Beginning In 1985, as owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, Bud Selig and numerous other owners colluded to undermine free agency by agreeing not to sign other teams’ free agents. The owners were taken to court and eventually ended up paying 280 million in damages to the players. It was with this failed attempt at collusion that the seeds of the 1994 work stoppage were sewn. In 1992, Fay Vincent, then Commissioner of Baseball, openly criticized the actions of this group of owners by saying:
“They rigged the signing of free agents. They got caught. They paid $280 million to the players. And I think that’s polluted labor relations in baseball ever since …”
In spite of Selig’s unscrupulous past he was able to corral enough owners to his side in an 18 to 9 vote of “no confidence” to force Vincent out. Now, you’d think it would be difficult for an owner with a history of impropriety to ascend to a position best suited to someone who might inspire trust from both sides, not so. Selig took the commissioner’s chair in 1992, passing control of the Brewers to his daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb.
Selig of course presided over the 1994 player’s strike. The 232-day work stoppage lasted from August 12, 1994, to April 2, 1995. What has since been described as the worst work-stoppage in professional sports history was precipitated by a collective bargaining proposal that included a salary cap. Tensions were exacerbated by the collusion attempts … Ownership dug in and the players didn’t budge. Eventually the 1994 season became a lost cause.
The strike damaged the game deeply, fans walked away in droves. There was a prevailing perception that the great American pastime had been irrevocably corrupted by greed. It was also during this time that steroids took root in MLB locker rooms. This issue was covered in a previous piece, so I will only note here that while it is true that the players shoulder a preponderance of blame, the owners did little to stop the spread of PED’s while they lined their pockets, and, in the end, the spread of steroids did occur on Selig’s watch.
The strike hurt the Montreal Expos more than any other team. Montreal had the best record in baseball at the time. The Expos were also lobbying for a new stadium, an effort that disintegrated with the work stoppage. Soon thereafter the Expos were sold to an art dealer named Jeffrey Loria who immediately demanded that the local government build him a new stadium. When this didn’t happen Loria eviscerated and sold the Expos to Major League Baseball for 120 million.
Loria used the proceeds from this sale to purchase the Florida Marlins. A suit was promptly filed by 14 minority owners of the Expos accusing Loria of conspiring with MLB (Selig) to dilute the minority partners’ share of the team from 76 percent to 6-to-7 percent. The suit went on to assert that Loria never intended to keep the franchise in Montreal and that he planed all along on flipping the Expos with an eye on the Marlins. Eventually the suit was settled with the former Expos owners receiving an undisclosed amount. As part of the settlement, none of the documents from the case were made public. This was in effect the second ruling against Selig in a 15 year span.
In the meantime Selig continued to pursue a contraction campaign focusing on the now MLB run Montreal Expos and the Minnesota Twins (for which there was a glaring conflict of interest since the Brewers and Twins shared the same market). Selig himself (who was good friends with the obscenely wealthy Pohlads) had managed in 2001 to get the city of Milwaukee to build Miller Park with $290 million in public funds, so he knew the drill — threaten and lobby.
Selig’s efforts to contract the Expos and the Twins failed as a result of a ruling requiring that the Twins honor their contract to play in the Metrodome. The Expos were subsequently sold and moved to Washington. What remained unresolved for many fans, however, were the exaggerated claims of losses on the part of baseball owners who at the time argued that the market was stretched thin and that teams were being pushed to poverty by player salaries and crumbling venues.
The Twins did eventually get their stadium (with 250 million in public funding), and on the day of its unveiling in April of 2010, Selig, strangely, brushed aside questions about contraction by brazenly stating, “there was a lot of mythology” to it. These comments left many feeling as if contraction was an elaborate ruse to secure support from legislators for stadium funding, a ruse Selig’s old conspirator Jeffrey Loria went on to perfect in securing public funding for a new stadium in Miami. An endeavor that eventually left Miami-Dade County with a 2.4 billion dollar debt, an empty stadium, and a massive abomination of a fish sculpture.
What does all this have to do with the Mets? There’s a pattern of influence and impropriety here that stretches back quite a ways. Wilpon was able to wrest the Mets from the more belligerent and restive Doubleday with Selig’s blessing (and a handy low-ball MLB appraisal). Selig has also presided over an office designed, ironically, to help maintain the integrity of the game, turning it instead into a vehicle for charting new profit streams. In the business world Selig is considered by many to be the greatest commissioner ever, having overseen an era that saw profits increase by 400%. But if there is one thing we know about Bud, it’s his long-standing desire to undermine free agency and level the playing field for smaller markets.
