Don’t look now, but former commissioner Bud Selig is a Hall of Famer. This is like the cobra inviting the mongoose for a dinner date. Selig was the first owner to become commissioner after he engineered the putsch that threw Fay Vincent overboard. And violated the intent of the office when he stepped in.
Vincent may have cooked himself with some of the moves he made in his last days holding the job, but the commissioner’s office was created to be held by an outsider—not an owner, not a former player, not a former manager, umpire, general manager, or baseball insider.
Anyone who knew anything about baseball that wasn’t propagandised by its tamer columnists and commentators should have known that putting an owner in the commissioner’s office was tantamount to naming John Dillinger Secretary of the Treasury. (Sidebar: Selig turned ownership of the Brewers over to his daughter. Are you listening, Donaldus Minimus?)
Selig had an agenda going in: he was looking to jam a salary cap down the players’ throats while trying to gin up a case that smaller-market owners were taking it up the tailpipe, and concurrently pleading, in essence, to stop us before we overspend, misspend, or malspend again.
What Selig didn’t say—but which the late Doug Pappas of the Society for American Baseball Research said, with details to burn—was how many smaller-market owners had large-market dollars to play with but were sometimes more interested in gilding their offices or their headquarters parking lots than rebuilding their parched minor league systems or investing prudently but soundly in what they put on the field.
Put it this way: For longer than anyone in baseball was willing to admit on the record, non-baseball expenses were costing a lot of teams a lot more money than the highest player payrolls were. Yet Selig and his allies wanted to redress it out of the players’ hides. The only shock about the 1994 strike, if you didn’t count how baseball government adroitly manipulated the press to make the players look like greedheaded idiots, was that the players held out as long as they did before taking their intentional walk.
Selig gets credit for shepherding baseball toward unheard-of economic success after that strike and up to the present. Not to mention all the years of labour peace since, in hand with first Donald Fehr and then his ill-fated successor Michael Weiner of the players’ association. It’s not exactly without merit, but did he really have to damn near break the sport in half to do it?
And did he have to get a big part of it by jamming new ballparks down taxpayer throats (in many cases, not all) that helped baseball ring the cash register while the homes of those parks saw not as much collateral economic success as advertised?
On whose watch did an epidemic of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances reach fever pitch, if you’ll pardon the expression? And, on whose watch did a United States Congress, who actually had no bloody business getting involved in baseball’s affairs in the first place, put a figurative gun to baseball’s head before Selig then held hands with the players’ union and began a preventative and punitive testing program that went from big question mark to maybe the toughest in professional sports?
And that’s without giving Selig the fanning he deserves for emasculating the meaning of pennant races with three divisions, wild cards, and second wild cards. With rare exceptions the absolute best of the absolute best don’t face each other in the World Series every year.
Did I forget to mention it was Selig’s brilliant idea—after one tie game thanks to two managers outsmarting themselves out of available pitching for extra innings—to peg the World Series’ home field advantage to the result of the All Star Game. It took the newly minted collective bargaining agreement to do away with that grotesque idea—shepherded by Selig’s successor Rob Manfred and current players’ union director Tony Clark.
They still won’t even think about Marvin Miller for the Hall of Fame, but they elected Selig—a man who thought for the most part that the common good of the game equaled making money for the owners and little enough else—to Cooperstown. If he’s a Hall of Famer, I’m the Venus de Milo.
THE REST OF THE CLASS . . .
So, who else fared how in the Today’s Game committee vote?
* Harold Baines—Longtime (22 seasons), reliable batsman who wasn’t much of a fielder and who might have looked more like a Hall of Famer if he’d been surrounded with the kind of teammates Tony Perez had. (Say what? According to Baseball Reference, Baines’s number one comp is Perez—who is in the Hall of Fame. Playing on those Big Red Machine teams helped him.)
By himself Baines was merely excellent but not always consistently so. But he did manage to survive on five Baseball Writers Association of America Hall of Fame ballots.
* Albert Belle—It’s still, sadly, easier to remember his personality issues than the hip issue that really ended his career. But had Belle not been so prickly—and, in all fairness, some of his issues weren’t his own making—he might have been seen as a Kirby Puckett kind of Hall of Famer: well enough on the way until part of his body betrayed him. He was only on two Hall ballots before falling off.
Do you remember: It was Belle, of all people, who put the lie to the owners’ cries of poverty two years after the 1994-95 strike finally ended.
That was when White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, at the time the biggest labour hawk in baseball not named Bud Selig, parked his armoured truck in front of Belle’s house and refused to leave until Belle accepted—wait for it—$10 million per year for two years, exactly double per year over his 1994 salary.
Reinsdorf, the number one man in the owners’ suite screaming about those too-well-paid players, the man most willing to break baseball in half on behalf of the point (even Selig wasn’t as much of a hawk as Reinsdorf was) . . . and now he doubled Belle’s annual salary without thinking twice about how foolish he might look.
Belle gave Reinsdorf plenty of bang for the gigabucks, as in 79 bombs and 220 steaks, not to mention being worth 7.1 wins above replacement level in the second year of the deal. But I’d bet there were a few smaller market owners who wanted to give Reinsdorf a bang . . . upside his head with one of Belle’s bats.
* Will Clark—Six-time All-Star. The Thrill peaked early before spending much of the rest of his career fighting injuries. He was productive enough through and around them, but it wasn’t enough to push him past the minimum threshold of a Hall of Famer. He was a one-and-done Hall ballot entrant in 2006.
