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NOISE FROM THE DUGOUT

Bud Selig Unplugged
By Tom Goldstein

The phone call caught me by surprise.

"Is this the office of the baseball journal Elysian Fields Quarterly?" said a female voice at the other end.

"Uh huh," I replied. "May I help you?"

"Please hold for the Commissioner of Baseball." Click.

After about a minute of waiting and wondering who was pulling a gag on me, I started to hang up when an eerily familiar voice came on the line and barked, "Is this Tom Goldstein, editor of Elysian Fields Quarterly?"

"Yeah, it is. Can I ask—"

"This is Commissioner Selig calling. And I've got a bone to pick with you."

Uh oh, I thought. I knew the guy was petty and thin-skinned; I'd read about how he'd taken sportswriters like Rob Neyer and Jim Caple of ESPN.com to task for columns they'd written critical of him, but me and little old EFQ with our paltry circulation of a few thousand? Not even Selig would stoop that low, would he?

"Well that's fine, because I'm not real thrilled with how you've been running—"

"Yeah, I know, I read your columns. But the reason I'm calling is that I'm upset about that T-shirt you've been selling. I don't mind if you want to criticize me for having to threaten cities with contraction, but there's not a damn thing I can do about my hair. Hell, my barber's been trying to get it to lay on my head correctly for about thirty years now, and if he can't fix it, what am I supposed to do?"

"I don't know—try another barber? Why don't you ask David Stern what he does?"

"Look, Stern's a lawyer, I'm a used-car dealer. He's got his look, I've got mine. That's not going to change. But lay off the hair, okay? It's really not fair."

"You think it's fair to threaten fans with losing their ball club if they don't build a new stadium?"

"Of course not. I hate doing it. But sometimes running a business isn't all fun. Have you ever met any of the fellows who own Major League Baseball teams? These guys are tough SOBs who didn't get where they are by pussyfooting around. They play for keeps, and if I'm going to remain in the game, doing what I love, sometimes I've got to be the bad guy. At least Steinbrenner's not commissioner."

I sat in silence, not believing what I was hearing.

"So you're telling me what? That you're only doing this for your family?"

"Absolutely. Look, I was a pretty good used-car salesman, loved what I did. But it's no comparison to running a ball club. The fans, the crowd, the excitement—what could be better? But the Brewers never made much money. We were so heavily leveraged by the time Miller Park was under construction, we couldn't pay our share. That's the only reason I'd get in bed with a guy like Carl Pohlad and expose myself to potential conflict of interest charges."

"I thought Carl was a great friend of yours."

"He is. But I still don't want to be indebted to him. The guy started out foreclosing on people during the Depression—not somebody you want to do business with for very long. But thanks to Carl we got Miller Park built, I was able to keep the Brewers in the family, and now I'm getting three million a year to run baseball. It's beyond my wildest dreams. I've never made this kind of money in my life."

"So you don't think it's unethical that you've kept your ownership interest in the Brewers while also serving as commissioner? What about the integrity of the sport and all that stuff?"

"Well, I don't get too hung up on ethics. Remember, I used to make a living selling cars—business is business as far as I'm concerned. But if you think I'm manipulating anything to favor the Brewers, I must be pretty bad at it. They're probably going to end up with the worst record in baseball this year."

"Yeah, but your team sure made out pretty nice in the new collective bargaining agreement, didn't they?"

"Not my team. Wendy's team. Naturally I'm happy for her, for the family. But I didn't have a vote in the deal. I just tried to bring the parties together."

"Aren't you being a little disingenuous, Commissioner? You still own about 30 percent of the Brewers, don't you? It's not like your interest is in a blind trust. You know exactly what's happening to your investment on a daily basis, so anything you do to try to enhance the value of the franchise is automatically a conflict of interest."

"Oh, don't be so dramatic. Everybody in the country tries to help their family, no matter what job they have. And besides, what's Wendy going to do if the Brewers don't remain solvent? Sell cars? With that voice of hers? Not a chance."

"So as long as your intentions are honorable, the means don't matter?"

"Look, it's not like I promised money from the central fund to certain owners in exchange for their vote. Everybody except Steinbrenner okayed the deal—I didn't have to twist any arms."

"So now everything's fine; you've fixed baseball's economic problems?"

"Hell no. As long as Steinbrenner keeps setting the market, with the Red Sox and Rangers right behind, there's not going to be much drag on salaries—even with the new payroll tax. And naturally owners in Oakland, Minnesota, Miami, and Tampa Bay are going to want new stadiums, so I guess we're going to have to lobby those cities pretty hard again."

"Lobby? Wouldn't blackmail be a more accurate description?"

"You're being dramatic again. We go in and make our case. We focus on key politicians. Sure, we threaten, but that's part of the game. Why wouldn't you take the money for a new stadium if the politicians are offering it? I certainly could never have built Miller Park on my own."

"Even though, as Miller Park has demonstrated, new stadia do little to ensure a long-term growth in attendance?"

"Yeah, we probably exaggerated about the attendance gains, but there's no way Wendy could compete without that big cash infusion they got when the park opened. But it's a lousy place to watch a game. We should have built a fancier version of County Stadium, adding luxury boxes but keeping that great tailgating ambience with all those wonderful brats grilling in the parking lot and on the food stands. But, you know, Wendy can be a pretty big nag, and since she's the one running the team now, she pretty much got what she wanted. She insisted on escalators going to the roof, so that's what they built. She wanted four decks—I told her it was too many, that you'd lose sight of the first baseman and catcher when they went near the stands for pop-ups—but she was adamant. And don't get me started on that damn roof. I took so much grief at the All-Star Game that I wanted to throw up. But Wendy's like all the other owners now—everybody's a prima donna."

"Did it ever occur to you that with all the revenue that baseball generates, rather than alienate fans with constant mention of your financial problems, you'd be better off just funding new ballpark construction yourself? Think about all the goodwill that would generate."

"I've thought about it a lot. I wanted to do that in Milwaukee. But the new stadiums are too expensive for the teams to build, and none of these guys wants to take a chance like Magowan did out in San Francisco. And when they're paying me three million a year, I'm not going to embarrass them in public."

"So even though Washington D.C. has been in a position to support Major League Baseball for probably around a decade or so, you're going to keep using them as a bargaining chip to force other cities to build new stadia?"

"Yeah, I hate to do it. The fans in Washington are probably among the best in the country. It's really criminal to keep them waiting all these years. But business is business. What can you do?"

"Tell the truth? Trust the public for once?"

"Hey, if fans had any clout, they would have staged a boycott with real teeth years ago. But it's just baseball. In the end, nobody's going to do anything except bitch. They love the game too much."

"Aren't you worried that I might do something? Like give this interview to The New York Times or somebody?"

"I'd just deny it, and besides, nobody would believe you."

"What if I publish it in Elysian Fields Quarterly?"

"Big deal. Who reads your magazine anyway?"

—EFQ

Next issue: Donald Fehr talks candidly about the players' desire for a hard salary cap, getting involved in local communities, and fighting stadium blackmail.

 

TOM GOLDSTEIN has been publisher of Elysian Fields Quarterly for the past five years. But his real expertise is on the JFK assassination and other topics of intrigue.

This column first appeared in EFQ 19:4, Fall 2002

© 2002 Tom Goldstein

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