Forbes, for example, came up with its own rosy figures this spring, disputing the ones Selig provided under oath to a Congressional committee, before which he was pilloried and, essentially, branded a flat-out liar. The esteemed Jesse Ventura, erstwhile XFL shill and governor of Minnesota-home of one of the teams the commissioner reportedly planned to eliminate—sat next to Selig, smirking and sniping at him. Unlike the overseers of other sports, baseball commissioners have become figures of fun.
Ironically, the players' association does not dispute Selig's figures that show a combined $232 million loss for major league teams in 2001. "However," says Gene Orza, one of the union's associate general counsels, "the conclusions we reach are quite different." (Neither Orza nor the union's executive director, Donald Fehr, would consent to speak about Selig or the ongoing negotiations.) It is also true that, historically, annual losses in baseball have been beside the point because owners could always unload their franchises for huge profits. But now?
"The bigger fool theory!" Selig cries out. "Gone. Gone. There are just no buyers. Nobody." Softly now, almost a whisper: "Nobody."
The recent sale of the Red Sox for $660 million appeared to contradict baseball's tales of woe, but, in fact, approximately $320 million of the purchase price went for 80% of NESN, the New England Sports Network. Thus, at a time when the NFL sold an expansion franchise—in fact, just a piece of paper—to Houston for $700 million, one of the two or three most hallowed franchises in baseball effectively cost $340 million, including ownership of a sacred stadium on prime Boston real estate.
Cable television has been, it seems, the poisonous ingredient that has so fouled fair competition and led to a situation in which the richest team has local operating revenues 22 times larger than the poorest. Another more pertinent example: The Yankees make almost twice as much money from radio as the Brewers—which remain in the Selig family, now run by Bud's daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb—make from TV.
For the first time, as labor negotiations intensify, public perception seems to have shifted, and there is no longer the glib tendency to cry "a plague on both your houses." More and more neutral observers are accepting Seng's pessimism. John Moag, a Baltimore investment banker who specializes in sports franchises, last year offered a "positive outlook" for baseball. Now? Because of the looming labor impasse, he says, "Baseball owners are at the bottom. The curve is very, very bad, because the sport's economic structure is flawed. If there's a strike, values will plummet." Moag points out that as recently as 1994, NFL and MLB franchises were essentially selling for the same amounts. Since then, football franchises have come to double baseball franchises in value. Estimates of major league baseball debt run upward of $3 billion—credit lines primarily arranged by Selig, as sure as once he could get you GMAC financing for your new Oldsmobile.
"In a nutshell," Moag writes in his formal report on baseball, "the failings of baseball are escalating player costs and the fact that only a small minority of franchises can afford to lure and/or retain the best players." Sandy Alderson was the brilliant general manager who built championship teams in Oakland a decade ago. He left to become a vice president on Park Avenue because he wearied of the futility of discovering and showcasing players who would then be U-Hauled away by the richer teams. "In the old days the Yankees had access to everybody on the Kansas City roster," Alderson says, with only a touch of hyperbole. "Now they have access to everybody on every roster."
There have always been poorly managed losing teams, but ultimately what has changed in baseball, alone among team sports, is that now only a handful of clubs can give their fans reasonable hope. To Selig this is essentially a theological issue, even if it manifests itself as an economic one. After all, in what is always referred to as "the entertainment world," when a fan loses hope nowadays there are simply too many other diverting options for him to throw his "entertainment dollar" at. For baseball to survive, Selig believes, it needs greater revenue-sharing between the haves and the have-nots, as in the NFL; some kind of ceiling on salaries, as in the NBA; and the dissolution of up to a half-dozen weak-sister franchises so that the remaining clubs might thrive.
The players' association is the night nurse that stands in the way of the game's ingesting all these nostrums. And the players' association never loses. This time, though, at least the owners are presenting a fairly united front. "Yeah, we're closer together now," says Stan Kasten, the Braves' president, "but that's only because everybody's desperate, and it's gotten like something out of Kafka."
But if the dismal financial circumstances have created a climate in which the owners will at last get on the same Kafkaesque page, it has then been Bud Selig—talking, kibitzing, cajoling, commiserating—who has brought his company in misery together. He is of them, he has been with them in the arena—in the trenches, everyone says melodramatically—and so the owners have put their trust in their nondescript colleague who has been belittled as Bud Light and Kenesaw Molehill Landis. Make no mistake: Bud Selig holds the scepter. "I have more authority than any other commissioner ever did," he crows, "and I can count. I have the votes to do what I want to do."