Friday, May 18, 2007

Little Lost Bud (Selig) – knows not what to do about Barry Bonds

Major League Baseball owners completed a series of ownership meetings in New York late Thursday, with the biggest news emerging from the meeting more information concerning the Baseball Channel (included in Thursday’s DailyDose) expected to launch in time for the 2009 season. But the albatross that continues to hang around the neck of baseball and its commissioner Bud Selig, Barry Bonds pursuit of Hank Aaron’s 755 career home run record was the ‘topic du jour’ both in New York and Thursday evening when Bud attended the Detroit Tigers – Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

"Is he really approaching?" Selig said jokingly during a news conference after owners finished their two-day meeting today. "I don't have anything different to say today. I'll make a decision at some appropriate time."

And when really pressed from an answer later in the day at Fenway Park, Bud seemed a little ‘testy’ when once again asked if he or wouldn’t he be part of the crowning of a new home run king.

“I don’t have any different thoughts that I’ve had the last month or so. I’ll make up my mind at some appropriate time, and nothing is changed. I’m really not going to comment anymore on it. I understand everyone wants to know where I’m going to be or where Hank Aaron’s going to be. We’ll let that go until I finally make that decision.”

Bud offered a little more insight as to how he personally and professionally in an interview he did with The New York Times Bill Pennington last week:

“I am protective of the sport’s image, but sometimes things don’t always work out exactly as you wanted,” Selig said. “I know people want to know what I’m going to do, but I have not decided. I’ll decide at some point when we get closer to that time. I want to do what I think is in the best interest of the sport.”

Ever the court jester that Bud isn’t he knows full well that Barry is 10 home runs from tying Aaron. Bud keeps on avoiding the issue of whether or not he’ll be in attendance. A quick look at the Giants schedule offers a nightmare scenario for Bud. The Giants visit fabled Fenway Park June 15 to 17 and then head to Milwaukee (Bud may be moving his offices to another city as you read this) June 18 to 20. For those who believe in fate, destiny and the American Way imagine this scenario for home run numbers 755 and 756. Bonds hits both home runs in Miller Park and in the greatest single case of life imitating art performs a Roy Hobbs (from the movie The Natural), hits the ball so hard out of Miller Park it smashes right through Selig’s office window. Now that would be a Hollywood finish.

The bigger issue for MLB and the use of performance enhancing drugs isn’t how the Lords of the Diamond will handle honoring Barry but the impact Senator Mitchell’s Commission looking into the issue of steroids and other drugs will have on the game. Thursday evening when Bud dropped into Fenway Park (seems like Bud may have been working on an advance trip for a future “Bonds” related Fenway visit) he had little to say about where Senator Mitchell’s Commission is.

“I really can’t [comment]. The senator, last March I said to him on the phone to go anywhere he had to go, that he had my complete support, and that continues to this day. They’ve done a lot of work and a lot of interviews. He and I have been friends for a long time, but because of this, I haven’t talked to him for a while, which is the way we both prefer it. I can’t tell you anymore, except the committee is hard at work. There’s always a question of medical records, but they’ve seemed to work those out.”

In all fairness to Bud, the commissioner is caught between the preverbal ‘rock and a hard place’. The media’s self righteous attitude that Bonds should be dishonored for the shame he has brought on the game continues. At the same time as Bud has said on many occasions MLB had a steroid era and has now put some serious testing and penalties in place. What Bud should consider doing – taking a strong leadership role inside and outside of baseball and helping the game move forward. It’s time for Bud to lead, that’s what commissioners do in tough and challenging times.

Interleague play starts today and while there are those who don’t like the concept, interleague ball is largely a concept driven by Selig.

“I’m thrilled. It’s just as good as I thought it would be. It’s just fabulous. It’s obviously huge in New York and Chicago and LA and the Bay area, down in Texas they love it. The Atlanta-Boston rivalry is terrific. I’m very happy.”

It’s difficult to not look at the body of Bud’s work as commissioner and not believe the last seven or eight years have been good for baseball and even better for the legacy Bud hopes to leave behind as commissioner. Labor peace is one of the biggest accomplishments Selig has helped make happen.

“We have labor peace for 16 years. Nobody ever thought that possible, including me. All spring training this year, going from camp to camp, not one question about labor. That never happened before. This sport is so good that when you keep the focus on the field it’s always good.”

The growth of the sport internationally has been another of Bud’s major accomplishments. Initially there were far more skeptics than believers when Selig and MLB announced the initial World Baseball Classic, but at the end of the day the first WBC held last year was a resounding success story on every possible level. The 2009 WBC promises to be an even bigger success than last years inaugural event was.

