COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Bud Selig will enter the Hall of Fame Sunday with a sturdy plaque and no regrets. He is proud of the labor peace and booming business that took shape during his sometimes contentious reign as commissioner of baseball. His induction speech will be awash in warm memories, even for his most famous jousting partner.
In remarks that will touch on the entire sport’s past, present and future, Selig will get sentimental about his relationship with the late George Steinbrenner. “It was amazingly close. People have a hard time understanding that. We were actually very, very friendly,” Selig told reporters Saturday. “I can honestly tell you, in 35 years, we never agreed on anything. He was always here and I was always there.
“But I found a letter on my desk the other day, where he signed it, ‘Your loyal friend, George.’ That’s what he was,” the former commissioner said. “In the end, the fact that he would agree to revenue sharing and do all the things he did is a great compliment.”
The ultimate compliment for Selig, of course, is enshrinement. Unlike other sports, whose Halls of Fame place executives in separate categories from players, Selig and longtime Royals and Braves general manager John Schuerholz will be on the same stage, with the same status, as 2017 inductees Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez. Starting Sunday and lasting forever, Selig will have a place among the greats of the game.
His election was due in large part to his ability to compromise and calm choppy waters. There were plenty of those. Bagwell and Rodriguez have been the subject of speculation about performance-enhancing drugs. The former players deny ever having taken them, but the topic was a subtext for Selig’s run from 1992 to 2015, with critics charging that baseball’s surge in popularity in the late 1990s was fueled by banned substances.
Selig acknowledged the debate, and shot it down. “Don’t misunderstand me. There were things that I didn’t like, there were things that were uncomfortable for a commissioner. The steroid thing, I’ll be candid about that,” he said. But he added, “This is a sport that never had a drug-testing program. This is a sport that went through the cocaine problem of the ’80s and couldn’t get a drug-testing program. Steve Howe got suspended seven times — think about that — and got back every time.
“To say that baseball turned a blind eye or was slow to react is just not true. It’s a historical myth. Remember, this was a collectively bargained item,” he said, asserting that Major League Baseball’s policy now is “the toughest testing program in American sports and maybe in American business. I’m proud of what we’ve done.”
He is proudest of having brought baseball back to Milwaukee, his hometown. But he does not apologize for his time in office. He mentioned baseball’s advanced media program and its cable network and the “economic reformation” in which baseball became a $10 billion enterprise at a time when many other businesses were shrinking. The 1994 strike that wiped out the World Series left him “heartbroken,” he said, but it might just have cleared the air for the labor accords that have followed ever since.
“It didn’t come easy. It came with a lot of trauma. Commissioner is a tough job. You’ve got to make tough decisions. If somebody wants to be mad about it, well, they have to be mad,” he said.
Getting booed at a Hall of Fame awards ceremony, which happened to him Saturday, comes with the territory. He is pleased that Sunday will be a celebration of Rodriguez’s skills as one of the all-time best catchers, of Raines’ Rickey Henderson-like numbers, of Bagwell’s power, of Schuerholz’s acumen. Selig is proud of allowing fans to focus on ballgames, not strikes. He is proud of having helped small-market teams thrive, while still having kept Steinbrenner somewhat happy.
The two used to bet every year on Tampa Bay-Green Bay NFL games and Ohio State-Wisconsin college football matchups. “He took it very seriously,” Selig said. “It was a complicated relationship, but a good one.”
Selig still is close with Bill Bartholomay, the man he once bitterly resented for having moved his beloved Braves from Milwaukee to Atlanta. It was the ultimate blessing in disguise because it provoked Selig to get involved in ownership and put him on a journey that has ended in Cooperstown.
As he said Saturday, “I feel like I’m home.”
Just the facts
What: National Baseball Hall of Fame Induction
When: Today, 1 p.m.
TV: MLB Network
Where: Cooperstown, N.Y.
2017 Hall of Fame inductees: Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez, John Schuerholz, Bud Selig
Award presentation: J.G. S Taylor Spink Award for baseball writing to Claire Smith; Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting to Bill King