The End of Everything

December 31, 2016



Ask just about anyone – except maybe a Cubs fan - and they’ll tell you that 2016 was one of the worst years they can remember. Numerous luminaries in so many fields of endeavor passed away, some of them well before “their time”: Muhammed Ali, Arnold Palmer, Gordie Howe, Pat Summit, Jose Fernandez, W.P. Kinsella, Harper Lee, Elie Weisel, Umberto Eco, Pat Conroy, E.L. Doctorow, Alvin Toffler, Richard Adams, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Gene Wilder, George Kennedy, Alan Rickman, Ron Glass, Garry Shandling, Gary Marshall, Robert Stigwood, George Martin, Prince, David Bowie, Maurice White, Pete Fountain, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, George Michael, Merle Haggard, Glenn Frey, Zaha Hadid, Vera Rubin, Dr. Donald Henderson and John Glenn to name but a few. I’m sure most people recognize a lot of those names, but it’s probably the ones that aren’t as widely known who contributed the most to humanity and will be the most sorely missed.


This year also perhaps marked the death of democracy in the United States with an election that was filled with controversy and intrigue that resulted in a new administration filled with oligarchs.  In 2014, a Princeton study concluded that the US had become an oligarchy, that the power no longer rested with the votes of the people but the wills of a few wealthy individuals. The results of the 2016 elections seem to only confirm that conclusion with the likely appointments of so many billionaires to positions of government authority. The problems with that should be self-evident. The incoming anti-science administration probably also increases the likelihood of an extinction level event in our lifetimes.


Given that context, it’s fitting that baseball occupies only a small band in my visual spectrum. However, I have been professionally involved with the game on a number of levels for the last 20 years so it is with considerable disappointment that there came a moment this year when I recognized that the Baseball Hall of Fame no longer has any value other than as a repository for artifacts, most of which the public will never see. That moment occurred when the Veteran’s Committee, the authors of so many previous minor travesties, decided to cast a shadow over them all by electing former commissioner Allan “Bud” Selig for the honor of induction into that institution. No single person in the history of baseball has done more damage to the integrity of the game.


That may sound like hyperbole given that MLB is making more money than ever, and many have described Selig as a great commissioner. But if making money is the primary criteria for greatness, then Vin Diesel, Ben Affleck, Dwayne Johnson and Jackie Chan are the greatest actors in history. And John Stumpf (author of the Wells Fargo phony accounts fiasco) and Jamie Dimon (one of the primary authors of the 2007-2008 Wall Street meltdown) are the greatest financiers in history. Ironically, most people don’t see any of them that way. So why should they see Bud differently?


So here is why Bud was the worst choice possible beginning with a big one: the 1994 strike. Selig and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf were the driving force behind an idea to rein in player salaries, in large part because they did not understand that the players were the product, not the labor. In 1992, they and the other owners had been found guilty of colluding in order to keep down salaries and were forced to pay $280 million in fines. However, they were determined to find some way to force the issue. So in 1994 they convinced the other owners to unilaterally impose a salary cap which forced the players to respond in the only way they legally could: strike. The owner’s insistence on sticking to their solution – despite the fact that any significant change to the basic labor agreement legally had to be collectively bargained – meant not only were they in the wrong from a legal standpoint (which eventual Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor later confirmed) but they forced the cancellation of a World Series for the first time ever. In the spring of 1995 they continued with the charade by publicly trying to pretend that replacement players would be as good as the regular major leaguers and thus warrant the same ticket prices. Needless to say, once games resumed attendance plummeted because fans were so disgusted. Had it not been for people playing fantasy baseball still buying tickets, baseball might have been relegated to the dustbin of history. The average fan didn’t start coming back to games until the 1998 home run chase between Sosa and McGwire. As for 1994, it became the season that no one ever talks about, which is unfortunate because that was the season in which the Montreal Expos could have turned into a dynasty. Instead, the stoppage cost them a post-season berth as the NL East Division winner, but more importantly all the income that they would have gotten with the extra ticket sales and broadcasting revenue. That played a huge role in their downward financial spiral, ultimately resulting in their relocation to Washington DC.


But that wasn’t the only felony committed in Montreal under Selig. No, before they were moved he supervised the transfer of ownership from Jeffrey Loria, who wanted to buy the Marlins and is objectively one of the worst owners in baseball history when it comes to servicing the needs of his fan base, to an ownership group comprised of the other 29 owners. The conflict of interest was staggering. Of course, conflict of interest was nothing new to Selig since he served as both commissioner of baseball and owner of the Milwaukee Brewers simultaneously for 13 years. To remind everyone how bad Loria was (and still is), in Montreal he refused to negotiate an English-speaking radio broadcast for games, looted all of the franchise’s scouting and administrative materials when he took ownership of the Marlins, and then in Florida lied to Marlins fans and Miami officials about the financial situation of his team in order to get them to pay for a new stadium. He has also been the author of several fire sales spanning both teams.


