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SBJ/19980629/This Weeks Issue
Owners ready to order: They’ll have a Bud
But can Selig handle a job that has evolved from dictator to CEO, complete with board of directors?
Published June 29, 1998, Page 6
“The next commissioner has to be a guy who understands and loves sports,” said Kuhn, an attorney who now practices law near Jacksonville. “He’s got to be capable of working effectively with a very entrenched union. He’s got to be able to lead the owners by consensus, by directing – and often by utilizing some of both. He’s got to have skin as thick as an elephant or a rhinoceros, whichever is thicker.
“And he better have one fine sense of humor.”
Kuhn isn’t sure whether acting commissioner Bud Selig, the smart-money choice to achieve permanent status in the coming months, if not weeks, will fit that description – not so much because of Selig’s nature or background, but because of the undefined parameters of the job.
Though Kuhn isn’t high on the idea of owner as commissioner, he concedes that the dilemma is more one of appearance than substance. Most owners agree that Selig, CEO of the Milwaukee Brewers’ ownership group, has done well to steer clear of appearances of conflict in his five years as management poobah. Putting the Brewers in a blind trust will satisfy his brethren’s concern.
But that won’t address weightier issues: whether Selig can narrow gaps between owners and the union; whether his appointment will alienate consumers who associate him with canceling the World Series; and whether as a man with undeniable ties to a club, he’ll be willing to centralize power, as have previous commissioners.
“Whether he can serve effecti vely depends on some things that are imponderable right now,” Kuhn said. “What kind of power will he have? How much power will he insist upon?
“Right now, he’s got a collegial job. He consults the other owners and they make a decision together. As commissioner, you don’t have to consult. You have power. We don’t know yet how he’ll use it, whether he’ll use it, or, in reality, whether that power will continue to exist as it has before.”
The concept of an autonomous commissioner is unique to baseball. While David Stern, Paul Tagliabue and Gary Bettman all are viewed as master marketers entrusted with the care of their owners’ best interests, the baseball commissioner typically – although not always accurately – has been viewed as guardian of the game’s best interests.
The first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was drafted by owners to restore the trust that was broken when members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the World Series. Landis, a federal judge, ruled mightily, banning players for life for gambling, suspending Babe Ruth for barnstorming and using the broad “best interest” powers of his office to take on owners, one of whom sued him and lost.
Since Landis, the powers of the office have eroded. Albert “Happy” Chandler, William Eckert, Fay Vincent and even Kuhn eventually were forced out at least in part because they jousted with owners who banded to block their re-election. As the stakes have risen, owners have grown more suspicious and less tolerant of centralized power.
“The job is a lot different than it ever was,” said Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris, who as head of the search committee has opposed hiring from within ownership. “People talk about the judge being commissioner. But we didn’t have radio and TV then. That alone makes a load of difference.”
Though McMorris commends Selig’s work, he is concerned about the way Selig is perceived publicly – as the man who canceled the World Series – and about his relationship with the union.
The owners moved toward softening those concerns and redefining the role of the commissioner when they hired Paul Beeston, former president of the Toronto Blue Jays, as chief operating officer last year, setting the stage for adoption of a model taken from corporate America: a savvy, hands-on manager of day-to-day operations (Beeston) complemented by a ceremonial commissioner who speaks for a powerful board of directors.
The shift has come largely because the face of ownership has changed radically in recent years, moving away from families whose bloodlines intertwined with baseball’s, toward media conglomerates more interested in the business’ future than the sport’s past.
Nearly two-thirds of baseball’s ownership groups – 19 out of 30 – bought in since 1990, with four entering by way of expansion and the others buying existing teams. Five of the other 11 came in during the 1980s.
Much has been made of Selig’s link to the canceled World Series. But 10 of the current ownership groups weren’t in place to see it.
“That’s an important point,” Kuhn said. “They don’t have as much of an understanding of the history of the game. And the new owners probably don’t have as much respect for tradition either.”
Most owners – both the new, who have never known a commissioner, and the old, who have squabbled with one or two – are attracted to the idea of one of their own representing their interests.
“Today, with the players being represented by agents and unions, the role of the commissioner has to be different than what it was,” said Anaheim Angels President Tony Tavares, clearly a new-breed guy. “The commissioner represents ownership. It’s that way in the other major sports, and it’s accepted. Everyone understands that David Stern represents the [NBA] owners.”
Baseball owners have grown comfortable with Selig as their representative and Beeston running operations.
“Bud has earned the trust and confidence of a lot of people,” McMorris said. “In Bud, they know what they’ve got. In the future, with somebody they don’t know, there’s uncertainty. Quite a few people involved here don’t want to take that risk.”
Especially not after what they’ve seen in the last two years. Selig pitched them on interleague play and it has been a success. He was willing to spark realignment by shifting his own club and it has been a boon to the Brewers. The addition of Beeston to lead MLB’s offices smoothed relations with both the union and the networks.
“In my position, having someone with a background in ownership is a dream come true,” said Detroit Tigers CEO John McHale Jr. “This is somebody who understands our problems, who’s had his hands on the wheel. You add Paul Beeston and, wow, to have two such people – so long as you take care of those few concerns [of conflict of interest], why would you want to change?”