Baseball's circle stays unbroken

Sunday, June 21, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bud Selig wouldn't take yes for an answer. He wanted to steer baseball, but not to lead it; to shape policy from the wings while some other stooge stood before the microphones.

He did not really want to be the commissioner. The job sort of fell to him by default, like the last kid left in a sandlot draft. He didn't have to take it, but he couldn't just leave it there with that pathetic, vacant look.

Selig agreed to become baseball's interim czar on the condition the temporary position not be made permanent. Six years later, he is still waiting for someone to take him off the hook.

Today, the common-law commissioner is almost prepared to acknowledge the obvious: that his reluctant rump has grown attached to the seat of power. The most bogus search since O.J. set out after Nicole's killer is ending just where it began: with a charisma-impaired used-car salesman as chief steward of the national pastime.

The formal announcement that Selig has finally agreed to take the job, and the ownership vote that will confirm it, will come as no surprise and incite no celebrations among those who have been following the ongoing folly of baseball's owners. It will surely come as a disappointment to those who had been hoping for a more inspired choice.

Job not what it was

But the job isn't what it was when Selig took over, and it probably can't be again. No baseball commissioner will ever own the broad powers that were bestowed on Kenesaw Mountain Landis, or even the relative independence enjoyed by Bowie Kuhn.

The rising power of the players association and the shattering fall of Fay Vincent have shown that the commissioner is more of a figurehead than he is a force, a fellow to throw out ceremonial pitches and to testify before Congressional committees.

Because the job also entails periodic jousting with Pete Rose and Marge Schott, being commissioner seems to carry more clout here than it does in other towns. Still, it's not nearly as much fun as owning your own team, as Selig does, or building a new stadium, as Selig is doing.

To take the position on a permanent basis, Selig will probably have to divest himself of direct interest in the Milwaukee Brewers. The team is expected to be put in trust for his daughter and his granddaughter. Selig can be expected to maintain an office in Milwaukee, and to appear on Park Avenue only as much as circumstances demand. This is not entirely a bad thing.

Baseball's New York operation is run day-to-day by Paul Beeston, who is as gregarious as Selig is glum, and whose personality and pragmatism have enabled him to make inroads with Don Fehr, the contentious union leader.

This relationship may be more critical to the future of the game than anything Bud Selig is capable of doing. Without a prolonged labor peace, and a united effort at appealing to new generations, baseball is destined for an ever-shrinking market share.

Owners prefer dullness

If it is not already third among the major professional sports -- behind football and basketball -- baseball's demographics indicate danger. The old men who remember it as the only team sport that truly mattered are dying off.

That Bud Selig is still seen as the best man for his job tells you something about the men who rule baseball. It says they prefer inbreeding to inspiration; the dull to the daring. It says they want a man who won't meddle more than they want the dynamic visionary the times demand.

Beeston would have been a better choice. Mario Cuomo would have been a better choice. Bob Costas would have been a better choice. The list is long. (Jim Bunning would not have been a better choice. The Hall of Fame pitcher and Kentucky congressman makes Bud Selig seem as animated as Robin Williams.)

And yet there is a certain symmetry to Bud Selig's selection. Baseball is founded on the notion that there's no place like home. The goal is always to go back to where you start.

Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com

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