(Reuters) - Bud Selig, the ninth commissioner of Major League Baseball, retires later this month. He’s had many hits in his 22-year tenure: record revenues (nearly $9 billion this past season, up from $1.2 billion when he assumed office), record attendance at a score of new ballparks; and no strikes or lockouts in two decades. He’s had a few misses as well: the Steroids Era; the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, a tie in the 2002 All-Star Game; and an overall image that, however unfair, typically includes the modifier “bumbling” rather than “beloved.”
A baseball lifer, Selig was an owner at 35, buying the Seattle Pilots and moving the team in 1970 to Milwaukee, renamed the Brewers.(Four years earlier, the Milwaukee Braves had skipped town for Atlanta.) After baseball owners in 1992 forced Fay Vincent out as commissioner, Selig took over. Now 80, earnest and rumpled as ever, he spoke to Reuters contributor David A. Kaplan from his offices in Milwaukee. In a far-ranging conversation, they talked about Cuba, Lincoln, steroids, labor relations, legacy, Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe, and Derek Jeter. Edited excerpts:
REUTERS: So, what do you think now, some 22 years after your predecessor Fay Vincent derisively proclaimed himself “the last commissioner”?
SELIG: Yeah, he doesn’t do that as much as he used to, does he? I wonder what he thinks now when he sees the game as it exists today.
Q: Did President Obama’s decision on Cuba come as a shock?
A: I don’t know yet what it means, but yes….Like all businesses, we are eager to hear what the change in policy means for our industry.
Q: You weren’t given any sense it was going to happen?
A: Oh, no, no.
Q: Have you heard from the Administration?
A: No, there’s no reason why we would.
Q: What do you know now that you didn’t know 20 years ago?
A: When I look back, I’m just stunned at how we hadn’t addressed our problems, how the economic system was an anachronism.
Q: What have you come to learn about people?
A: If you’re going to change the system, you have to understand the people. I’ve been through two or three generations of them.
Q: You’ve often told me you’re a student of history.
A: Well, I’ve talked a lot to Doris [Kearns Goodwin] about “Team of Rivals.”
Q: So you’re Lincoln the baseball commissioner? [Laughter]
A: No, no, I’m not! [Laughter]
Q: But you’ve presumably come to know something about the qualities of leadership.
A: I knew how unpopular the stuff was that I was doing in the 1990s. Baseball’s a social institution. For any change you make, the public and press and everybody fights – like reforming an economic system that was stuck in Ebbets Field days.
Q: You mean revenue-sharing [whereby the richer teams give part of their take to poorer teams]?
Q: But contraction also was on the table in 2001 – getting rid of two teams outright.
A: It was discussed like a lot of things, but not nearly as seriously as everybody thought.
Q: Do you regret any steps you took or didn’t take?
A: When I think of where we are, the answer is no. We were under $2 billion in revenue under “the last commissioner.” We now have the extraordinarily successful BAM [Baseball Advanced Media, which is the league’s Internet business, shared equally by the 30 teams]. We have the [MLB] TV network; $450 million in revenue-sharing; more competitive balance than ever. In the end, I got everything done I wanted.
Q: Might some of your successes happened because of the times, regardless of who was sitting in your chair?
A: I’m a history buff, but I’m not sure I’d say that.
Q: Lincoln wouldn’t have been much of a president in 1856. Circumstances can make the man.
A: Things were not about to happen in baseball. There wasn’t any groundwork laid.
Q: After decades of work stoppages, didn’t relations between the players union and the owners have to mature at some point?
A: Having gone through a lot of hell and travail, I have to tell you: not much.
Q: One could argue the travails aren’t entirely over, right? There were percolations of it last summer in disagreements over your successor. [The new commissioner will be Rob Manfred, who for years led management in negotiations with the union. Several owners thought he’d been too soft.]
A: It’s a very political job. But I don’t read things that way.
Q: I’ve heard smart critiques arguing baseball fixates on the luxe crowd, as well as national TV, like for the World Series. Whereas it might better focus on local and niche audiences - akin to the model of the minor leagues.
A: There’s plenty of work to be done there. But people are paying us a lot of money. And our local television ratings are outstanding.
Q: What about playing some World Series games in the afternoon, so tomorrow’s generation of fans can watch?
A: I don’t agree…Let me tell you about a speech in 1958 by a sports editor in Milwaukee, Oliver E. Kuechle. He declared baseball moribund because it wasn’t attracting the younger generation. Here we are, 56 years later, and baseball’s more popular than ever.
Q: And the TV numbers, like for the recent World Series, don’t cause you worry?
A: They do not. Television has changed. When the World Series is on, we have intense competition. But outside of the NFL, nobody rates as highly as we do.
Q: You and I talked some years ago about “Shoeless Joe” Jackson [from the Black Sox Scandal of 1919]. Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Bob Feller petitioned to reinstate him from baseball’s “ineligible list,” so he’d be eligible for the Hall. You never acted. Might you be issuing any last-minute pardons?
