Departing the diamond after a quarter-century

Rich Levin has held a front-row seat for the most dynamic and tumultuous era in baseball history.

In his post since 1985, Levin has served four commissioners and been baseball’s primary spokesman as the league wrestled with bitter labor strife and canceled a World Series, then enjoyed unprecedented labor peace. He’s witnessed steroid troubles and reform for MLB, a series of high-profile congressional hearings, historic increases in attendance, and substantial new ballpark development.

In April, Levin, 67, announced his plans to retire this year. In doing so, he joins a group of industry veterans departing from senior communication positions that also includes the NFL’s Joe Browne and the NBA’s Brian McIntyre.

A former Los Angeles Herald Examiner sportswriter, Vietnam veteran, spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee and member of two NCAA champion basketball teams at UCLA under the late John Wooden, Levin reflected on his career recently with staff writer Eric Fisher.

Did you think you’d be in this job for
25 years back when you started?

LEVIN: I had no clue. When you’re a young man, you don’t think in terms of what’s going to happen 25 years from now or even five years from now. I never even thought about it. … [Former USOC head and MLB Commissioner] Peter Ueberroth brought me back [and] I was excited about it. As you know, I was a sportswriter for a long time, and even though I loved that, being a sportswriter, in those days it was tough to make a living from it, so [the MLB position] was a good job, and it’s been a great job. I feel very fortunate.


With Commissioner Bud Selig at the 2008 owners
meetings (top) and the 2003 World Series (bottom,
with MLB’s Rob Manfred)

Do you equate your job with the senior PR posts at the other major properties? When Ari Fleischer was working with you, he often talked about baseball ranking right up with the White House in terms of press scrutiny. Have you seen that as well?

LEVIN: Ari and I have talked about this a lot, and I agree with him. After the White House, this is the most public institution in the country — even more so than football [and] the other leagues. The volume of calls we get, it’s unbelievable. I don’t know everything that’s happening at the NFL, the NBA or the other leagues, but I don’t think they get the kind of public scrutiny we get. The coverage of basketball and football is basically on-field, whereas baseball, a lot of the coverage is what’s going on behind the scenes, whether it’s labor or whatever. … It’s interesting. I think a lot of it is the history of the game and how it’s become part of the fabric of the country. As the saying goes, to know America, you have to know baseball.

Your relationship with Bud Selig is definitely unique and close compared to many others between a lead executive and their primary PR representative. You had already served three other commissioners by the time he arrived. How did this relationship with Bud develop and to what do you attribute that closeness?

LEVIN: Bud has been great. He’s not only my boss, but he’s also my friend. It’s been my great fortune to be able to work for him. But when it started, I knew Bud as an owner — but I didn’t know him that well. So he gave me a great break.

Let’s face it. When he came in as the interim commissioner, it was immediately after Fay [Vincent] left [in 1992], which was a very difficult time, and I was aligned with Fay. And to make a long story short, I had a meeting with Bud, we talked about the situation, and basically what I told him was that I saw my job as being loyal to the commissioner, and that was the most important thing. He understood that, and from then on, we’ve gotten along great. He’s been just tremendous. And I believe that’s true: A person in my position being loyal to the commissioner is a very, very important thing.

Was it easier to make that case about being loyal to the office since you had already served under Ueberroth and Bart Giamatti before Vincent?

LEVIN: Yeah, I already had experience, some years under my belt, having served three commissioners. But I made that case to him, and he certainly recognized that and gave me the opportunity to stay on, which I really appreciated since that’s what I wanted to do.

How often do you and Bud talk on a given day?

I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t talk to him. It varies, depending on what’s going on. I’d say on a normal work day, a minimum of twice, but often a half-dozen, 10 times.

An early meeting with Selig (here in 1998) set
the tone for a long and close alliance.

What is an attribute of Bud’s that perhaps we don’t know that you have seen from your perspective?

I think he’s one of the smartest men I’ve ever met. People definitely tend to underestimate him, but I think that’s one of the reasons for his success. And he is relentless and never forgets a thing. He’s amazing, really unique. Just a different kind of man. Really smart, and at 76 years of age, he has more energy than a lot of people half his age.

Have you begun to prepare for your departure?

Oh yeah. I’m not doing much (laughs). Yeah, I think the transition process is well under way. Pat [Courtney, MLB senior vice president, public relations] is pretty much running things now, which is good. It’s worked out really well. And getting Matt [Bourne, vice president of business public relations] on board, when he came [in April 2008], was really good. It’s been great. We always had a problem in that area, at least for a long time, and in the beginning, we didn’t have anybody doing business PR. But getting somebody in that position, we ran through a bunch of people and we finally got Matt.

Have you traded retirement notes with Joe Browne and Brian McIntyre?

It’s funny. Right after I made my announcement, Joe called and we got together and had breakfast, and he had told me at that time that he was right behind me. And sure enough, a week or so later, he made his announcement. Brian and I, we got together soon after, too, and he said the same thing, that his turn was coming soon, and it did. It’s interesting. I’ve probably been closer to Brian over the years. As I reporter, I first knew Brian from when he was with the Bulls.

So what are your plans now?

I think I’m going to move back to California. It’s time to go home. And I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I may do nothing for a while. Possibly, I may teach. I want to travel. While I’m still ambulatory, I want to get out and travel. As you know, my wife passed away a couple of years ago, and my interests have changed.

Was the death of your wife a trigger for this decision to retire and thinking about what else you wanted to do going forward?

Yeah, it had a lot to do with it. Before my wife passed away, we had talked about retirement, but it was always down the road. I’ve been here 25 years, I’m 67, and it’s time to go. And Pat is ready.

Have you thought about writing a book?

I haven’t really thought about it. I don’t think there’d be any interest (laughs). And my memory isn’t what it used to be. I don’t remember half the stuff that went on.

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