Depending upon whom you ask, Bud Selig has already etched his legacy as baseball’s best commissioner and possibly one of the best commissioners in sports history. In nearly two decades of service, Selig navigated the treacherous waters of labor strife and the steroid era. For this, Selig’s supporters will say, he deserves a place in Cooperstown and baseball lore.
While chunks of truth reside in that praise, the full truth is that Selig’s real legacy is hitched to Frank McCourt, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the actions and decisions of the next owner the commissioner entrusts with one of America’s most iconic sporting franchises.
Because MLB assumed control of the Dodgers and Selig stood determined to kick McCourt out of Los Angeles — things that Selig deserves credit for — doesn’t mean Selig’s work is done or that he has suddenly saved a town that had lost its team.
Selig may not have bloodied his hands in the slaying of the Dodgers, but he held the knife by empowering McCourt with one of his greatest assets when multiple warning signs suggested not to.
A few years after Fox purchased the Dodgers from the O’Malley family, the media giant — owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. — expressed dire interest in ridding itself of the franchise after reporting $50 million in annual losses. By the time Fox sold the Dodgers to McCourt in 2004, it had been a lucrative business partner with MLB for almost a decade.
Two years after the ’94 strike canceled the World Series, MLB reached a deal with Fox and in it included a future agreement that would protect MLB should it experience canceled games again. Basically, MLB would still get paid while returning the favor with a few additional broadcasts.
Of course, when Fox wanted out of the Dodgers, nobody mentioned Selig’s seemingly compromised interests when he approved of the $430 million sale of the franchise to McCourt, a transaction that was completed largely on the back of borrowed funds. Fox offered a $145 million loan — to be repaid in two years without interest — while McCourt used parking lots in Boston as collateral.
At his introductory press conference, McCourt was as smug as ever, proclaiming, “Welcome to a new era of Dodger baseball … I want to put a polish back on the Dodger brand.”
Selig batted his eyes at his prize before taking the microphone and saying, among other things, “There is no doubt in my mind (McCourt) will be a great owner.”
Two years later, as the Los Angeles Times reported, McCourt — who not surprisingly couldn’t repay the loan — relented 24 acres of Boston property to settle his deal with Fox. Meanwhile, more than $250 million in debt remained on McCourt’s hands.
The man who promised to keep the Dodgers’ payroll among the league’s elite was still far from financial freedom. None of this awoke Selig from his slumber. And really, why would it? By then, Selig was enjoying an eight-figure annual salary and a glowing legacy that had been rightfully earned but also was partially constructed on false premises.
Selig is credited for bringing fans back to baseball after the ’94 strike pushed them away, but that comes with a massive asterisk (pardon the pun): Selig didn’t bring fans back, the byproduct of the Steroid Era did.
Before we all acted righteous and shocked that athletes would bend rules and pop banned substances to increase their earning power, we reveled in the 500-foot home runs and the joy that came with the Summer of ’98. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both were chasing Roger Maris’ single-season home run record, and nobody wanted to believe that it could be an insincere feat. Baseball, again, was fun.
The league rode that wave of prosperity as long as it could, until Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and the game’s stars started defying the laws of age. All the while, attendance remained high, the gates churned, memorabilia sold, and TV, radio and advertising dollars poured in.
Selig was at the forefront of all of this and should be credited as such. But have you recognized one tiny little revenue-generating vehicle Selig’s staunchest supporters consistently leave out of their explanations of these golden baseball years? The Internet. I would argue Selig’s real ingenuity came in his ability to step aside and let the product prosper at a time when all businesses were figuring out the dot com revenue stream.
The rest of Selig’s legacy is tied to his efforts to encourage revenue sharing in support of mid- and small-market clubs. Selig appointed The Blue Ribbon Panel to study parity across baseball and devise a plan to foster it. What came of the research was a 2006 agreement between MLB and the players’ union that requires all teams to pool 34 percent of “local” revenues — gate, concessions, advertising, cable rights, etc. — which is then redistributed across the league.*
*The whole idea of revenue sharing actually needs proper context, too. Selig pushed this as part of a good faith effort to help teams that couldn’t compete financially, yet for years he has discouraged the ONE opportunity these teams have to beat the giants: spending in the draft. Instead, the commissioner has recommended “slot” values to restrict signing bonuses, thus creating a system where elite talent falls down the draft board until an affluent club takes the player and pays him a premium bonus. Now with MLB’s next CBA on the horizon, there are rumors of a draft tax — in essence (if this happens), teams will be PENALIZED for trying to secure undervalued assets. So instead of getting Stephen Strasburg for six years at less than $3 million per year, the commissioner suggests teams overpay for veterans on the free agent market who will never form the foundation for future success. Savvy!
Of course, if you spent any time watching the postseason this fall, you know that baseball hasn’t been healthier, the games haven’t been more fun. This is to Selig’s credit. He captained that ship.
But all of that goodwill and loving legacy will combust if Selig doesn’t put the Dodgers in the hands of a progressive owner who will know when to be frugal and when to use the financial might that comes with the country’s second-largest market to produce a winning club.
If Selig does that, then everything his legacy has been built upon until now will hold up. Selig will be applauded and honored, and he will deserve it.
But if he retires (which he’s planning to after next season) and the third-most valuable club in the league remains in shambles, the ghosts of McCourt will haunt Selig’s name forever.