Clark reportedly retired because he was disgusted with the presence of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. If that’s true, there’s something stubbornly admirable about it. Call him a better man than player, after all, as good a player as he was. Even if he wasn’t as good as Keith Hernandez or John Olerud and neither of them look to be hitting the Hall of Fame podium anytime soon.
* Orel Hershiser—Hershiser was a genuinely great pitcher for five seasons early in an eighteen-year career. Shoulder issues turned him into a shade above a journeyman with a few times in which he resembled his earlier self; his performances in the 1988 season (particularly breaking Hall of Famer Don Drysdale’s consecutive shutout inning streak) and postseason were the no-questions-asked height of his career.
But Hershiser only lasted on two Hall of Fame ballots before falling off. His shoulder meant he got a lot less out of his career than he should have had. Dwight Gooden, his contemporary, was far better—and he, too, was rendered a journeyman by shoulder issues (more than the sad drug issues) and won’t be going to the Hall of Fame, either.
* Davey Johnson—He took the helm of three teams who’d been basket cases until his arrival and made them winners: the 1980s Mets, a couple of 1990s teams worth of Reds and Orioles, and the first postseason Nationals teams. With the Mets he won a runaway division, a thriller of a pennant series, and a thriller of a World Series.
One of the first managers to use computers in studying and making matchups, Johnson often ran afoul of his bosses because he was almost laissez-faire when it came to establishing team rules, preferring to believe men should be treated as men. It didn’t always help, especially when front offices were bent on dismantling teams he’d managed successfully, the later 1980s Mets in particular.
He should be a Hall of Fame manager. But he didn’t make it this time, and he probably won’t be for the foreseeable future.
* Mark McGwire—He didn’t make it in his first try with the Today’s Game group. But here’s what I said of him when assessing him on the writers’ ballots:
[T]here’s just too much evidence in favour of the argument that McGwire didn’t need actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances to do the things he did at the plate. Or, that those substances probably didn’t do a damned thing for him other than just what he has said, from the moment he finally admitted to dabbling with them: help him recover quicker from injuries.
McGwire has said coming clean was more important to him than the Hall of Fame. Incidentally, McGwire did do quite a few things well other than hitting those conversation piece home runs. One big point in his favour, for all the good it does him now–McGwire didn’t spend his years in exile protesting for profit that he was baseball’s wronged man.
I haven’t had any good reason to change that opinion. Yet.
* Lou Piniella—Sweet Lou has an odd case: he’s one of major league baseball’s twenty winningest managers, and he also had a fine playing career in which he played on a few pennant winners and a couple of World Series champions while he was at it. And he did take the reins after Pete Rose was banished to bring the Reds to a staggering 1990 World Series upset.
But Piniella’s case would be a lot stronger if he could have pushed the 2001 Mariners all the way to the World Series finish line or even got one of his postseason Cub teams to the Promised Land. Most likely, his seasons in Tampa Bay hurt him, too. He was fun to watch, but he’s just short of a Cooperstown pilot.
* John Schuerholz—He made it. And how. First building the first Royals World Series champion, or at least finishing the puzzle; then, building and shepherding that stupefying 1990s-early 2000s run of the Braves. General managers aren’t normally Hall of Fame favourites, but even those who think general managers don’t belong there would make the exception for Schuerholz.
* George Steinbrenner—Sorry, can’t resist: When the Yankees made headlines in Chicago on getaway day after a buxom fan insisted they autograph her bare derriere, The Boss went nuclear. Back in New York, Steinbrenner rounded up the players to read them the proverbial riot act—which was something almost as common in those years with the Yankees as Bob Sheppard’s voice purring through the Yankee Stadium PA.
“Come on, George,” Lou Piniella, then his right fielder, shot back. “If you’d been there, you would have signed ‘George M. Steinbrenner, the Third,” and anything else you could have thought of.” Even Steinbrenner had to laugh.
Steinbrenner would probably be the single most famous owner in baseball history to have a plaque in Cooperstown if he gets elected. He didn’t this time. Does he deserve it down the road? Well, his Yankees did win seven World Series rings before he retired. He did show what free agency could mean to a winning team when he jumped into the deep end of the pool after his return from a suspension early in his ownership.
But he also treated his players, his managers, his coaches, and just about all his personnel in such ways as to make clear that then-Mets general manager Frank Cashen was only half kidding when he referred to “Fort Apache, Yankee Stadium.” Not for nothing was Steinbrenner known as the man who threw out the first manager of the year through the 1980s. “You’re fired” was a Steinbrennerism long before Donaldus Minimus made it a television catchphrase.
Contradictorily, Steinbrenner had enough of a soft heart as to give a lot of former players—ex-Yankees and otherwise—second chances with substantial jobs in his front office. Even more contradictorily, when Yankee Stadium personnel urged the Yankee powers that be to clear out the Stadium after the Red Sox won that stupefying 2004 American League Championship Series in the Yankees’ house, The Boss graciously rebuked them: “No. They earned it. Let them have fun.”
Think of Steinbrenner as the kind of father who spoiled the living daylights out of you one minute and beat the living daylights out of you the next, often as not over something that wasn’t even close to misbehaviour or disobedience. Then ask yourself if that’s your idea of a Hall of Fame father.