Who’s in the lineup?
Bud Selig retire? That’s been much more of a punchline over the years than anything else. The notion of the ninth commissioner of Major League Baseball stepping down after what is now two decades of running the game has been widely laughed off as nonsense.
And why not? Selig, now 78, repeatedly vowed to retire, only to accept contract extensions in 2004, 2008 and again in 2012, the latest one signed nearly 15 months ago taking his term to Dec. 31, 2014. One could call him the Sugar Ray Leonard of baseball commissioners given his marked ability to repeatedly un-retire.
|Bud Selig has held the commissioner post since 1992, when he initially agreed to serve on a temporary basis.
But over the past year, signs have steadily increased that this time, finally, Selig’s vow to step down is no joke, and that he truly intends to pursue a retirement life of writing and teaching at the University of Wisconsin, his alma mater; Marquette University; and perhaps additional schools beyond that.
That means MLB owners will face a monumental decision they have not fully grappled with since 1992: choosing who will fill one of the most powerful and important jobs in all of sports.
“There has been no deviation in my plans. I’m really looking forward to these other endeavors,” Selig said. “I think [the owners] understand. I am done. I do understand some of the feeling out there, but I am done Dec. 31, 2014. That’s it.”
Lew Wolff, Oakland A’s owner and fraternity brother with Selig at Wisconsin nearly six decades ago, agrees, as do many of his fellow owner colleagues.
“I think he’s serious this time,” Wolff said. “I still feel he shouldn’t retire. But I do think he’s serious.”
At present, no formal process has been established to identify Selig’s successor. And given Selig’s immense power in the game, it would be considered ill form and career-damaging for anyone to publicly declare himself a candidate for the job. But by the end of this season, many baseball executives expect to see the beginning of a pathway that will lead to the next commissioner.
“The next three to five months I think will shed a lot of light on this,” said Pat O’Conner, Minor League Baseball president. “But life in baseball without Bud Selig is still a foreign concept for a lot of us in the game.”
The longest-running temp ever
Part of the humor surrounding Selig’s oft-delayed retirement is that the job was initially intended to be only a temporary move when he became acting commissioner in 1992. With owner sentiment deeply rooted against then-Commissioner Fay Vincent, Selig was among the lead group of owners fronting the effort to remove Vincent. Selig, then the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and chairman of MLB’s powerful executive council, was installed as the sport’s leader. He told Sue the assignment would last only two to four months.
“It’s got to be the longest two to four months in history,” Selig joked upon signing the 2004 contract extension.
What ended up happening, however, is the job and highly tumultuous 1990s period in baseball essentially consumed Selig, keeping him in office.
In early 1993, just on the outside of Selig’s supposed four-month term, an internal search committee formed to find a permanent replacement to Vincent and 10 finalists were eventually identified. Final candidates included veteran industry executive Harvey Schiller, former NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol, former Northwestern University President Arnold Weber, USOC executive Anita DeFrantz and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, later a key figure in Selig-commissioned studies on baseball economics and use of performing-enhancing drugs.
But in early 1994, mounting labor woes with the MLB Players Association prompted owners to abruptly call off the search and beseech Selig to stay on as acting commissioner. He agreed, and then more crises developed. First the players’ strike wiped out the 1994 World Series, followed by a mounting economic divide between large-market and small-market teams, followed by the scandals over performance enhancing drugs. Selig’s acting commissioner tag was removed in 1998 as the once-temporary assignment had long since become a permanent one.
As the years went on, the league began to grow at historic levels and Selig relished the job. After 20 years, he now feels secure enough in his legacy that looking ahead to retirement does not feel like abandoning unfinished business.
“If someone had suggested 20 years ago, even 15, 10 or five years ago, that this sport would be in the place it is in today, you couldn’t have imagined it,” Selig said. “To be talking about gross revenue approaching $8 billion [per year]. Attendance levels we couldn’t have dreamed possible. The sport has never been more popular. It’s a source of real personal satisfaction, no doubt about it.”
What do the owners want?
