Bud Selig’s arrogance may have cost him his legacy. He may be remembered at the man who guided the league through a very difficult players’ strike and oversaw the greatest expansion of the sport’s popularity. He may also be remembered as the commissioner who allowed the greatest deception in the history of our national past-time. In an era when the NFL became the prominent league in the United States and as NASCAR grew to unimaginable proportions; Bud Selig faced the looming prospect of falling out of national prominence. Unthinkable now, but in the seasons following the strike-shortened 1994 season, fans were slow to come back to a sport that, at the time, many viewed at passe and quaint. The NFL and NASCAR were the sports of the future, full of action, they were the antithesis of baseball. Bud Selig needed heroes and he needed them fast. The one thing his sport had over NASCAR and the NFL, the MLB is a league a faces. There are no helmets to obscure the players’ faces, no body suits to make every competitor just another cog in the machinery of sports. Baseball had always been a league of characters and Selig knew he needed a few to shine.
At that time, there was no one bigger than Ken Griffey Jr. he was ‘The Kid”. His numbers were eye popping; he was on pace to break nearly every major career hitting record. He also had 5 straight gold gloves following the 1994 season (he would go on to win 10 straight). A Seattle teammate of Griffey’s, however, would go on to be hailed as the savior of the sport. Cocky, pretty, and young; Alex Rodriguez would overcome a lackluster rookie season in 1994 to hit 19 home runs in 1995. He would then hit no fewer than 20 in any other season (he has hit more than 40 home runs in 8 seasons so far). This would play right into Selig’s seemingly single-minded mission to push for the long ball. Griffey’s season was cut in half by a broken wrist in 1995. As his career started to falter ever so slightly due to injuries, A-Rod was hyped as the future of the sport as Griffey was, for all intents and purposes, thrown under the bus. Selig underestimated the fans. Yes home runs are exciting, but what the commissioner failed to realize is that baseball fans appreciate exciting games, no matter if they are slugfests or small ball bonanzas. Selig had made his bed and it was with cahracters like Rodriguez and Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. Selig didn’t want authenticity, he wanted revenue.
MLB is a business. But baseball is more than just the bottom line. As the saying goes, “As American as baseball and apple pie.” Baseball is woven into the fabric of the nation. Bud Selig forgot that. He chose profit over integrity. The theatrics of 1998 did help revive the sport, but at what cost? Instead of hyping the growing internationalism of the game (as America herself has diversified over the past two decades) the MLB leadership, led by Bud Selig went with what was easy to obtain. Just as every player in the Mitchell Report did what was easy, not what was necessary. Now I understand that it is unfair to lay the blame only at the feet of the commissioner. The owners, the players’ union, and indeed the fans all share the blame. The owners were looking to profit just like Selig. The players’ union was looking to protect it’s members. The fans were looking for entertainment. But ultimately, it was Selig who failed to act, he failed to stop steroids when he had the chance.
In the grand scheme of things, baseball statistics are not all that important. Asterisk or no, the numbers are just that, numbers. They are not a secret code to eternal life, just as baseball is not a cure-all for everything that ails us as a society. But our national past-time can serve as a model for the rest of us. It is a team sport, requireing cooperation, dedication, and hard work. Everything we claim to hold dear as a society. The growing diversity mirrors the growing diversity of America’s population. New strategies and methods will be needed to win games as the game itself evolves; just as new tactics and strategies will be needed to steer the country out of the financial crisis. Baseball isn’t just a game and it certainly isn’t just another business. We do hold it to a higher standard because, consciously or not, we wish to hold ourselves to a higher standard.