BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 09/11/2014

Thiel: Selig’s legacy in Seattle: Thievery, parity

MLB commissioner Bud Selig, the stealer of the Pilots, passed through Seattle on his way to retirement, blessing the Mariners as the season’s surprise team.

Bud Selig was in town Wednesday for a final time as commissioner — barring a World Series appearance, of course. / Wiki Commons

As is Derek Jeter, Bud Selig is making something of a national tour prior to his retirement in January as major league baseball commissioner, a post he has held since before the invention of the steam engine. The amount of belovedness showered upon Selig, however, is slightly less than that for the Yankees shortstop, especially in Seattle, where he will be forever known as the man who smuggled the 1969 Pilots to Milwaukee.

Selig was in Seattle Wednesday for a low-key, farewell visit to Safeco Field, where he talked to the front office and then met media types before the Mariners-Astros game. No field ceremony was offered up, perhaps a response to the last time he was introduced some years ago.

“I was booed, lightly, but booed,” he said. CEO Howard Lincoln and president Chuck Armstrong were upset at the reception until the light bulb went off.

“Somebody remembered,” he said, “that I was the guy that stole the franchise.”

Well, hey, give the man credit. At least he finally admitted it.

But that was 45 years ago. The Pilots begat the Brewers, Pilots litigation begat the Mariners, and everybody lived happily ever after, right?

“Everything worked out,” he said. Well, not exactly. But hey, he’s 80, he’s entitled to remember it as he wants.

Controversy has swirled about the commissioner practically since his stewardship began, and with another Seattle dust-up at the beginning of his tenure.

In January 1992, Hiroshi Yamauchi, a Japanese billionaire, bought a majority interest in the Mariners from Jeff Smulyan, who had been covertly encouraged by some owners to pull the sorry franchise out of Seattle to Tampa. Not that Selig, who had pulled a team out of Seattle 22 years earlier, would ever have suggested such a thing.

But the owners were seriously chapped when some foreigner proposed to own a piece of Americana, especially when a robust Japanese economy at the time allowed entrepreneurs to buy other U.S. icons such as Pebble Beach golf course and Rockefeller Center.

But after a six-month shaming by many in America, especially in the Puget Sound area, where a big chunk of the economy was driven by exports to Japan, owners approved the sale.

“Baseball is always slow to change,” Selig said. “There were concerns about how it would work without an owner who didn’t go to any games.”

Well, it did prove  awkward, but  hey — fans apparently are still waiting for a team to show up in Tampa.

Three years later, Selig was up to his shrugging shoulders in another crisis in Seattle, this time about building a replacement for the Kingdome, which began falling apart at nearly the same time as baseball’s labor negotiations fell apart — for the eighth time in 20 seasons.

“I remember (the stadium fight) very well — a myriad of conversations with Chuck and  (chairman emeritus) John Ellis,” Selig said. “It was tough there for a while, but all’s well that ends well. The timing of ‘refuse to lose’ was remarkable.”

A new stadium was built by 1999, the Mariners made the playoffs four times in seven years, and all seemed well in Seattle. But another win drought ensued, 13 years worth. And only this month is there hope for an end, with the Mariners actually in contention for the postseason.

Selig says the Mariners success is the upset of the year (that was said before one of the most woeful losses, 5-2 to the Astros and a kid pitcher making his major league debut).

“People don’t want me to tell you this,” “he said, “but if you were to ask me back in April and then today about a surprise, I think they are a team that is maybe the major surprise of all the teams in baseball.

They’ve had a really wonderful year when you think about where they started. We’ll see what happens.”

Selig pointed with justifiable pride to the parity prevalent in baseball:  Since 2001, 28 of the 30 teams have made the postseason (all but Toronto and Kansas City) and this season, 20 teams were within 5½ games of a playoff spot as of Wednesday.

The revenue sharing that has led to hope in many more markets might be what outweighs the bitterness of the union fights and the scandals with PEDs during his time.

“I’m proud of what’s gone on the last 22 years,” he said. “The game doesn’t look like it did in 1992, for a myriad of reasons. Whether it’s the economic changes or all of the other rule changes, social changes. But I’ll leave all of you to determine that. It’s pretty hard to determine your own legacy.”

Selig’s retirement includes plans to teach at universities and write a book.

“I’m not dreading retirement at all,” he said. “On the contrary, I’m really looking forward to it.”

And if things hold, he can look forward at the end of his tenure to saying something that has never been said before — it is better these days to be the commissioner of Major League Baseball than the commissioner of the National Football League.


  • RadioGuy

    “’I’m not dreading retirement at all,’ he said. ‘On the contrary, I’m really looking forward to it.’”
    So are we, Bud, so are we. Only wish you’d retired in 1969 or just stuck to selling cars. And I’ll leave it at that, with considerable restraint. I loved the Pilots and my childhood was never the same.

