A tremendous event happened in Major League Baseball recently, although you might not have felt it. Hell, you could very well have not noticed or even forgotten about it. I’m of course referring to the selection of Rob Manfred as the next Commissioner of Baseball, a title that will become official in 2015.
My thoughts on this choice are … well, nonexistent. As tremendous as the announcement is, given his predecessor’s lengthy tenure, Manfred’s selection elicited no emotional response from me. No anger, no surprise, no excitement, just … nothing.
This isn’t to say Manfred is unqualified for the job. After all, his resume includes Harvard Law School, a long history of working in labor and employment affairs, outside counsel to MLB owners during the ‘94 strike and MLB chief operating officer. Yet If anything, that’s part of why his selection is as thrilling for me to write about as watching a documentary about blenders. I understand why it’s functional and necessary, but that doesn’t make it interesting.
I don’t expect MLB commissioners to be as eccentric and indelible as Rube Waddell or Lou Gehrig, but a little character or a momentous accomplishment doesn’t hurt. Stubbornly racist as he was, Kenesaw Mountain Landis instantly etched his place in baseball history not just for banning the Black Sox for life, but doing so with the steeliness he had as a federal judge. Peter Ueberroth sailed into the job after bringing the Olympics to Los Angeles in 1984, which made him Time Magazine Man of the Year and served as a pinnacle event in the patriotic epoch of the Reagan years. The greater intrigue of the story is not about who’s coming in, but rather who’s leaving. After two decades at the helm, Bud Selig’s controversial but eventful tenure is finally in its last months. In that time, it feels like the game has sifted through multiple eras in less than twenty years. Counting the time he served as acting commissioner from 1992 until his official confirmation in 1998, America’s pastime has probably never experienced such a parade of unprecedented highs and lows that threatened the sport’s stature altogether. They include the 1994 strike (and subsequent cancellation of that year’s World Series), division realignments, the revitalizing McGwire-Sosa home run chase in 1998, the potential last ever dynasty in baseball, instant replay, the September 11 attacks, steroid scandals and hearings galore, the 2002 All-Star Game tie, and the addition of another wild card, among others.
Selig’s legacy, one I considered a certified travesty in my early years as a fan, looks like more of a mixed bag as he bows out. On the negative side, the 2002 All-Star Game tie is still a failure, not only for its deflating end to what had been a joyous contest for baseball fans, but for the overreach Selig resorted to to make up for it after the backlash. This of course was the decision to make the game determine who holds home field advantage in the World Series, a rule whose ludicrous logic was perfectly summed up by my colleague Andy after this year’s contest in Minneapolis (link to your piece).
Steroids and other substance abuse cases have corroded the game as well, albeit they haven’t been as potentially lethal to it as the ‘94 strike was. But the sullying of once surefire Hall of Famers like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, in addition to recent disclosures like the Biogenesis scandals, still have a lingering impact that feels unresolved. And of course, as 2001 was my first year as a baseball and Twins fan, his immediate threat to contract my favorite team made him a villain for my preteen years.
On the upside, baseball has enjoyed a strong popularity while improving in substantial regards. While the overseas games in places like Japan and Australia have rightly drawn the ire of many fans (and even some players), they’re nonetheless part of a push to expand MLB as a globally recognized entity. More importantly, it means baseball, the greatest sport in the world, being appropriately promoted across the globe. Especially when the vastly overrated spectacle of soccer is rammed down our throats every four years for the World Cup, any plan to inspire kids from Croatia to El Salvador to grow up with baseball is a golden one.
The postseason has become a bigger and more satisfying period on par with the NFL, NHL and NBA, though granted a second wild card wasn’t necessary for it to be a more religious experience than those leagues’ playoffs. But that second WC does mean long-starved teams and fans can get into October, and as we see the Royals and Mariners jockey for spots this season, Selig’s decision looks even more vindicated. Instant replay, lethargic as it can be, is predictably fixing once irreversible bad calls. Lastly, while it may be just a smart gesture to some, his decision to retire Jackie Robinson’s number across all of baseball has always won my deepest respect.
These strengths of Selig’s tenure are further magnified in comparison to the shortcomings of other professional sporting leagues. Like my friend and colleague Brad, I’ve chosen to skip the NFL this year easily due to their cruel negligence of the concussion issue, their anemic “punishment” for Ray Rice’s domestic violence episode and their arrogant demand that musicians pay to play the Super Bowl halftime show. All, of course, while raking in massive profits and refusing to pay taxes. Even MLB at its most flawed doesn’t come close to such an ignorant, gluttonous M.O. in running a major sport. And while I’m obviously no soccer fan, FIFA might as well just be a Mafia syndicate the way they abuse workers and displace poor people to build stadiums.
That being said, the moment for Selig’s departure has more than come, and it’s time for a fresh start. Warts and all, Manfred inherits a game in decent shape, and I wish him smooth sailing throughout his tenure. Especially considering what NBA chief Adam Silver had foisted upon him by the Donald Sterling saga, here’s hoping at least the first year or two are relatively “uneventful.” If I had a suggestion for a first decisive action, however, it’d be a controversial but necessary one: Doing to steroids what Bart Giamatti did to gambling in 1989.