Maybe it's the name. Bud. Doesn't sound too intimidating, does it? Bud sounds like the friendly but absent-minded uncle who gives you the same birthday gift every year. Or the guy in the neighborhood who pulls you aside every few days to tell you how he almost made the Yankees. Abbott was a Bud. Your friend is your Bud.
Allan Huber Selig is most definitely a Bud. He leased cars for a living in Milwaukee. He longed to be a college history professor. He has been called Bud Lite and Bumbling Bud. He wears his Budness proudly. And maybe that's why people keep underestimating him. Maybe that's why people do not appreciate that Bud Selig in the last 19 years as commissioner of baseball has not just transformed the game but has done so his way.
Last week Selig decided he'd had enough of financially challenged Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, who had just borrowed a reported $30 million to keep one of baseball's proudest franchises afloat. Selig determined that McCourt had embarrassed baseball enough with his public divorce and extravagant lifestyle and shaky finances, and especially with his inability to provide security for fans at Dodgers games, and so Bud just took the team away. Nobody was entirely sure that Selig could take the team away—McCourt sure didn't think so. Bud did it anyway.
"Yes, I know what people say about me," Selig is telling me on the phone from Milwaukee, where he still keeps an office. "I try not to be sensitive about it, but I am human. I know people say that I'm indecisive or that I move slowly. But I learned a long time ago, that doesn't matter. Getting things done is what matters. You have to know how to get things done."
Nothing that Selig has done has come with trumpet blasts of celebration. It seems as if every advance, every change, every slight shift in baseball was stumbled into. But think about it. When Selig took over in 1992, baseball had 26 teams; now there are 30. Four teams made the playoffs; now it's eight. The players and owners were at each other's throats; now there has been labor peace for 16 years. Owners did not want to share any money; now there is some $400 million in shared revenue. Players were not tested for drugs; now they are tested for amphetamines and steroids. More than two thirds of teams have moved into either new or entirely renovated stadiums. Even some of Selig's quirkier brainstorms—the World Baseball Classic, having the All-Star Game decide World Series home field advantage, the no-rain-shortened World Series game—have been rammed through by little more than the commissioner's will.
Here's the thing: None of these drastic changes seemed at all likely 20 years ago. "We were stuck in neutral," Selig says. And Bud has indisputably turned the game upside down. How much credit does he deserve? "I'll leave that to the historians," Selig says. But it seems that people never credit Selig enough for his backroom ability to twist arms, push his agenda and simply do whatever he thinks he should do.
And that is the power of Bud. He changes things. "I know people call me a consensus builder," he says, "and I do that, it's true. I think it's important to try and get people on board. But the way I make decisions is this: I try to figure out what's the right thing to do. And I try to figure out how to do it."
He uses the wild card as an example. He says there was powerful opposition to the wild card. There had been talk for years of expanding baseball's playoffs; still, many did not want to change the game. ("I love baseball history," Selig says, "but we can't stay stuck in the past.") He hammered his points home, again and again, building support, creating urgency, until finally baseball had the wild card. "And I think you would agree," he says, "that the wild card has worked magnificently."
Actually ... I don't like the wild card. But that's just the point: Bud Selig has made all these changes in a sport in which people like me are constantly fighting for the status quo. He doesn't do it with the polish or punch of NBA commissioner David Stern or former NFL boss Paul Tagliabue. Lyndon Johnson used to say the most important skill in politics is counting votes. Bud Selig counts votes.
Still, that's not his image. Selig comes across, as one baseball executive put it, as "the guy who always has a hot dog in his hand and mustard on his face." But nobody has changed a sport more than he has changed baseball the last 20 years.
"There was a time in the 1990s, definitely, when I would say that whatever I did, people ripped me," Selig says. "That was painful. I love baseball.... I will do whatever I think will help baseball."
At last check, Frank McCourt seemed determined to fight for his team, even sending out the Dodgers' new vice chairman, Steve Soboroff, to offer the bizarre quote, "We need more people like Frank McCourt." Everyone's guess is that McCourt will sue. And because Selig is the first commissioner ever to do something quite like this, nobody is sure how that will turn out. But McCourt might want to take heed: There's no percentage in underestimating Allan Huber Selig. Even if he looks like just another guy called Bud.
Listen to Joe Posnanski's podcast (this week's guest is Michael Schur of NBC's Parks and Recreation) at si.com/poscast
Bud Selig may be the guy with a hot dog in his hand and mustard on his face, but no commissioner has changed a sport more over the last 20 years.