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What is Bud Selig’s legacy?

Sep 26, 2013, 5:00 PM EDT

Bud Selig Reuters

We’ve been hearing that Bud Selig would retire after 2014 for some time. But given how many times he’s backed off on retirement promises, it’s never been the smart bet to believe it. Now that it’s official, however, I think we can finally say that we’re done with Bud Selig after next year.

So: how did the old man do for the past 20 years or so?

The snap judgments will be pretty black or white, I figure. Quotes from people in and around the game about how Selig was the best commissioner of all time and the most wonderful thing since sliced bread. Columns and blog posts (and especially comments to blog posts) from people who think Selig was the antichrist. All of these will contain a kernel of truth to support their thesis and all will ignore the things which don’t.

And that’s the thing about Selig: he defies such decisive characterization. He was an amazing credit to the game at times and a gigantic source of consternation at others. Which is something you might expect for a guy who held any tough job for a couple of decades during which serial challenges came his way.

Bud Selig’s failures have been exceedingly high-profile and photo-worthy. He came onto the scene in what was more or less a coup against then-Commissioner Fay Vincent and quickly found himself embroiled in labor strife which led to the 1994-95 strike. Indeed, his ascent as commissioner was in part because he was head of the hawkish faction of owners who wanted to take a hard line with players over pocketbook issues. Later he presided over moves which rankled the purists: interleague play. Realignment. All manner of shenanigans with the All-Star Game. And, in his final years, the introduction — albeit the painfully protracted introduction — of instant reply.

Most notable among his mistakes in the game — and they remain mistakes no matter how much he attempts to wish them away via his pleading of ignorance — is the explosion of performance-enhancing drug use during his tenure. Whatever the reasons for their introduction to baseball, the league and the clubs were blind to PED use, often willfully so, for years and years. A big reason for this: baseball had other priorities such as its ultimately failed efforts to impose a salary cap or otherwise bust the union. And even if it tried to address PED use the league’s collusion against free agents in the 1980s destroyed any trust that existed between the players and the league. Collusion that was, in large part, orchestrated by Selig and like-minded owners. So no, Selig did not make any player take PEDs, but he did much to keep the league from addressing the problem.

But there’s a funny thing about all of Selig’s controversies and failures: he learned from them. Basically all of them. And from them he enacted measures which made things better than they were before.

While he was co-author of the labor apocalypse of the mid 90s, he has presided over labor peace since 1995. People forget that we came a day or two away from another strike in 2002 but it was ultimately averted. In large part because Selig lived the previous strike, learned from it and decided to pull back from the brink. Since 2002 it has been totally smooth sailing.

The same goes for PEDs. He and Major League Baseball were late to the party, sure, but once it became impossible to hide or ignore the problem Selig, with the help of a finally-amenable union, enacted drug testing. Drug testing which, despite its imperfections, stands as the most stringent in American team sports. While at times there has been amnesia and, in the view of some, grandstanding on the issue from the Commissioner’s office — most recently in the Biogenesis scandal — it cannot be denied that Selig presided over a sea change in baseball’s view of performance-enhancing drugs. Only Nixon could go to China. Only Bud Selig could forge a peace with the union and work to rid the game of PEDs.

Finally, one cannot ignore the fact that Selig did the one job he was tasked to do above all others: make money for the owners and build the game of baseball.

Baseball has grown tremendously under his watch, both from a business perspective and, in my view, in terms of the product on the field. The money flowing into the game via media rights deals are insane. While we fret about attendance around the margins, the fact remains that the days when teams near the bottom of the league averaged four-figure crowds a night — days which weren’t too terribly long ago — are but a memory. While we can quibble with the method of funding for all of those new ballparks, all of those new ballparks fundamentally changed the nature of the game-going experience. Going out to a ballgame is no longer the province of men who smell like beer and cigars and some larger family crowds on the weekend. Ballparks are filled all week with both hardcore fans and casual fans, all of whom pump tons of money into Major League Baseball’s coffers.

Maybe that bugs you, but never forget: baseball is a business, not a public trust. And Bud Selig is a CEO, basically, not a public official tasked with making you happy. He has done the job he was hired to do quite well, thank you.

Selig is far from perfect. And his blackest mark as Commissioner — the 1994-95 strike — may be a sin for which he does not deserve ultimate absolution. But one need only look at what’s going on in other sports or to imagine an alternate history in which some of baseball’s other owners took control in the early 90s like Selig did, to see how much worse things could have gone.

Bud Selig’s legacy is complicated, as anyone’s who has held his job for as long as he has would be. But on the whole he has been a good commissioner with some bad marks, not a bad commissioner with some good points. And when he goes into the Hall of Fame next year or whenever that happens, it will be well-deserved. For even if you don’t like Bud Selig, you cannot deny the mark he has made on the game of baseball.

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