Even now, Bud Selig says he hears from people who don’t want him to step down as commissioner of Major League Baseball.
Supporters want him to remain in office until he passes Kenesaw Mountain Landis, at a little more than 24 years, as the longest-tenured commissioner the sport has ever had. But that is one contest in which Selig doesn’t mind finishing second.
Selig, 79, has been in charge of MLB since Sept. 9, 1992, and will have spent more than 22 years in the position when his term ends Jan. 24, 2015. He began as interim commissioner after owners ousted Fay Vincent. The interim tag was removed in 1998, as he divested himself as owner of the Milwaukee Brewers to accept a five-year term. He twice announced that he was stepping down, only to sign an extension each time. But this time, there will be no extension.
His tenure has been marked by several controversies. He had to steer the game out of labor strife that led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. And he presided over the so-called Steroid Era. But baseball, nevertheless, has grown immensely during his tenure and has a chance to pass $9 billion in revenues this season. A drug testing program continues to be tweaked. Playoffs have been expanded. The development of MLB Advanced Media has been very lucrative. Unprecedented labor peace has reigned.
When he steps down, Selig will teach a few classes. He wants to work on a book.
While sitting in his office last month on the 30th floor of the U.S. Bank building in Milwaukee, Selig granted the Star Tribune an interview on a wide range of topics pertaining to his career as commissioner and his life in baseball.
Q How much has being commissioner changed your life?
A A lot. Having been raised in baseball my entire adult life, this was a unique experience for me. ... Somebody who was in the game in 1992 would not recognize it today. Revenue is up from $1.2 billion to $8.5 billion, maybe $9 [billion]. There has been 21 years of labor peace. A whole new economic system. A whole new playoff system. A whole new everything. So there have been more changes in the last 22 years than in the history of the game, and I’m proud of those. After I’m gone I believe that between international and everything else, the game has a glorious future.
Q What about regrets?
A I wish some things would have happened a little faster, but I know the sport and know how it works. And I wished the ’94 World Series would have been played, but the players were out on strike. And that was the eighth work stoppage since 1970. Maybe the heartbreak of that led to 21 years of labor peace.
Q How disappointing was it to take baseball out of Montreal?
A I was born into this business because the Braves left to go to Atlanta and I had to fight to bring a team back. So I’m always sensitive to that. We tried everything. They needed a new stadium. There was no ownership group that was willing to step forward. We sent Frank Robinson up there to manage. But it just didn’t work. That was disappointing. On the other hand, they moved to Washington and have been a great success.
Q What would have to happen for baseball to expand?
A I don’t see expanding right now the way the sport is constituted economically. We have 30 teams, which has really worked out well. There will be expansion one day, but I don’t think in the foreseeable future.
Q Could it be outside the U.S., even overseas?
A That’s an interesting question. Time will tell.
Q You speak of how much the game has changed in the last 20 years. What do you think baseball will look like 20 years from now?
A If international is as good as I think it is going to be, it can lead this sport into unbelievable success. Between the World Baseball Classic and opening up in Australia [this season] and we’ll open up next year — somewhere I think you’ll be surprised where it is if it all works out. All around the world, baseball is really starting to take hold far more than it once was. So I think that will lead to incredible growth.
Q Thoughts on how instant replay has gone this year?
A Tony La Russa said it best to me: ‘We had no right to expect it to be this good this fast.’ And I think he’s absolutely right. ... Are there little things we would like to change? Of course. Given where we are and given where we started, all of this has been really good.
Q You’ve added teeth to the drug policy through the years, but there’s a perception that baseball was slow to respond. Why not earlier?
A That’s one of those historical myths that is wrong. That’s the biggest bunch of nonsense out there. Look, we didn’t know [about steroid usage]. There was no reason to know. ... In 1998, we get all this stuff. In 2001, I instituted the drug policy in the minor leagues because I can do that.
We had to wait until the next collective bargaining agreement. What people don’t understand is that the union was fighting with us. ... They have been very cooperative lately. Michael Wiener was wonderful in that. Now you have the toughest drug testing program in America, another thing I’m proud of. This sport never had a drug-testing program. We went through the cocaine problem in the 1980s, and they couldn’t get a drug testing program. Now WADA [the World Anti-Doping Agency] says we have the best drug-testing program in America. Who would have believed it? I’d like to talk to who thinks we were slow. That is a historical myth.
Q What will be the challenges to sustaining competitive balance in the future?
A The system will need some economic changes, there’s no question about that. The system is good, but it is a long way from perfect. Our job is to provide hope and faith. Those are the key words I use at every owners’ meeting. ... And I believe, if you look at the standings, it’s done pretty good.
Q There might be another battleground coming between large- and small-market teams in terms of local television and cable revenue.
A A lot of people have said that. I think there are ways we can deal with that in the existing system. But that’s going to be after I’m gone. We’re going to let them deal with that. I have some concerns, but I believe it can and will be dealt with.
Q How have you been able to get this far without a salary cap, and will that ever have to be considered?
A I’m very grateful where we are and I think that will continue. You look at the [different] teams that play in the World Series and the teams that play in the playoffs and it is remarkable. You couldn’t have dreamed this 15 years ago, that’s for sure.
Q How do you think the threat of contraction has shaped your legacy with Twins fans?
A I do pretty well up there. I have a lot of friends and a lot of family up there. I don’t worry about that, and I don’t think Carl [Pohlad] worried about that either. Contraction did not come from me, you understand. Baseball was hurting at the time. The economics were struggling. There were owners who believed that contraction might be the way to solve some of our problems. I will say this, talking about historical myths, there was never a meeting when we talked about Minnesota. How did it all come out? Target Field, baseball there for generations to come. A lot of thanks to the Pohlad family.
Q Everyone links you to that movement, though.
A I’m the commissioner, and I understand that. In fact, the Twins franchise, everybody knows how I feel about it and I feel the same way today.
Q You’ve said you will leave it up to the historians to define your legacy, but how would you feel if you are remembered for your ability to build a consensus on key issues?
A That is my style. That’s a fair assessment. When it comes to the growth of this sport and all the things that have gone on, the last 10 years have been the 10 greatest attendance years in our history. We’ve drawn people that we’ve never dreamed we would have.