Bud’s Blunder

 

 

Desperate times call for decisive leadership. All too often, Major League Baseball’s commissioner Bud Selig has failed to provide it. Hesitation, uncertainty, and conservative behavior have defined his performance. People have begun to laugh at Blundering Bud and shake their heads in disgust and disappointment as the commissioner makes one mistake after another. These are difficult times for baseball. The sport continues losing market share among the sporting public. The NFL is now America’s national pastime and dominates the sports scene. Over the last decade, a new challenge from college football has threatened baseball’s spot as the second most popular sport. Bud Selig has presided over this era and seen his sport become less chic. He has wielded power since 1992—and since then, watched his sport continue losing relevance in the national consciousness. Baseball needs new ideas, bold leadership, and decisive decision making. It must have a new direction. It’s time for Bud to go.

The sports world turned to Bud Selig last week after a controversy erupted in Detroit. On June 2, Armando Galaragga recorded 26 straight outs and was on the verge of pitching a perfect game (only 20 have occurred). The 27th batter, Jason Donald hit a week ground ball the first base side. Miguel Cabrera fielded the ball and tossed it over to Galarraga for a force out. The pitcher made the play—catching the ball a split second before Donald’s foot hit the bag. Jim Joyce, the first base umpire, called Donald safe. Replay showed an out was made. But baseball has no replay on safe/out calls—just for home run calls, whether a ball left the field of play, and whether fan interference occurred. A public uproar ensued—fans across the country wanted Selig to reverse the call and award Galaragga the perfect game. They also wanted him to expand instant replay in baseball.

The game ended by 9:00 pm EST Wednesday night. The commissioner didn’t respond until 4:00 pm EST the next afternoon. The official statement said that Selig stood by the call and refused to change it. The commissioner’s words indicated that overturning the call would cause a “bad precedent” and open up “Pandora’s box” for similar challenges.

I have no problem with the declaration. My problem is the way Selig handled the situation. The optics of this looked all wrong. This was the most controversial event of the season and the commissioner didn’t appear on camera to get out in front of the story and handle the p.r. blitz.  Where was he? Why didn’t he make a public announcement? Did he not recognize the enormity of this situation?

Selig refused to face the music and would not answer questions in front of a camera; he chose to remain hidden from view. This was a revealing moment. Leaders get out in front of a story. They make an appearance. They show action. They reassure the public. Selig did none of these things.

And that’s the problem. Selig didn’t act. He didn’t inspire confidence. He just compounded the problem. The media were left with more questions than answers. Where was Bud? Was he asleep at the wheel, once again?

Perhaps it’s best that he remain hidden from view. Whenever he’s appeared in public during a crisis, he’s appeared like an idiot—unsure of himself and unwilling to make a bold choice. Selig wants consensus—he wants to do the least controversial thing. The idea of stepping out on a limb is foreign to him. Who can forget the 2002 MLB All Star game in Milwaukee? This should have been a seminal event in Selig’s life. The game took place in his hometown and showcased a stadium his family helped build for a franchise he once owned. This wonderful moment turned into a horrifying spectacle. The game went into extra innings and the managers ran out of pitchers. Selig, in his box, looked paralyzed. All eyes turned to him in hopes that he would offer a resolution that allowed the game to go on until one side claimed victory. Viewers waited. Minutes went by. Finally, Bud reached a verdict.  He chose to call the game a tie—a first in modern memory. While everyone laughed at the outcome, most remembered how uncertain and panicked Selig looked during the last innings of that affair. It was if this possibility (of a tied game) had never crossed his mind. Rarely has an executive looked so pitiful.

The commissioner showed off this pathetic look three years later when he testified before Congress about steroids in baseball. A House subcommittee peppered Selig with questions. The commissioner famously said “there is no concrete evidence” that steroids played a major role in baseball when in fact his testimony was part of a federal inquiry that investigated how deep steroids had penetrated into major league locker rooms. He went on television the next day and continued his indefensible position that the situation wasn’t a big deal in the game. He answered NBC anchor Matt Lauer with this memorable line: “nobody has been convicted of anything—” trying to water down the emerging consensus the commissioner had allowed performance enhancing drugs to invade his sport. Selig’s posturing aimed at creating the impression that he had the situation under control and that the steroid culture wasn’t that big a deal.

Spectators around the country rolled their heads at that whopper. The commissioner’s rhetoric indicated he was living in denial or simply inhabited a different universe. Most baseball followers knew drugs had penetrated the sport and threatened the statistical integrity and history of the game. They wanted Selig to crack down on the problem. He refused to do so. Only when Congress threatened baseball’s anti-trust exemption did Selig usher in strict drug testing policies.

Nothing captured Bud’s timid response and decision-making skills and his inability to plan ahead like the 2008 World Series did. Rain played havoc on the Series and caused an infamous controversy in Game 5. Bad weather hit Philadelphia long before the first pitch that Monday night. Selig and MLB let the game go on. A deluge broke out during the fifth inning. In the top of the sixth, the Rays scored a run and tied the game with the Phillies. At the bottom of the inning, the commissioner suspended the game.

