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It’s Tough to Dispute Choice of Bud Selig

WASHINGTON POST

At the All-Star Game this week, union boss Don Fehr looked at Bud Selig, who was holding court. “These days, Bud is happier than a clam,” Fehr said. “If I asked him for a loan, I think he’d give it to me.”

Down on the field, Selig discussed a possible strike that could hurt a wonderfully healthy sport: NBA basketball. “Reading about the NBA (lockout), makes me very queasy,” Selig said. “One day, I was sitting in my usual fancy place, having a hot dog for lunch, and thinking about it really gave me a feeling of sadness.”

Sometimes, things change more than you believe possible. Four years ago, three baseball certainties were clear. Interim commissioner Selig would be tarred in history as the worst leader the game ever had: Bud Lite. Fehr would be fired by his own union and despised permanently by fans. And baseball might never again equal its pre-Strike attendance.

Thursday, Selig was elected commissioner for five years. Annual salary: $3 million. The vote was 30-0. Fehr still is running the union. And baseball is on pace to break its attendance record, set in 1993.

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“For the first time since ’94, the atmosphere at a big game was really different,” Fehr said. “Not one person booed me. And I didn’t hear anybody yell at Bud, either.”

We all know that time heals all wounds. It’s tempting to believe the message of Selig and Fehr is that time also heals all heels. If you’re patient enough in this culture, you can live down anything.

The problem with that emotionally satisfying position is that Selig and Fehr never were real heels. They were just the conspicuous symbols of all the bad blood and labor loathing in baseball that took 25 years to build to one huge purging catharsis. Every hatred and grudge, every desire to settle old scores--imagined and real--in one final battle, had to find expression and come to full consciousness. Selig and Fehr, after decades in their armies, happened to be the generals.

When it was over and everybody had lost--lost money, lost face, lost reputation, lost self-esteem--a strange thing happened. The survivors, including Selig and Fehr, seemed to find a bit of a common bond. Like the soldiers in “Grand Illusion,” they’d lost their taste for the easy slogans, blind patriotism and tainted glory of war.

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Many fans, who still aren’t in the mood to be philosophical and forgiving, will get a good laugh at Selig’s anointment. What a hoot! The ultimate owners’ mouthpiece finally gets his big payoff.

Conflict of interest? What conflict of interest? Didn’t you hear? Bud’s going to put the Brewers in a trust and have his daughter run the day-to-day operations. That’ll solve it. If the best interests of baseball are on one side and the best interests of ownership--or the Brewers specifically--are on the other side, Selig will be completely objective, right? He’ll just shaft his daughter. No problem.

Obviously, it’s just as inappropriate for Selig to be commissioner on Friday as it was on Wednesday. A vote on Thursday, and a promise to put the team in a trust, doesn’t change anything.

However, leaving aside that Selig shouldn’t even have been considered for the job, he’s a pretty good choice. In baseball, you see, you have to learn to step through the looking glass. The idea is never to do things properly or with long-term vision. The idea is to muddle through and hope that baseball--the game itself--will carry along those who run it, play it and feed off it.

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Selig, of course, is the ultimate muddle-through guy. He’s like Mr. Magoo, the near-sighted ‘toon character who always falls off the roof but lands in a haystack. If Bud had been the captain of the Titanic, he’d have survived, blamed the iceberg and been given a bigger ship.

“The sport’s comeback has really been remarkable ... as good as we could’ve hoped. It’s a tribute to the intrinsic goodness of the game,” Selig said this week. “The game will carry on. If we’ll let it.”

If baseball needs tough moral leadership on integrity-of-the-game issues in the next few years, can Selig provide it? From the days of salary collusion onward, Selig’s always been quick to preach the party line in public and it has hurt his credibility in the long run.

On the other hand, if baseball needs someone with an accurate sense of the game’s history--its current strengths and weaknesses, as well as the desires of its fans--then Selig may be a perfect fit. There’s no more passionate or knowledgeable fan than Bud. He absolutely loves the game and desperately wants to fix it. After all, as much as anybody, he helped break it. His place in the game’s history is at stake.

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“As painful and horrible as 1994 was, if it benefits the next generation, then it can justify what happened,” says Selig, gilding the lily to be sure, but making a point, too. “We lived for 30 years with nastiness, acrimony and finger-pointing. There is no margin for error, starting with me. We cannot fall back into those behavior patterns.”

The appointment of Paul Beeston as baseball’s chief operating officer may help cauterize the game’s labor wounds. He’ll be Mr. Inside while Selig does the talking. “Beeston is the best one to come out of that management group in the last 20 years,” Fehr says.

That leaves Selig in charge of Fan Issues and Image. He’s truly the man for those tasks. On subjects such as wild cards and interleague play, realignment and size-of-the-playoffs, pace of play and size of the strike zone, nobody has a better sense of what’s good for the sport. His decisions won’t be perfect. But they’ll be informed by a lifetime.

On wild cards, Selig was right. Many, like me, were wrong. On interleague play, some doubted. Selig didn’t. Most important, Selig has a grasp on the game’s most important issues--labor aside. Slow play is No. 1. Selig knows it.

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“Pace of play has become a fetish with me,” he says. “We’re clearly making progress. The National League is down to 2:41 and the American League is 2:53. But we need to get under 2:40 and 2:50.”

Baseball’s best idea to start the new millennium is the retro park. Old as new. Call it theme-park marketing to jaded yuppies if you want. But if you don’t like it, stay home and reread Proust. Selig’s not too highbrow to get it: “People fail to understand that Camden Yards may be the single most important change in the economics of sports.”

For those with long memories and hard hearts, Selig’s appointment as commissioner will provide a chance to mock. For those who wish the game and Selig luck, his words this week make a good beginning: “A year ago, we were in the early stages of a powerful recovery. Now, we’re in the middle stages. Unless we have a significant interruption, I think we’ll be in a golden renaissance that will surprise everyone.”


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