Bauman: Selig proud of 'wonderful year'
Challenging economy doesn't deter Commissioner, game
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig sums up the game's 2009 experience by saying: "It was a difficult year, but a wonderful year."
That's a broad spectrum of experience for the national pastime. But it isn't an exaggeration.
The effect of a recessionary economy on the game was a great concern coming into the season. The game, like nearly all facets of American life, was bound to suffer somewhat, but the general economic difficulties did not do fundamental damage to the game.
"There were a lot of clubs that had difficulty, some were significantly impacted," Selig said in an interview with MLB.com. "But in terms of management, in terms of the popularity of the sport, which is just enormous, it was a remarkable year in a lot of ways. We launched a [television] channel which had remarkable success, [MLB.com] continued to do very well, we draw 73, 74 million people. It's a great tribute to the sport.
"[The decline in attendance] was fractional. If you take out the two New York ballparks' reduced capacity, we're down about five percent. There isn't a business, there isn't an entity in America who would be unhappy being down only five percent in this economy. You bet, I'm very proud of that.
"It's been a great year. Given the economic environment that we live in and all the great concerns and trepidation that we had late last year, into January, February and March, the year turned out remarkably well. It was a difficult year, but a wonderful year.
"On the field, it was fabulous. A great year, beginning to end. We had more competitive balance. It was just a terrific year, under the worst circumstances since the Great Depression. That's the point you have to keep in mind."
Selig has been Commissioner for more than 17 years. Prior to the general economic downturn, the game was reaching record levels of prosperity on an annual basis. In good times and bad, the game's economic structure has changed dramatically in those 17 years. Selig's tenure has been characterized by economic reforms such as revenue sharing and the luxury tax that are intended to improve competitive balance. With the wide variations among franchises' ability to generate revenue, and without a salary cap, baseball's economic playing field cannot be completely level. But the movement toward greater competitive balance has changed the competitive character of the game.
"When I took over it was really dismal," Selig said. "We had a sport that had been stuck in neutral for three or four decades, unwilling to change. Nobody is more of a traditionalist than I am, as you know. I knew that moving forward would be painful, because any time you try to change a social institution -- which baseball is, you've heard me say that often enough -- it's difficult. The person who attempted the change was going to feel the pain and that was true.
"But the economic reforms have been remarkable. When you think of what baseball's economic system was in 1992 and what it is today, nobody could have ever believed that we would have this kind of revenue sharing and the luxury tax. People talk about the system, it needs this and that, and I don't deny that it needs some work. But I think of the pain that we went through in the 1990s and the evolution since then, it's sort of stunning. I'm proud of the change."
The game remains vulnerable to revelations of the use of performance-enhancing drugs in its recent past. For Selig, that is history, replaced by what he always refers to as "the "toughest drug-testing policy in American sports."
"When the administrator of the program announced this year that there had been only two positive tests, nobody made much of it because they now accept it as fact," the Commissioner said. "People want to say, 'Well, they should have known about [PED abuse].' The fact is that my Minor League testing program is entering its 10th year. And we've gone from an 11 percent rate [of positive tests] down to less than 1/2 of one percent in the Minor Leagues."
Selig remains a baseball fan, an extremely prominent baseball fan, but a fan still. He understands that the game cannot stand still; that it must change, adapt, evolve. To that end, he has named a 14-member Special Committee for On-Field Matters. The group, consisting primarily of managers, general managers and representatives of ownership, has a wide-ranging mandate to recommend any and all changes it finds necessary.
"One of the things I missed in this job, all the years when I ran the Brewers there were all the conversations with the managers, the general managers, the coaches, the scouts," Selig said. "So I said to myself, it's really time I hear from all the people I have a lot of respect for.
"I wanted to start out with a workable committee, and I wanted to know what they say, what they think, about the game on the field. All of them have enormous experience. I'm really looking forward to this. And I meant what I said to them: There are no sacred cows here. Whatever they come up with, I'm going to implement.
"And I'll tell you what's really impressive: They're all really excited about this. I called each and every one of them, I did this alone, nobody else knew. They were all really honored and happy to be part of it. Let me give you one example. Tony La Russa organized with Mike Scioscia and Jim Leyland and they had a meeting in Indianapolis [during the Winter Meetings]. Joe [Torre] wasn't there but they talked to him by telephone. There's a high level of interest and I'm looking forward to working with them."
So the grand old game not only survived a difficult year, but has reason to look to the future with legitimate optimism.
"It was a challenging year in many ways, but it was also a terrific year," Selig said. "It proves once again that there is something so intrinsically good about this game."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.