Inside Baseball: Bud's Man Manfred

Inside Baseball: Bud's Man Manfred

Major League Baseball announced that its thirty owners voted unanimously for MLB Executive Vice President Rob Manfred as the game’s new commissioner on Thursday. Even Saddam Hussein always made sure to include a few dissenters in the final tally to convey the illusion of democracy.

The vote that mattered here came from the former owner who no longer possessed a ballot: Bud Selig. So, the reported 30-0 sham election obscured the real election, in which one candidate, Rob Manfred, received one vote, Bud Selig’s, from the only constituency that mattered.

It’s strange that a billionaire’s club could be bullied so badly. That Bud Selig played the Buddy Hinton proves even stranger. As David Stern’s NBA grabbed a global audience and Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell’s NFL moved football’s gross domestic product ahead of Curacao, Nicaragua, and other baseball-loving nations, Bud Selig’s MLB continued its slow slide from America’s summer passion to an antiquarian’s game. If a monocle were a sport, it would be baseball. Octogenarian Bud Selig helped make this so.

Baseball’s popularity has plummeted under Commissioner Selig’s stewardship. Ratings for the World Series have halved since he took the reins. In 1992, 21 percent of respondents named baseball their favorite sport in the Harris polling organization’s annual survey. Harris reported just 14 percent of Americans citing baseball as their preferred sport in January. America’s pastime’s time has passed.

Blame the frustratingly high rate of failure at the plate in an age of trophies for everyone and grade inflation. Blame the digital distractions and ADHD that make a sport of patience a form of torture. But blame Bud Selig, too.

The two biggest events of Selig’s tenure were both overwhelmingly negative. The 1994 strike erased a World Series, killed the franchise that appeared destined to win it, and broke millions of fans of their summer addiction by forcing them to go cold turkey. The event that brought baseball back in the public’s good graces, the Sammy Sosa-Mark McGwire home run chase of 1998, proved not only illusory but a disgrace eclipsing the strike. Selig, who became the de facto though not titular commissioner several years after the appearance in dugouts of guys who could pass for Paul Orndoff’s tag-team partner, responded to steroids by counting receipts instead of meting out suspensions. The former owner from Milwaukee owes Milwaukee’s favorite player an apology. Major League Baseball issued its first suspensions for performance-enhancing drugs more than a decade after both Selig assumed off-field power and fans with brains assumed that the on-field power came via means other than Joe Weider protein shakes and Nautilus machines.

He grew revenues, which stands as the reason he remained in office longer than every commissioner save Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and not every big issue turned out as disastrously as the two biggest he tackled. In adding the wildcard, accepting instant-replay review, imposing revenue sharing, and imbuing the All-Star game with postseason meaning, Selig gives fans the ability to debate the pros and cons rather than issue a harsh verdict by default.

The quality baseball surely enjoys over football, hockey, basketball, and perhaps every other sport–tradition–has been trampled on by Selig’s chase for dollars and zest for power. The commissioner, like Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, and others who unwittingly helped prop him up, waged war on the greatest thing the game has going for it. He eliminated the league presidents, pushed Milwaukee into the National and Houston into the American, erased “NL” and “AL” designations from umpiring crews, and introduced interleague play, which, like that Sixto Lezcano baby-blue Brewers pullover, captivates upon first glance but wears thin with every subsequent look. A game passed on from fathers to sons naturally should defer to tradition, not change for change’s sake.

Posterity, like the past passed by in the now-fictional record book, won’t look favorably on the Steroids Commissioner. But thirty guys in a Hyatt Regency in Baltimore did. Or at least that’s what they want us to think. It actually took six ballots to elect the new commissioner, and the 30-0 vote came only after Selig’s man Manfred secured the necessary two-thirds support of the owners. Whereas autocracies feign a diversity of approved opinion, democracies strangely crave to present a mask of uniformity.

Those deadlocked ballots show that not everyone has drunk the former Brewers owner’s strange brew.