This was a first. No World Series game had ever been suspended. Moreover, questions abounded as to why Selig didn’t call the game after five innings. The Phillies had the lead. The game was official. The win would give the Phillies the World Series. Selig insisted that he made the right call. He claimed that no World Series clinching game should be decided on a rain-shortened game. Two days later, the game resumed.  The Phillies prevailed and won the championship. While Philadelphia celebrated, the rest of the sporting world was left to think: What’s up with Bud? How did he make that decision?

Blundering Bud has made a career of these “oh-no” decisions. He constantly looks befuddled and as if he’s never considered contingency strategies for what-to-do when things go off-script. He’s a reactionary looking for consensus. When the bright lights turn on him, Selig looks like he wants to run off stage. It appears as if he doesn’t want to make the tough call.

That attribute makes him a bad leader. Baseball, in 2010, can’t afford to have someone like that. The sport has fallen out of favor with the American sporting public. Traditionalists, of whom Selig is one, insist that baseball is the U.S. national pastime. They talk about a bygone era and wax nostalgically about the golden age when stars like Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, DiMaggio, Musial, and Mays roamed the ballparks. That day is long gone. Football has replaced baseball as the country’s most popular sport. The NFL did this years’ ago; over the last decade, college football has become the second most popular sport. Baseball needs to change with the times. It needs a visionary and a leader—one who couples great ideas with decisive action.

Selig and his cronies, i.e. the baseball owners  sold out their sport long ago to television. They sacrificed generations of fans for the short-term profit of television revenue. Fox (the national TV partner) insists on starting post season games at 9:00 pm est. Young fans cannot stay up and watch the end of these games—the most important of the year. For years and years, calls have gone out to change this and make it more kid friendly. They point to the NFL—which has its Super Bowl kick off by 7:00 est. Selig has refused to buckle. For years, the game has sacrificed young viewers, the game’s  future customers, and seen these consumers flock to football and basketball.

These kids like action and think baseball is boring. The young gravitate to the violence of football, the speed of stock car racing, and the athleticism of basketball. Baseball is for old folks—they say. Plus, the game takes too long. Pace of play has been an on-going struggle throughout Selig’s tenure (1992-present). The average length of time a 9 inning game took in 1992 was 2 hours 50 minutes. While the 2009 average dropped to 2 hours 48 minutes, the game still appears to move at a glacier like pace. Consider this:  in 2009 the two most popular teams (based on ticket and merchandise sales) the Yankees and the Red Sox were also the two slowest teams. It took the Yankees 3 hours 16 minutes to finish an average game. The Red Sox were slightly quicker: 3 hours 12 minutes. You better bring a Snickers whenever the two faced off. An average Yanks/Sox game took 3 hours 39 minutes.

Selig needs to speed the game up. Do something. Eliminate the batter’s ability to step out of the box after every pitch, limit mound visits, and widen the strike zone. The public want a quicker game. The problem won’t go away. It only gets worse in the post season—when each pitch is a make-or-break moment. Those games drag on forever. MLB encouraged this behavior as well. Behind the scenes, the allowed Fox an additional 30 seconds per half inning to sell television advertisers.

Likewise, baseball must find a way to appeal to a younger demographic. Starting playoff and World Series games an hour earlier would help. Selig and the owners have allowed short term profit rule their decision making for far too long. This infusion of capital might help in the near term—but its long range implications are catastrophic. Baseball will continue losing market share if it continues to go against the grain of its fan base. Look at the sports that jumped into the national consciousness over the last decade—Nascar and College Football. Both made their product more widely available and fan friendly. Both provide a product that’s visually appealing. Baseball must follow this lead. Keep their existing fan base and appeal to a wider demographic.

By maintaining the status quo, MLB continues to spiral into oblivion. Numerous societal changes have hindered the sport—i.e. Americans working longer hours and having less time to watch a 3 hour game every day, dwindling attention span, and a more hectic lifestyle. Other sports have evolved with this societal evolution. They changed; baseball hasn’t. Any wonder why baseball continues floundering in mass appeal.

The sport needs a market correction. This will happen if owners give Bud the hand’s down. Selig had a fantastic ride and spent nearly two decades at the head of the sport. But, he’s old and out of touch with the modern consumer. He still talks about the game’s glory days instead of focusing on today’s problems and the challenges baseball faces going forward. A new commissioner should offer fresh blood, new direction, and provide decisive leadership. He should look at Bud and model his behavior accordingly. Look to the mistakes made and find a solution to the problems facing the sport. Baseball is at a crossroads. They have a choice: Will they choose failure or success? Will they stay the course with a conservative figure or make a bold move proclaiming your acknowledgment of the new sporting landscape and willingness to make positive steps to reassert baseball’s rightful place as the dominant sport in this country? Progressive leaners’ know one thing: it’s time to give Bud the boot.

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