Bud Selig may have seen a unique opportunity to bring down spending and bolster parity by recommending a high level MLB operative (known for his ability to slash budgets and operate on a shoe-string), for the position of GM of the NY Mets. What better place to promote a small market paradigm than the biggest stage in the world?
In 2010 two crises were raging in MLB. Frank McCourt of the Dodgers was running his team as a personal bank account during divorce proceedings that had brought him to the brink of bankruptcy, and the Wilpons in N.Y. were in danger of losing the Mets as a result of a massive stadium bill and a disastrous association with Bernie Madoff and his ponzi scheme. Selig all but guaranteed that McCourt would sell by imposing a heavy-handed MLB takover, while he quietly supported the Wilpons with loans and votes of confidence.
In the fall of 2011 Frank McCourt filed a lawsuit against MLB, accusing Selig of forcing bankruptcy on the Dodgers by rejecting a contract with Fox Sports. The Fox contract would have allowed McCourt to retain possession of the Dodgers, but as the Dodgers were under MLB control by then, Selig was within his bounds to reject it — even though it was similar in principle to contracts signed by many other MLB teams. The court sided with MLB, but not without a stern warning to Selig. Again Bud had deftly maneuvered borderline illegal practices with impunity. Selig knew the Dodgers would fetch an obscene sum in sale and he also knew that any buyer would have deep enough pockets to pour truckloads of cash into the franchise. The Mets on the other hand would receive the austerity plan, a painful rebuilding process focusing on cutting payroll and rejuvenating their farm … the polar antithesis of what transpired with the Dodgers.
A friend who was in San Diego during Alderson’s tenure there warned me, “Alderson,” he said “would chop the team up piecemeal and sell off the parts for prospects, it’s what he does.” I didn’t believe him. “This is N.Y.” I countered “Here you have to spend money to make money, the fans wouldn’t stand for it …” After losing, in successive seasons, Beltran, Reyes, and Dickey, with a budget effectively halved, I can only admit he was ostensibly on the mark.
The more pressing question, however, is one of influence. Selig has exerted his influence over the years with mixed results. His approach in 1994 backfired as the players hit back, and his attempts at collusion resulted in a 280 million dollar settlement against MLB … but his influence was largely successful in both the migration of the Expos as well as the funding of numerous new venues on the public’s dime. The real defeat he’s never been able to undo is his failure to limit free agency and his inability to institute a salary cap.
Bud Selig is friends with Fred Wilpon, but given Selig’s commitment to the almighty dollar don’t let a personal relationship fool you. Selig would just as soon pop open a can of Milwaukee’s finest than hesitate to throw Wilpon under a bus if it meant more money in the coffers. His reasons for coming to the rescue of the Wilpons while moving to oust McCourt, can only be explained with an eye on profit. You could argue this is contradictory, how would the “Met austerity paradigm” mean more money for baseball when the Dodgers just boosted values of MLB franchises across the country by raising the bar with their sale price?
It’s all about parity. As Jason Stark recently pointed out, MLB now features more parity than the NFL. If a small market approach can succeed in a big market it would effectively establish an operational model that could be duplicated in any number of cities big and small. Increased parity means more money across a broader spectrum of markets, precluding the need for revenue sharing mandates. Why didn’t Selig attempt a similar austerity program with the Dodgers? McCourt was himself imbued in impropriety and was openly hostile to MLB, his was a hopeless cause where the only resolution was a forced sale.
If Selig’s plan proceeds according to design, the Mets will benefit from a self sustaining minor league feeder system what will propel them to perennial contention while the Dodgers dig out from an array of bad contracts … but, there are no guarantees. Selig lost control of the Dodger situation once the winning bid was accepted. The Mets on the other hand were under his influence in so far as he was able to impress upon both the Wilpons and Sandy Alderson that they needed to cut payroll. Granted, under the circumstances the Wilpons didn’t have much choice, but when you consider Selig’s history and the fact that he got his man on the GM’s seat in NY, you have to believe he was pleased.
Whether or not this experiment benefits the Mets remains to be seen. Given the volume of pitching the Mets have been able to accumulate you have to feel good about the team’s prospects, no pun intended. The Dodgers on the other hand appear to be a flawed, injury prone, aging, and above all expensive mess. As far as business models, you can bet there will be lots of baseball minds keeping an eye on the Mets and Dodgers in the coming years.