One significant issue as MLB approaches the transition to a new commissioner is the changing face of team ownership. Since Selig became acting commissioner, 26 of 30 clubs have changed owners or designated control executives, including multiple transfers during the past 20 years for about half the league. As a result, Selig’s current job description involves building consensus with an ownership group with which he simply isn’t as familiar as he once was.
“The connections for him with that group are now very different,” said an industry executive not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The present situation, conversely, provides the owners a unique opportunity to more deliberately select the type of commissioner they want next.
“The first big question is what kind of skill set do they want,” said David Levy, Turner Broadcasting president of sales, distribution and sports. “Are they looking for a pure baseball guy? A media guy? Somebody with more of a legal background? There are a lot of different directions they could go. Either way, we’re talking about what is going to be a very sought-after job.”
Several executives inside and outside the game describe three major tracks the owners could go within those various skill sets: another current owner, following the path Selig traveled; an internal staff candidate such as executive vice presidents Rob Manfred and Tim Brosnan; or an outside executive (See candidates who could be in the mix).
Given the insular culture of baseball, many industry executives see the latter option as unlikely.
“It’s hard to see an outside candidate getting this,” said a financial executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his ongoing relationship with MLB. “The internal culture of the league presents such a steep learning curve to anyone not part of it.”
Also undetermined is whether MLB will conduct its succession search process anything like the more formal effort the NFL used in 2006 to select Roger Goodell to replace Paul Tagliabue or the more direct appointment that has NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver as the designated successor to David Stern effective Feb. 1, 2014.
As of now, expectations veer more toward what the NBA did.
“I don’t see this turning into a beauty contest,” Schiller said. “Whatever is on Bud’s mind, ultimately, is what will drive this. He will drive this process, and he’s a very thoughtful person.”
Selig admitted as much, saying he’s begun to give the matter extensive consideration, but hasn’t tipped his internal thinking to anyone.
“I don’t really have any comment about it. I haven’t talked to anybody about it. I’ve done a lot of thinking about it,” Selig said. “But it’s premature to say anything else about it. I’m going to handle this in a very quiet and thoughtful way.”
Another wild-card option mentioned by some owners is simply selecting a successor on a temporary basis, in essence naming another acting commissioner while buying themselves additional time for a more formal search.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?
For all the movement now developing toward a post-Selig era, there are those in the game still not ready to let him go.
After all, Selig was firmly set to retire at the end of the 2012 season, with precisely the same mindset as now. It was only about 12 months prior that owners, seeing the calendar about to turn to that year, initiated recruiting to get him to stay. Several weeks later, the persuasion efforts worked and Selig agreed to another two-year term.
Several team executives said the first step may be to again wait as long as possible and press Selig for another decision.
“If I have a say, I want Bud to continue on,” said Derrick Hall, Arizona Diamondbacks president and chief executive. “I would hope we try another renewal. I would think the initial approach would be the same as the last time.”
Selig’s comments aside, there is plenty of evidence toward supporting such a move. The league as a whole is thriving.
Selig himself is in great health for his age, and boasts a daily workout streak at more than 1,700 consecutive days and counting. Those who have seen him work an exercise bike marvel at his continued vigor. Similarly, Sue is also in good health. And the compensation package, estimated at somewhere around $30 million per year and including a private jet at his disposal, certainly doesn’t hurt.
And then there are those who believe any process started too early can have detrimental effects, despite the counterargument presented by the NBA’s orderly, planned transition to Silver.
“You can start these types of things too early sometimes,” said former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane. The first MLB owners meeting McLane attended was the September 1992 session where Selig became acting commissioner. “I don’t think this will be a situation where there will be a commissioner-in-waiting for an extended period of time.”
The other argument in favor of Selig staying is the late Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s first commissioner. Landis served 24 years, and if Selig can make it in office through 2016, he’ll have Landis beat and become the longest-serving commissioner in baseball history.
In the end, owners expect Selig to govern his succession process with the oft-repeated phrase of “the best interests of baseball.”
“Regardless of what ends up happening, he’s going to put the game before himself,” Hall said. “That we can definitely count on.”