Surviving Selig gets tougher

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2002

It's time for Bud Selig to let go of contraction. If not, then it's time for him to go.

Not just because the commissioner is a lousy labor negotiator, or because he's pushing a bad contraction plan.

Or even because we just learned old pal Carl Pohlad, who helped arrange a $3 million loan in 1995 for Selig's Milwaukee Brewers, stands to reap a windfall if his Minnesota Twins get contracted anytime soon.

Businesses can survive stubbornness, or shortsighted thinking, or conflicts of interest -- but rarely all three at the same time. Baseball's owners just gave Selig a contract extension, but now that the game has hit the trifecta on his watch, it's time for Selig to change or for his bosses make a change at the top. Especially with the most critical labor negotiations in the history of the game just beginning.

What Selig does best is seek consensus.

What baseball needs most is leadership.

Now, try to name another business whose leader seems so out of touch with the times.

In the past few months, Selig managed to chill the warm afterglow of one of the best and most emotionally charged World Series ever, finish a distant second to former pro wrestler and current Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura in the running debate over contraction, and insult a posse of congressmen and the rest of the nation by arguing baseball owners have lost $500 million while maintaining an absolute monopoly in a $3.5 billion-a-year industry.

On Wednesday, one of those congressmen called Selig out. Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the House Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, said Selig's loan arrangement with Pohlad created an ''irreparable conflict of interest.''

He also said the books Selig brought to Washington last month to bolster claims of a stupefying half-billion-dollar loss were, if not cooked, then at the very least half-baked. Then he called on Selig to resign.

On Thursday, Conyers gave Selig an out. He offered to back off his call for the commissioner's head if Selig agreed to put the contraction plan on ice for this season.

''As an alternative, let me suggest that you immediately announce that major league baseball will not contract any teams and not place any team ownership in league control prior to the conclusion of the upcoming season,'' Conyers wrote. ''This would give us all the time and opportunity necessary to consider the range of issues, including potential conflict of interest problems, that have arisen.''

It's time like these that remind us Selig came to baseball straight from the used-car business. Because anybody else who tried to answer so many ticklish questions without giving himself away would have developed facial tics by now.

Even so, Selig didn't respond immediately to Conyers' offer. But a day earlier, he fired a two-page letter back to the congressman.

In it, the commissioner said the loan from a bank owned by Pohlad to the Brewers, was an arm's length transaction at market-rate interest. Selig, who was the acting commissioner at the time, conceded he hadn't bothered to get approval from fellow owners -- an apparent violation of major-league rules.

But if he had, Selig's letter continued, he was confident ''it would have received approval at that time.'' And he wrote it was ''preposterous'' that the owners would do Pohlad a favor by paying him twice as much to eliminate his team as it would bring on the open market.

Because Congress has more pressing concerns than stripping baseball of its antitrust exemption, there is little chance Conyers & Co., can effectively twist Selig's arm to step down, or even force his hand on contraction. But that might not be the case with the players.

In an attempt to get collective bargaining talks moving along, Selig went before the union Wednesday and asked players to accept a luxury tax that would slow salary increases and proposed that teams share more of their local revenues.

The contraction dispute remained off to the side Thursday. Arbitrator Shyam Das resumed hearings on whether baseball's unilateral decision to contract two teams was in violation of the expired labor contract, which remains in force. And there was still the matter of an injunction issued by a Minnesota state court ordering the Twins to play at the Metrodome next season.

Regardless of how those two matters are resolved, Selig can't save his own skin without letting go of contraction. He's lost credibility, and if baseball surrenders the start of next season to a labor dispute, it risks losing whatever fans are left.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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