By Larry Fine
BALTIMORE (Reuters) – He presided over unprecedented economic growth and instituted a slew of innovations as Major League Baseball commissioner, yet the reign of Allan “Bud” Selig may forever be linked to both ends of the Steroids Era.
Selig was MLB’s head man when the sport looked the other way as brawny sluggers rewrote the record book with a boost from performance enhancing drugs.
Later he become a crusader fixed on ridding the game of doping cheaters, ushering in the toughest drug testing and harshest penalties in North American professional team sports.
The 80-year-old baseball czar, whose 22-year MLB reign will end in January with newly named successor Rob Manfred taking over, had a similar arc when it came to labor peace with the players.
Selig was in the hot seat when a labor dispute with the players led to cancellation of the end of the 1994 season and wiped out of the postseason, including the World Series.
From that low point, Selig went on to forge a strong working relationship with the Players Association that has led to a stretch of 21 years of labor peace and agreements on drug testing, revenue sharing and a host of other successes.
The millionaire car dealer from Milwaukee, whose folksy demeanor suggests a rambling old uncle rather than a sports power broker, expanded the playoffs, introduced the wild card in baseball, brought in video replay and realigned divisions and the leagues with an unerring ability as a consensus builder.
Selig and his lieutenants launched a cable TV network, plied new media platforms and took revenues from $1.2 billion in 1992 to more than $8 billion by 2013 during a tenure second in years only to MLB’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
Selig joined the ownership fraternity when he bought the bankrupt Seattle Pilots in 1970 and moved the franchise to Milwaukee, which had lost the Milwaukee Braves and legendary slugger Hank Aaron in a relocation to Atlanta.
As owner of the Brewers he became involved in MLB politics and after the resignation of commissioner Fay Vincent, forced out by a no confidence vote, Selig took over as de facto chief in 1992 as chairman of the Executive Committee.
He was formally named commissioner in 1998 and experienced turbulent times in his early years in charge.
On the heels of a long sequence of strikes and lockouts that had players and club owners at bitter odds and often facing off in court, labor strife led to a shutdown late in the 1994 season, sinking the game to new lows.
After baseball returned in 1995, the power game, with sluggers belting titanic, soaring shots with great frequency, began bringing disenchanted fans back to the ball parks.
Power hitting took center stage in 1998 with a thrilling home run duel between Mark McGwire of the Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Cubs that smashed the single season home run record and won mass attention.
Home runs kept coming at inflated rates, and sluggers looked more like body builders as use of steroids and other performance enhancers began to make a mockery of the record book.
In retrospect many felt that Selig and other MLB executives had turned a blind eye to doping.
After McGwire obliterated Roger Maris’s season record of 61 homers in 1961 with 70 in 1998, and Barry Bonds belted 73 in 2001 and barreled along toward overtaking Aaron’s career home run mark (eventually surpassing him in 2007), Selig went on the attack against doping.
With Selig’s prodding, a working partnership was struck with the Players Association and together they launched in 2004 a mandatory drug-testing program that developed into the strictest among North America’s four major pro sports leagues.
In 2006, Selig asked former U.S. Senator George Mitchell to lead an independent probe into use of steroids in baseball and 20 months later the Mitchell Report found doping was pervasive, leading to more thorough testing and stricter punishments.
The campaign reached a zenith one day last summer when Selig handed out bans to 13 players, including a record 211-game suspension (later reduced to 162 games) to baseball’s highest paid player, New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez, following a probe into the now-shuttered Florida anti-aging clinic Biogenesis.
Advocates for clean sport lauded MLB and Selig.
Said Travis Tygart, head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA): “I commend the commissioner for his leadership on this issue.
“Obviously they learned in the late ’90s and early 2000s this (doping) is the biggest threat to sport and to have the commissioner of one of most popular pro leagues in the world to take a firm stand and support it is really refreshing and give all clean athletes hope.”
(Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Gene Cherry)