A: No, sir. He was a great player but there’s a lot of history there.
Q: What about Pete Rose [ineligible since 1989]?
A: I have no comment on that at all.
Q: I don’t want to mislead readers in suggesting nothing’s going to happen when it might.
A: You wouldn’t be misleading them.
Q: I have to ask you about an iconic TV image – when you were in the stands witnessing Barry Bonds’ record-tying 755th home run in 2007. Your hands were in your pockets – was that conscious or accidental?
A: I guess you’re right – I’ve never said anything about that and I’d really rather not.
Q: My sense is your reaction was a well-choreographed way to express ambivalence. You were present, but no hands clapping.
Q: Am I a smart guy?
A: I don’t want to bring up all those old things. I want to leave in peace and quiet.
Q: Would you like to see Bonds in the Hall someday?
A: That’s up to the baseball writers.
Q: But you’re still a baseball fan.
A: I know, David. But when it comes to the drug thing, I did everything I could. We have the toughest drug-testing program in America – a sport that used to have nothing. When it comes to that other thing, there’s no sense in replowing ground.
Q: Let me ask you about human nature. Drug-testing certainly has made advances in your sport. Why do you suppose any player still cheats in the face of pretty good tests?
A: I don’t know.
Q: You and the players union and baseball generally have all been blamed for sticking your heads in the sand for a long time. So, I‘m curious: Has the question about human nature at least occurred to you?
A: Of course you think about it. But I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved. This past year, we had 7,929 drug tests: There were two positives for performance-enhancing drugs, and 10 for stimulants.
Q: I ask you these questions because over time people and nations undergo rapprochement. They don’t forget, but they forgive. What about Marvin Miller, [the revolutionary head of the players union from 1966 to 1982], who committed no offense other than infuriating owners by leading the players into free agency?
A: No, and by the way, I’ve said Marvin should be in the Hall of Fame.
Q: So why did Marvin – not long before he died [in 2012, at 95] – tell me that if you wanted him in the Hall you would’ve made sure it happened?
A: I am not on that committee [that picks non-player inductees].
Q: What about my question about rapprochement?
A: There are too many far more important things that have happened in baseball.
Q: I guess it comes down to whether one might see Marvin’s induction as healing a wound?
A: We’ve had 20 years of labor peace. I have a beautiful note on my desk from Michael Weiner [the late head of the union] and his wife who wrote me when I announced in October of 2013 I would retire [Weiner died the following month]…I’m very proud of it. So, I don’t know what wounds we’re talking about.
Q: You’ve accomplished a lot. Yet it seems to me you’re the Rodney Dangerfield of commissioners – you don’t quite get the respect.
A: In the ’90s it was tough. One of baseball’s indigenous characteristics is that it’s resistant to change. Remember all the hollering about the wild card? Oh my God.
Q: Some guy named [Bob] Costas?
A: I’ve been treated great in the last 10 or 15 years. Some of my severest critics have become my greatest fans. Bob has even come around on the wild card…[Columnist] Mike Lupica used to kill me. The last 10 years, he’s been my most fervent admirer.
Q: It sounds like you care about your legacy.
A: We all do.
Q: What’s yours?
A: We’ve accomplished more change during the last 22 years than ever before. But I’ll let you and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and everybody else decide my legacy.
Q: You’re kind to put us in that order. I’m not quite sure that’s right, but then again he’s dead.
A: All right, then my friend Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Q: Biggest achievement as commissioner?
A: Changing the economic system. BAM, for example, is an unbelievable story.
Q: Because of the revenue or because it even happened?
A: I got the owners to approve its creation, 30-0.
Q: Harder question: What were the lows?
A: The cancellation of the ’94 World Series [because of a players strike] was my saddest moment. Life is funny. We’d had seven work stoppages. Yet heartbreaking as it was not to have the Series, maybe we had to go through it to achieve labor peace.
Q: There was a salutary effect to canceling the World Series?
Q: Any favorite players from your tenure?
A: I’m in a position of having to be neutral, but I have great regard for Derek Jeter. He’s everything a player should be on the field, and more importantly, off.
Q: Will he be an owner someday?
A: I know he’d like to be, and I’d like to see it happen.
Q: He says he needs some more money.
A: Time will tell.
Q: Still planning your memoirs?
A: Yes. [Goodwin may help him write it.]
Q: And you’ll continue to teach sports and law at Marquette?
A: And at the University of Wisconsin.
Q: What subject?
A: History, of course.
Q: I must tell you a favorite parental memory: In 1999 I brought my oldest son to the All-Star Game at Fenway Park – the one when all the players gathered round Ted Williams on the mound before the first pitch.
A: A great moment in my career.
Q: You were chatting with my son at a reception beforehand and offered to introduce him to Hank Aaron, who was nearby.
A: My great friend.
Q: And my son, then 7, replied, “First, I want to get some of those hot dogs over there!” You turned to me and said, “Now there’s a kid who understands baseball.”
A: Exactly right.
Reporting By David A. Kaplan; Editor: Hank Gilman