Reflections on Bud Selig, Competitive Balance, and How to Build the Best 21st Century Baseball Team
Listening to Bud Selig is difficult and my heart goes out to the University of Wisconsin students who take his Baseball History class at Madison. Selig spoke last night on a program sponsored by the Smithsonian Museum Associates and organized by former Washington Senators and Redskins Announcer, Phil Hochberg. Listening to Selig was like watching a Presidential Debate. When asked a question, Selig never answered the question directly but spoke at length on the subject of the question. It was as though the question were a comely lass and Selig a suitor who danced around with her but had not the ability to consummate the relationship with a direct answer. The questions were put to Selig by Christine Brennan of USA Today, Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post, and Hochberg, who asked questions submitted by audience members such as myself.
There can be no quibbling that Selig was a good commissioner as measured by the current economic state of the game as a whole. Revenues and attendance are at all-time highs and competitive balance has never been so keen since the early days of the game. Selig deserves credit for getting the players and other owners to embrace concepts such as revenue sharing that were carved into Collective Bargaining Agreements dating back to 2002. Slowly those effects served to shift momentum away from the highest paid free agents and the owners who could afford to sign them—Steinbrenner’s name was invoked. The playing field was leveled during Selig’s tenure because he represented the small market teams aggressively and ably.
Svrluga asked whether, looking at today’s standings, with Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Toronto possessing some of the best records in either league, Selig felt vindicated. Here was the slow pitch Bud used to cream back in his softball days, and finally he had his way with one.
But there were two teams not included in that list, who probably should have been. One of them was the Washington Nationals. No team has been better aided over the past eleven years than Washington by the mechanisms of competitive balance. When the Expos moved to DC, they had little on the roster from which to forge a competitive team. But thanks to high first round picks that netted Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon, the Nationals have fielded a team that should have competed until the playoffs. The other small market team is the St. Louis Cardinals: 21st overall media market in the country as ranked by Nielsen. (Tampa-St. Pete is a surprising 13, Washington is 8, and Baltimore is 26).
But it is here where the work of Selig is put most at risk. The recent spate of billion dollar TV rights deals threaten to shift the playing field once again toward the big boys. Houston, Philadelphia, Texas have joined the New York and LA teams with large multi-billion dollar deals that will run for decades. The dimensions of these contracts will provide immense wealth to teams at the top of the Nielsen list and could land players like Bryce Harper in those cities for the long haul.
There are anomalies that offer hope, perhaps. The St. Louis Cardinals who are in the bottom tier per Nielsen, have recently signed a contract with Fox Sports that will pay the team 1 billion per season until 2032. The Forbes Magazine article detailing the contracts cites St. Louis as having the best baseball fans in the country and it is this quality that makes the deal for the Cardinals so richly deserved.
What exactly does that mean? How did St. Louis fans rate more highly say than those in Baltimore? Surely the long winning tradition and loyal fans in Baltimore are no less deserving than those in St. Louis. So how do these Midwesterners rate more highly? How do they deserve billions while the Mid-Atlantic bickers of one-tenth the amount St. Louis will have at its disposal? Rather than some rare Midwestern gestalt, it is more likely that having one the best front offices in baseball provides the very real explanation.
Look at the Cardinals starting lineup. Where are the big free agent signings? There is only one, shortstop Jhony Peralta, whose 4-year $53 million deal is hardly an industry leader. And where are the big number one draft picks? There are only a half dozen or so first rounders on the 25 man roster and many of those came via trade. Kolten Wong, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and Stephen Piscotty are the only first rounders actually taken by the Cardinals, though Jason Heyward came in trade for former first rounder Shelby Miller. John Lackey was obtained for Joe Kelly who was a third rounder.
The rest of the lineup tells the tale. Slugging third baseman Matt Carpenter was a 13th round pick, Trevor Rosenthal a 21st rounder, Matt Adams-23rd, Jaime Garcia 22nd, Seth Maness 11th, Kevin Siegrist 41st round. Carlos Martinez was an international free agent signing developed by the Cardinals after 2010 when the Red Sox lost rights to him. Tommy Pham a 16th round pick. Matt Holliday was a seventh rounder taken by Colorado and obtained via trade with Oakland for first round St. Louis pick, Brett Wallace.
The quality bats and arms that have amassed the best record in a far more well-balanced National League have not been obtained with competitive balance picks at the top of the draft. St. Louis has done it the old-fashioned way, with excellent player development and smart draft picks. Smart management made it possible, but sustaining that system will be made easier with a top tier TV deal that brings in a billion a year. Which means we have not heard the last about the quality of fans in St. Louis being gifted and talented.
Television rights are a topic that will not yield common ground in the DC area and Selig should have been prepared to address them. Maybe he was, but when asked my question about the current impasse between Washington and Baltimore about TV rights, Selig was as light-footed as a kid in the middle of the dodgeball circle. “It’s a matter of litigation and you’ll just have to wait for the courts to decide.” Actually the fans in DC would like to know how Selig got us here and what are the options for getting out. What shenanigans were afoot when the Expos were moved to DC that allowed Angelos to challenge the deal in court? Can the old ambulance chaser actually hold the feet of the citizens of the Mid-Atlantic to the tiny fire of his quaint little marshmallow roast? Is there any way in hell the courts can throw the whole mess out and let the contending parties start over from scratch.
What kind of deal could Washington and Baltimore put together today if the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network were toast and Comcast or Fox were free to negotiate a new deal to broadcast live sports in one of the largest media markets in the country? If the owners were smart they would be selling the fans of the Mid-Atlantic as the “Best” in the game and vying for a TV deal that might shove St. Louis back where they belong—21st according to Nielsen.
Stay tuned for Part Two in our baseball executives series. Rob “Mighty” Manfred will be speaking in DC at the National Press Club this coming Monday. This fan will be there hoping we will get a more forthright airing of the issues from the new Commissioner than we did from Selig.