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Frank Deford
July 08, 2002
Bud Selig has put his legacy on the line by tightening the screws on the players' union. If there's a strike this season, he'll be the one who takes the fall
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July 08, 2002

Suicide Squeeze

Bud Selig has put his legacy on the line by tightening the screws on the players' union. If there's a strike this season, he'll be the one who takes the fall

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"Yes." He nods morosely.

The youthful Selig ingratiated himself with his surrogate fathers, offering to sit on committees that nobody else would bother with. Fay Vincent came into baseball in 1989, serving at the right hand of the new commissioner, Bart Giamatti. He laughs and says, "Bart and I would just sit around and say, 'What would happen if we didn't have Bud to take on the thankless, miserable jobs?' "

By now Selig had been in the inner circle for two decades. He wasn't the kid anymore. If he wasn't yet quite out front, he had found his way to the center of things. Selig was a clearinghouse of information, gossip and intrigue. All the owners not only knew Buddy and liked him well enough, but they also knew what Buddy knew. He was the original 24/7/365 man, keeping the minutes of baseball. "When my father is on vacation," Wendy Selig-Prieb says, "he sits on the deck in Arizona and does the same tiling he always does—talk on the phone to the same people about baseball. His vocation and avocation are the same." He has extra time every day for substantive activity, too, because he doesn't play golf.

The one way Selig does relax away from baseball is by reading, history mostly. Presently he is going through Robert Caro's third volume on Lyndon Johnson, which concentrates on LBJ's legislative genius. It's easy to see why Johnson interests Selig. Both men rose up as insiders, not popular leaders. But LBJ was a bold, outsized figure who took charge of the Senate almost as soon as he got off the train at Union Station. Selig—as befits a small-market owner—more resembles one of those unimpressive little congressmen from a hinterland state who builds up power over time, accumulating authority from privileged knowledge more than from presence. Bud Selig never grabbed anyone by the lapels.

He often comes to the party late, in fact, only after he's seen the other RSVPs. Most recently, for example, he had to be brought round to the idea of contraction. However, "once Bud's locked onto the issue du jour, he never lets go," says Bob DuPuy, Buddy's buddy from Milwaukee who now serves as president of Major League Baseball. "He's like the salesman to whom you finally scream, 'Stop, stop, I'll buy the policy just to get rid of you.' " In many respects, too, Selig's greatest successes have been of the Nixon-goes-to- China variety. It was under the bend-an-ear direction of Selig, the weepy diamond traditionalist, that the owners finally reached consensus on splitting the leagues into three divisions, adding wild cards and allowing interleague play, innovations that still strike baseball fundamentalists as sacrilege but that have been hugely popular with fans.

"Bud has no great intellectual capacity," says Vincent, who became commissioner after Giamatti died suddenly in 1989, "but he just keeps at it, and he's really very good at politics. But that's also his liability, because he tends to agree with everybody he talks to. He wants to keep everybody happy?'

Selig adored Giamatti, perhaps only slightly less than he did the sainted Fetzer. When first they met, one night in New York when Giamatti was still president of Yale, the two baseball votaries walked the streets after dinner, in rapture, reveling in shared nostalgia. A discussion, nearly theological in nature, of a 1949 home run by Johnny Lindell—Johnny Lindell!—cemented the friendship. Sue Selig says that the first speech her husband ever wrote out was his eulogy at Giamatti's memorial service.

After Giamatti's death Selig was at first a staunch supporter of Vincent's, but eventually he turned against the new commissioner. More than anything, Selig soured on Vincent's conciliatory attitude toward the union. Vincent believed in rapprochement, and he thought it could be achieved only over time, so, as a first gambit toward peace, he hired Steve Green-berg as deputy commissioner. Greenberg, who represented the owners at the negotiating table in 1990, is a respected and cordial baseball insider (he had been a players' agent) and, just as important, he was friendly with Fehr and Orza. Selig disapproved of this pussyfooting, and, as head of the Player Relations Committee, he not only hired Richard Ravitch, a lawyer and politician, to run the negotiations but also gave him a salary higher than Vincent's. If not emasculating to the commissioner, this was insulting. "Bud's got a much more facile mind than people give him credit for," DuPuy says. " Vincent underestimated him terribly."

Finally, Selig called for Vincent's head. Making an emotional speech to his fellows on Sept. 3, 1992, he began, "This is a very traumatic day. In the beginning I considered Fay an appendage to Bart, the best friend I'll ever have." However, Selig said, "I was one of the last to come to the conclusion that Fay must go, [that] he really doesn't care for the institution." The no-confidence vote was 18-9, and Vincent soon resigned. It was then that the owners decided to stay within their own farm system and promote Selig to acting commissioner.

Many observers felt that it was a regency, with Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox as the real chief. Time has shown that to have been a gross misconception, but there is no agreement about whether or not Selig joined the Vincent putsch because he was motivated by his own desire to take control. Selig himself maintains that he never had any designs on becoming commissioner, that he truly believed what he told his wife: that he'd only be warming the commissioner's seat for a few months. Even as the years wore on, Selig says, he never fancied the position. Sue Selig says, "I knew he'd be commissioner long before Bud himself realized it." The other owners maintain that Selig had no ulterior motive and had to be talked into taking the job.

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