Even after the complete failure of the 1994-1995 stoppage, Selig was undeterred. His next effort came right after the 2001 season, one in which baseball was seen as a significant healer to the national psyche in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. So of course, Selig used that moment to threaten to contract two teams – likely the Minnesota Twins and the Montreal Expos – in order to limit player salaries. He did this under the pretext that neither city could support a team. Unfortunately, like it is for climate science deniers, the evidence to the contrary was overwhelming. During the 1980s, there were several years in which Montreal drew more fans than the New York Yankees, and the only reason why the Expos weren’t more competitive was due to their ownership’s incompetence. Minnesota was just a few years removed from two World Series championships in 1987 and 1991 and had just finished in 2nd in their division in 2001. They would win it in each of the next three seasons. So the notion that neither could not be competitive was beyond absurd. This ploy failed spectacularly in the court of public opinion.


In 2008, after a hurricane prompted the cancellation of two Astros home games against the division rival Cubs, Selig impacted a playoff race by rescheduling those games to be played in Milwaukee – as opposed to much more convenient stadiums like Texas (in Arlington) or Atlanta, which were both available. So the Cubs, which play only a couple hours drive from Milwaukee, in essence got a couple extra home games. The Astros lost both games and ended up missing the playoffs.


Selig presided over the extortion of cities for new stadiums. Twenty of the thirty teams in baseball have new stadiums since 1992, nineteen of which were paid for with public money. In addition, there have been fourteen new spring training stadiums. Former Giant’s owner Peter Magowan financed the one stadium that wasn’t paid for primarily by public money. In doing so, he drew the ire of Selig who was afraid that precedent would cost the other owners their taxpayer-funded (read: free) stadiums. As evidence, Oakland is the only team which Selig has blocked from pursuing relocation in order to get a new stadium, a move that would have benefitted both the As and Magowan’s Giants.


He fast-tracked Frank McCourt’s purchase of the Dodgers, which turned out to be another terrible ownership decision. McCourt’s tenure in LA was marked by numerous scandals including a charitable foundation under the team banner for which the CEO was paid a quarter of all the incoming monies, and a two-year divorce fight that interfered with the management and finances of the team, which, by the way, had been so dreadful to date that one of the most successful franchises in the history of professional sports ultimately had to file for bankruptcy. Selig also re-instated George Steinbrenner after the latter had received a lifetime ban for conspiring with a loan shark whom he had paid to dredge up dirt that he could use on Dave Winfield - one of his own players - so that he wouldn’t have to fulfill an obligation in Winfield’s contract.


Selig also presided over the steroid era for more than a decade despite publicly acknowledging as early as the 1980s that it was a problem. Fay Vincent had banned PEDs in 1991 but Selig didn’t implement testing even in the minors until 2001. Had nearly 10% of the tests not come back positive in the first year, he probably would not have done anything further. However, public outcry and the threat of Congressional intervention forced him and the Players Union to agree to survey testing in 2003. He could have made it a primary issue of two collective bargaining agreements (in 1994 and again in 1996) before it came to that. He sponsored the Mitchell Report in 2007, which could have been something useful, but instead was nothing more than a half-assed effort to embarrass 87 ballplayers, some active, many retired. None of the active players were suspended. In short, Bud Selig normalized cheating. He did as little as possible to curtail the rise of PED use and only when forced by public demand did he implement testing, and even then the suspensions were ridiculously light. At first, suspensions were only 15 games for steroids and no suspension for amphetamines. Players in Olympic sports have been banned for years upon one positive test; baseball players still don’t face that kind of immediate punishment. It was also his refusal to make testing in baseball equal to that of the Olympics that eventually forced baseball to be removed as an Olympic sport.


Among the developments that he is credited with, few were his idea or his innovation, and those that were have been brought about by necessity. Re-alignment was his predecessor Fay Vincent’s idea. Interleague baseball became a necessity because of it.  Instant replay was used extensively and decisively in just about every other major sport before baseball made even the slightest foray into its advantages. He does get credit for the World Baseball Classic, which became a necessity as an international showcase once baseball was ousted from the Olympics. But even with its success among the fans it has failed to lure many of the best players into participating.


Conversely, the one idea that was exclusively his was to have the All-Star game decide home field advantage in the World Series. The notion that a historically decisive advantage in the post-season should be determined by an exhibition game played by teams that are forced to have representatives from every team (regardless of how bad) and in which the representatives themselves are chosen using three sometimes conflicting methods is beyond reason. Fortunately, baseball has finally abolished that intrigue.


To sum up, Selig destroyed the integrity of baseball for a generation in pursuit of a few extra bucks, he normalized cheating and implemented some of the stupidest policies in the history of the game, yet somehow was deserving of baseball’s greatest individual honor. For me that’s like giving Benedict Arnold the Medal of Honor. So from this point on, anyone the Hall of Fame inducts is necessarily a better candidate because no one else has caused more harm to the game. Everyone qualifies. And when everyone qualifies, it is no longer special or noteworthy. That is a sad thing… and not all that surprising that it occurred in 2016.