David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Bud Selig has faced countless challenges during his 16-year reign as the ninth commissioner of Major League Baseball. On Thursday, at the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore, the sport's 30 owners will let Selig know if he still has one big fight left before his January retirement.
That's when the owners are scheduled to vote on the next commissioner, with a ballot of three candidates that includes Red Sox chairman Tom Werner and two MLB in-house choices: chief operating officer Rob Manfred -- considered to be the favorite -- and Tim Brosnan, the executive vice president for business.
One of Selig's few failings as commissioner is allowing the process to get to this point. Rather than create an environment for a smooth transition -- think the NBA's David Stern recently passing the baton to Adam Silver -- replacing Selig will be put to a vote, evidently pitting rival factions against each other. A candidate needs 23 votes out of 30 to be approved as commissioner.
With accusations surfacing of discord among the owners, and the potential for a boardroom slugfest on Thursday, Selig felt it necessary this week to calm the public waters, much as he has tried to do over the past two decades.
"Reports of personal animosity between Jerry Reinsdorf and me -- or any other alleged disputes between owners regarding the process or the candidates -- are unfounded and unproductive," Selig said in a statement. "I respect the ownership of our 30 franchises and have complete faith that the process will produce an individual that all in baseball will be eager to support."
In other words, pay no attention to how the sausage is made. When Selig -- the Brewers owner at the time -- was named acting commissioner in 1992, it was because the others wanted Fay Vincent gone. In their view, Vincent was trying to implement too many of his own ideas, such as rearranging divisions, so the owners voted to install one of their colleagues instead.
Selig has taken MLB's lead role ever since, first as chairman of the executive council -- a sort of acting commissioner -- and then was elected unanimously to be the full-time commissioner in 1998, a stretch that is second only to Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1921-44). But the job of running the sport, or at least representing the 30 people who do, has changed considerably during Selig's stay in office. The old perception of a commissioner doing what's in the "best interests of the game" has been adjusted to account for baseball's tremendous economic growth, both through television and the Internet.
Baseball as big business. That's the bottom line. Through Selig's diplomatic efforts, in brokering peace among owners and the Players Association, just about everyone involved with MLB has profited immensely. It's why Selig's annual salary is more than $20 million, a sum that would put him among the 25 top-earning active players, in the Ryan Braun/Matt Kemp range.
The most recent TV package, an eight-year deal struck in 2012 with three networks, earned MLB a combined $12.4 billion. That translates to an extra $25 million for each team during the life of the contract, and that -- along with nearly 20 years of labor peace -- has helped produce a financial windfall that Selig can point to as perhaps his greatest accomplishment.
"I'm proud of so much," Selig said last month at the All-Star festivities, "but I would say the changing economics of the game. Because it's our job to provide hope and faith and have the system where teams can compete. Not just on the size of the market, but on what they do. We had to change the whole economic structure . . . [and] as a result, baseball is so much stronger and so much better."
Selig is handing off a financially robust sport to his successor, but there are plenty of obstacles to navigate for the next person in charge. The always-evolving PED landscape, with newer and more complex substances to combat. The stadium situations in Oakland and Tampa Bay. The looming negotiations for the next collective-bargaining agreement, which expires in 2016.
So which of the candidates is best equipped to handle those issues? Is it Manfred, a Harvard-educated lawyer who has acted as Selig's right-hand man for the past 15 years? Or is it a business-savvy negotiator like Brosnan, another lawyer who has been at the forefront of MLB's most lucrative ventures? And what about Werner, a former TV exec who thinks and acts like an owner after being part of two groups with the Padres and Red Sox?
Selig has led MLB to this point. But with the unpredictability of Thursday's vote, and the potential for turbulence ahead, Selig's work seems far from finished.