Of course Selig has been able to use the current baleful economic situation to help create a new common cause among the owners. Remember those times of yore when the owners were split into big-market and small-market caucuses? Nouveau-riche franchises such as Baltimore and Cleveland smugly aligned themselves with New York and Chicago and Los Angeles. Today? Selig says that the so-called big-market bloc consists only of the Yankees and the Mets and maybe the Dodgers. The owners' erstwhile best friend of labor, Peter Angelos of the Orioles, is now, Selig avers, "about the biggest hawk we have."
The owners feel so comfortable deferring to one of their own that they have granted Selig a provisional sovereignty that no commissioner since Judge Landis has been accorded—and that back when the very existence of the sport was jeopardized by the Black Sox scandal. The lines of communication are clear; Selig has his own handpicked deputies, DuPuy and Rob Manfred, staffing the front lines, across from Fehr and Orza. Paul Beeston, formerly the president of the Blue Jays, was the owners' chief negotiator until he quit a few months ago, and the whispers are that Selig found him, like Vincent and Greenberg, too much of a softy and overruled him, so Beeston quit. Selig says Beeston was homesick for Toronto; Beeston ain't talking. Whatever, it only underscores the obvious. However blame is apportioned for the strike of 1994, which cost baseball a World Series, Selig was the acting commissioner, even if authority was divided. This time there is no qualification: Diamond Armageddon is strictly on his watch. "Buddy is clearly our head of labor—as he should be," Wilpon of the Mets says. "If he has the responsibility, he must have the authority."
Perhaps, though, it is the propaganda battle that will ultimately prevail. Sure, as always, the owners can lock out and the players can strike, but after past disasters does either side dare loose its ultimate weapon against the other and risk enormous collateral damage? After all, it is the fans who feel they are the wronged party now. The system has robbed too many of them of hope, the emotional circumstance that allows Selig to position management as fighting for Good and not just for Mammon. For the first time, the owners appear as relatively sympathetic creatures. They do not seem to be lords anymore so much as doleful knights errant, their castles breached, their fields fallow. It's gotten even worse for them this season. Attendance is down, and new stadiums are, apparently, no longer a panacea; been there, seen that. It is now the players—with their wealth and imperious manner—who are the object of scorn.
Ironically, even the labor roles are now somewhat reversed, as it is the players' association that appears to be arguing on behalf of the status quo. Says Sandy Alderson, his eyes mischievously glowing, "The pendulum has swung so far the other way that I think the union is as arrogant today as the owners were 30 years ago. They're the ones who've lost the foresight and the flexibility to improve the game now."
Certainly the owners can try and portray the union as standing foursquare against those two American bulwarks, hope and equality. After all, the beleaguered fans are no longer na�fs to the business of sport, and they know that in this collective bargaining the union is essentially holding out against the very positions that have made the NFL and NBA competitively healthy. Moreover, even if the owners secretly like all those steroid-stung home runs their muscular stars hit, it is the union that refuses to accept random drug testing. The players' association has managed to become just about the only sports organization in the whole world that refuses to support drug testing. And now the players' blind support for their leaders smacks less of unity and more of servility. The moral high ground that Marvin Miller secured back when Gussie Busch was banging his cane against decency has been lost.
Ah, but luckily for the players, the commissioner gives the union a convenient bogeyman to flay. "Bud's vulnerability is almost unavoidable," says Alderson, "and it's obvious that the union has decided that the best way to undermine our message is to dehumanize the messenger." As long as the union can depict Selig as a hypocritical, Enronesque wheeler-dealer, cooking the books and feathering his own nest, the players might keep sympathetic public opinion from settling down with the owners. Almost surely, no commissioner in any sports labor dispute has been such a central figure as Selig is in this contretemps.
Of course, it was the owners who painted the bull's-eye on Selig when they opted for an old-boy commissioner. And, eyes wide open, Selig took the $3 million a year and the big hometown office in the sky and the charter plane on call and the other perks well aware that all of that would have to be paid for with a big bite out of his own hide. Whatever proposals the commissioner offers on behalf of baseball are dismissed as camouflage for improving the lot of the family store, the Brewers. It particularly puts Selig on the defensive that while Milwaukee fielded one of the worst teams in baseball last season, management made little effort to use revenue-sharing bonuses to buy better players—all the while pocketing more profit than any other franchise. Yes, even more than the Yankees. Selig responds by claiming that 2001 was an aberration, that the team had lost money the previous eight years and only went into the black because of the fresh attraction of the new Miller Park. "I knew that when I was taking this job, there'd always be this inherent conflict of interest," Selig admits. "I knew there'd be people who'd make something of that."
Notwithstanding his defense, nothing in all of baseball gives the union more of a field day than does Selig, the Brewers' patriarch. The Brewers get rich sucking at not one but two generous teats: that of the taxpayers and that of the richer teams. But now, in 2002, they've got the worst record in the National League—far worse than the records of the teams Selig has fingered for execution.
Critics also point out that when one team had to be shifted from the American League to the National League, it turned out to be—surprise!—Milwaukee, the grand old Senior Circuit town, which could better draw fans from the North Side of Chicago with a natural rivalry against the Cubs. Selig protests that he was always "skitterish" that he would face such allegations, and Kansas City was first given the option to make the move, to establish an intraleague intrastate rivalry with the Cardinals. Says Selig, "For a month I begged David Glass [the Royals' owner], 'Pull the trigger, David.' But he just wouldn't. And then we were the logical choice."
When the contraction of two teams was first publicly broached in October, Selig was immediately accused of marking Minnesota for demise because of his personal friendship with Carl Pohlad, the Twins' elderly owner. Pohlad would get out of the failing baseball business with a handsome profit, and Minnesota's evacuation would open the upper-Midwest territory for the Brewers. Furthermore, it was revealed that not only had Pohlad been Selig's haberdasher, but, more substantively, he had also given the Brewers a $3 million loan.