    • art thiel

      There remain in Brooklyn people still bitter about the Dodgers’ departure. But in hindsight, the Pilots’ shaky finances doomed the team before they ever took the field.

      • Big

        Can’t afford to pound them Bud’s at Safco.

        • art thiel

          Enough apparently buy the beers that Montero can afford to throw perfectly good ice cream sandwiches at scouts.

  • Jamo57

    “I remember (the stadium fight) very well — a myriad of conversations with Chuck and (chairman emeritus) John Ellis,”

    And the Ms repay the region by throwing up roadblocks (no pun intended) for the arena. You gotta love these guys!

    On another note, as I was reading your fine column Art, a dark thought ran through my mind. Can you imagine a farewell tour coming through Seattle in 45 years by retiring NBA commissioner Clay Bennett? Youngsters, give that some thought in evaluating the irony us older folks feel in seeing Bud offer the shrug while saying “Ah, it all worked out”. :-/

    • art thiel

      Very dark, Jamo. Very dark.

  • jafabian

    Concerns about how it would work if an owner didn’t attend games. During his entire tenure as the M’s principal owner Yamauchi was criticized for that but under his stewardship the M’s finally shook off that monkey that kept them from winning as well as getting their own stadium. Bud’s right in one sense in that things did work out but not without a legal battle and a public shaming of MLB when owners balked at Yamauchi joining their exclusive club. He did follow the M’s though as evidenced by his devotion to players from Japan and his reasons for purchasing them were completely honorable. Can any other MLB owner say the same for themselves? Can Bud?

    I’ve always wondered if Yamauchi had a fear of flying because over the course of his career he rarely traveled outside of Japan. Would explain why he followed the M’s but never came to see them play.

    Hard for me to put a grade on Bud’s tenure. He basically carried out the will of the owners and was able to placate conflicts. He’s been credited with the growth of MLB but that growth would have happened regardless. If anything, I’ll give him credit for finally acknowleding his role with the Pilots.

    • art thiel

      Yamauchi’s ownership had more good than bad, but until this past month or so, the bizarre ownership setup helped cripple the last dozen years.

      Regarding stealing, I think he was acknowledging how he is remembered here, not how he sees it.

    • RadioGuy

      Some great observations. The thing about Yamauchi was that he was never a baseball fan (he liked hockey), but that he bought the Mariners as a civic gesture in return for how well things worked out for Nintendo’s operations here. I don’t have a problem with any owner who takes a hands-off approach to his/her team because that’s usually a very bad idea. The best owners hire good people to run their team, then stay out of the way except to sign paychecks.
      The problem I had with Yamauchi was that he entrusted the Mariners to the care of two men who failed to see beyond the profit-loss statement without considering the long-term ramifications of the sort of enmity that philosophy of team management engenders in America. I don’t think Yamauchi bought the M’s to bleed every cent out of it, but I also don’t think he understood that this is a country where a baseball team is nothing more than a PR vehicle for the parent company like it is in Japan.
      As for Selig as commish (and I’m really trying to be objective here), we HAVE gone 20 seasons without a labor stoppage, attendance is as good as ever, the World Baseball Classic is a good idea in theory (if not execution) and MLB is awash in TV money. On the other hand, he looked the other way during the Steroid Era until he HAD to address it, he hasn’t come up with a revenue-sharing formula that brings the small-market teams a little closer to parity with the big boys the way the NFL has, we now have World Series games played in November and baseball continues to lose ground with inner-city kids. He hasn’t been as autocratic as Landis or the disaster that was Eckert, but he hasn’t shown the grasp of the Big Picture like Ueberroth or the passion like Giamatti (RIP) possessed. Overall: Better than average but ultimately middle-of-the-pack…like Fay Vincent, but more compliant with the owners.

      • art thiel

        Fair assessment. Your key point was how baseball teams are regarded in Japan vs. here. In Japan, the teams are named for the companies that own them and are marketing devices as opposed to, as Selig put it, social institutions here. Yamauchi wanted to win, but losing games in America did not matter to him.

        He trusted Lincoln in most things, not realizing that baseball knowledge at the top was important, and that wins had to come before the ballpark experience.

        • jafabian

          I’d say that mentality is still prevalent among management today. The experience and corporate culture is focused on before the team. If it was the othe way around everything they could hope for would happen.

  • 1coolguy

    Selig is a dink – All I will remember this loser for is his allowing the steroid years to flourish – he was chasing the buck, plain and simple.
    I think whenever a web page, etc is brought up about him, ie Wikipedia, the before and after pictures of Bonds, Sosa, McGuire and A-Rod should pull up.
    Follow the money, PERIOD.

    • art thiel

      The 94 stoppage was so irksome that owners were willing to indulge any acts that brought customers into the tent.