“We’ve been talking about that. But 2009 is a way off. I think they’re going to have a tough time getting down to six teams. It was so good. It’s really our first foray into international play. Yes, we opened up in Japan a couple times. Yes, we’ve done other things. But the World Baseball Classic really opened the game up.”

One of the issues discussed at this week’s MLB ownership meetings baseball’s interest in heading to China for a series of exhibition games. Suggestions have included taking the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry to most populated country in the world. However at least in the short term baseball owners did announce they would send a delegation to China on a fact finding mission this month.

“We’ve opened an office in Beijing and China is part of our very aggressive, very ambitious international plans. Next week, we have three or four owners going – Larry Lucchino from the Red Sox is going. We want to play games in China and do other things.

People ask me what’s the next big goal for the sport and it’s the internationalization. Domestically, the sport is more popular than it’s ever been. We do want to play some games there as early as next year.”

As attractive as the Chinese market appears to be on the surface (one-fifth of the world’s population can have that effect on any business) baseball would be well advised to look before they leap as a business. Next years Summer Games offer baseball an interesting opportunity to play games in the stadiums that will host baseball games next year’s Olympic Games it’s more important that MLB have a long term strategy for China and the Far East.

Weather woes plagued MLB in early April. Seattle and Cleveland lost an entire four game series in Cleveland. By the time the Mariners and the Indians managed to reschedule the series the Mariners will travel back to Cleveland for three one day trips and the fourth game will be played when the Indians visit Seattle later this year. The Indians lost three more home games when a three game series against the Los Angeles Angels was moved from Cleveland to Milwaukee.

“We talked about the schedule at the [owners] meeting today. Schedules are easy to be critical of, but when you bring people in to make suggestions, it always winds up as, ‘Oh, this is tougher than I thought.’ We had tough weather this year, particularly in Cleveland. We had a tough April, although I’m happy to tell you our attendance is running four percent ahead of last year, our all-time record year. I’m very confident we’ll solve those problems. If anybody has suggestions, they can continue to make them.

“The West Coast teams would tell you immediately, they don’t want to be home in April. That’s not fair to them. They get less dates in June and July, when they can draw. The idea that we can load up the warm-weather sites is just not true. You have a whole series of things that makes scheduling really complicated.”

Bud is right but there is a solution that can help avoid what happened in April in Cleveland and in Pittsburgh when the Giants only visit to PNC Park ended up including two games being lost to weather forcing the Giants to make an unscheduled return to Pittsburgh, schedule games in April between teams that make at least one more visit to ballparks in weather problem cities in April.

MLB unveiled their new post-season schedule. Derek Jeter may believe he’s Mr. November, but given the terrible start the Yankees have experienced this year, Jeter and the Yankees may be long gone if the World Series goes seven games with the seventh game scheduled for November 1, 2007.

“I was the one who said that I didn’t want, I hated the thought of playing in November. But we want to put our games on, as the other sports do, at times when the most people will watch it. There’s nothing perfect, but I think opening on a Wednesday night and going to Thursday, I feel good about the fact that it will really improve our ratings. We’re doing so well now that I want our World Series to have the greatest chance to reflect who good this sport is in every way.

“Trying to make sure that as many people can see the World Series on nights when people are able to watch is a good thing. That’s our job, to try to make our sport available to as many people as possible. I think the television schedule will improve that, I’m told, considerably.”

One issue Selig takes issue with, the belief that steroids were good for baseball (the pages of SBN have always believed baseball had a steroid era one that it can’t ignore but not necessarily that was good for business).

“It’s a myth I hear repeated on TV all the time, that it was good for business,” Selig said.

“It wasn’t by itself. Attendance from 1998 to 1999, one year after the McGwire and Sosa thing, our attendance actually went down. They like to say we turned our backs on it. Turned our backs on what? I’ve interviewed clubhouse guys, reporters, general managers and trainers who all said they were unaware of steroid use back then. So how were we supposed to know?

“No owner ever fought drug testing. And people think the commissioner is omnipotent, but unfortunately that isn’t true. Everybody knows the union fought it. To put it on ownership or the commissioner’s office is revisionist history.”

As for the iceberg Bud and baseball seem destined to face when Senator Mitchell’s report is released one can hope Bud lives by what he offered The New York Times last week when he was asked the inevitable ‘what’s next’ question.

“We have nothing to hide — whatever George Mitchell finds, he finds,” Selig said in his office, where his desk is adorned with a baseball embossed with the saying, Sometimes You Just Have to Play Ball. “I hear people say, ‘Bud must be worried.’ If I was worried, why would I launch the Mitchell investigation? Some people thought it was a bad idea, you know. From all sides, I heard that I ought to let it go. I disagreed. When this is all over, I wanted people to have as thorough an understanding as humanly possible, wherever it led.”

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The New York Times and The Hartford Courant

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