SI Vault
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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Because he appears to be so ordinary a leader, so humdrum a personality, so artless a communicator, Bud Selig has been dismissed by the fans, mocked by the media and reviled by the players, so that it has generally escaped notice how much has really taken place on his watch. Baseball's administration has been reorganized, its divisions reshuffled, its schedule radicalized, its playoffs pizzazzed. Under his aegis the owners have been taught, at last, to share (if not to share alike), and they are more unified than ever before.

Because he has been dismissed by the fans, mocked by the media and reviled by the players, it has not generally escaped notice that under his leadership baseball has suffered a work stoppage, canceled a World Series and seen its salary structure run amok, its competitive balance leeched away and its labor relations reduced to a blood feud.

But in the summer of 2002, all that history—Selig's and baseball's—doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is whether there will be another strike, another battering of the public trust. After all, this is not a choice time for endowed institutions to test the patience of the American citizenry, not after both the Roman Catholic Church and Wall Street have so shattered faith. Besides, baseball, which itself poses as religion and business alike, is already vulnerable enough to cynicism because of the stench of drugs that clings to its bulging heroes.

So, practically and emotionally, baseball has very little wiggle room—and, fair or not, Bud Selig knows that if a strike is averted, he will get the credit, and if owners and the union step off into the abyss together again, he will forever be the one who takes the blame.

The suite of offices of the commissioner of baseball is so grand that the commissioner doth protest (perhaps too much) that he should reside in such spacious splendor. "This is inconsistent with the rest of my life," Bud Selig poor-mouths, there in his 30th-floor aerie, in the tallest building in Milwaukee, looking out over the city's new art museum just below and, at some remove, a flat Midwestern vista with smokestacks that emit and interstates that point and a smooth great lake that stretches away to the horizon.

On a hazy day, around to the right, you might also see back to 1951, to a sandy-haired young man sitting alone on a dirt pile, watching County Stadium being built—an edifice that when constructed would entice the Boston Braves to uproot and move to Milwaukee (the first franchise in half a century to be transplanted), thereby changing baseball forever. In the long run the move would make life better for Milwaukee but much more difficult for baseball commissioners.

At the moment, though, on the 30th floor, the commissioner, his assistant, a receptionist and two security officers toil in tranquility. Usually the commissioner talks endlessly on the telephone to the delegates of his baseball federation, all the while imbibing Diet Cokes, the one after the other. This is the height of apostasy, since Pepsi is a sponsor of Major League Baseball, but, as Bud's wife, Sue, says, "Bud is just so habitual." He has drunk Diet Cokes—out of glasses or cups, never out of cans—forever. So, too, every day has he munched on cold raw vegetables that his assistant, Lori Keck, brings him as a snack.

She has been with him for 30 years, having started back when Selig was owner of the Brewers, a nettlesome crusader who brought baseball back to his beloved Milwaukee after Atlanta seduced the Braves away. Back then Selig's office was hardly more than a dusky cubbyhole in the nether reaches of County Stadium, and he was viewed by his amused owner-colleagues as no more than an eager young pup who could recite baseball arcana just like the actual fans do. No one could have imagined that this unobtrusive backbencher would eventually emerge as not only the commissioner with the most authority ever but also as a zealot determined to match the union in adamantine righteousness.

Still, some things never change. When he breaks for lunch every day, the commissioner gets in his Lexus, and, listening to Sarah Brightman, he drives back near to where the new Miller Park is, where County Stadium stood before it was demolished, to the Gilles Frozen Custard stand on West Bluemound Road. There he orders a hot dog with ketchup and (of course) a Diet Coke, which he consumes in his car, away from the hurly-burly, reading newspapers. According to Ms. Keck, "Once in a blue moon he orders a grilled-cheese sandwich." Variety is, after all, the spice of life. Fridays he drives over to get his hair cut at Tony Lococo's. Before Tony cut his hair, habitually, Fridays, Tony's father did.

Some days there is excitement for the few denizens of the 30th floor, as owners arrive in Milwaukee from Shangri-las afar for a meeting. Or the commissioner's subalterns have flown in from baseball's headquarters, on Park Avenue in New York City. Alas, that address is what Sue Selig had envisioned when the owners made an honest man of Selig in 1998. At that time, after six years as acting commissioner, they excised the qualifier and formally made Buddy the ninth official czar of the national pastime. Anyway, sighs Sue, "I thought we'd be lucky enough to move to New York." But Bud Selig was born and bred in Milwaukee, sallying out only to bivouac nearby in Madison for college, and he remains forever a Cheesehead. Well, there is a nice symbolism to it. Maybe he who runs the national pastime should be Main Street, not Park Avenue. Commissioner? One almost expects to see this, below a transom, upon a frosted glass door:

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