major American city, but when Bush fiddled while New Orleans drowned, it rightly became his fault. Selig will always be linked with steroids, like Bush with Katrina, Nixon with Watergate, and Michael Jackson with touching little boys. (What, we’re still not supposed to bring that up? Wake me when they’re done carving his face into Mt. Rushmore.)
Baseball is as popular now as it has been in 20 years, and Selig has presided over skyrocketing revenue, record-breaking attendance, and popular support among team owners. Despite the foul taste of steroids that lingers, fans seem willing to forgive, though maybe not forget. It hasn’t achieved the parity of the NFL or NBA (MLB’s revenue sharing plan is toothless without a real salary cap), but some small market teams once thought hopeless have shown they can compete. Prior to Selig’s arrival, baseball’s last major change was in 1969, when it expanded to four divisions. It should come as little surprise that that was around the same time when professional football – ever innovative on the field and off – supplanted baseball as the nation’s most popular sport. Whatever Selig’s inaction, or delayed action, on the steroids issue, it can be said that as commissioner, he wasn’t afraid to make major changes to a game that was conservative to a fault, but lagging behind in popularity.
If I were a true fan, I’d be satisfied, and I’d probably have him to thank.
* * * *
Regarding the Favre thing I mentioned earlier, as a Packer fan I get asked a lot what I think of him signing with the hated Vikings. My response: I’m looking forward to it. I may be a Packer fan, but I’m also a football fan. If Favre signs with the Vikings, the NFC North has the chance to be the most exciting division in football (in terms of quarterback): The emerging talent of Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, the arrival of disgruntled Jay Cutler in Chicago, a rookie and #1 pick (Matthew Stafford) in hapless Detroit, and now Favre in the Twin Cities. Sports are supposed to be entertaining, and I can’t think of anything more dramatic than Favre lining up in purple and gold at Lambeau Field. Packer fans are typically not as savage as most NFL fans, but the bloodlust at that game will probably reach Roman gladiator levels. What if the Packers’ D knocks him out of the game and ends his streak? What if he burns them for a last second, game-winning touchdown? What if they pick him off seven times? If you are a football fan, especially a Packer fan, and you’d rather be bitter than excited about something like that, I can’t help you. Besides, as Favre himself said, “It’s football. It’s not life or death.”
Now, there is one scenario that terrifies me a little bit. That, of course, is the Packers either not making the playoffs or getting eliminated, while a healthy Favre and the Vikings play their way to the NFC Championship Game and/or Super Bowl. At that point, I’m going to have to make a decision. Deep down, despite all of his melodramatics and the fact that he’d be playing for the enemy, I would probably root for Favre to win one more Super Bowl if the Packers were out of the playoff picture. I know a lot of Green Bay fans would rather eat vegetables than root for the Vikings, and they’d probably call me a traitor like they do Favre, but as I said, I’m a football fan. Love him or hate him, Brett Favre is as entertaining a player as we will ever see, and if he’s still got it, well, that will be one hell of a story.
But I’d rather see him driven into the dirt by the Packers “D.”