PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. - The retirement party for Bud Selig, staged this past week under a massive tent in the shadow of Camelback Mountain, was more red-carpet than blue-collar despite the outgoing commissioner's Milwaukee roots.
Huge spotlights twirled in the parking lot of the Scottsdale resort, shooting beams high into the desert sky. The guest list -- aside from Major League Baseball's 30 owners, already in town for their quarterly meetings -- included a cross-section of Selig's life in the sport.
Close friend Hank Aaron from his early Braves days, NBC sports legend Dick Ebersol, former commissioner Peter Ueberroth and even Sen. George Mitchell, who became a household name in these circles for his controversial report that radically changed how baseball views performance-enhancing drugs.
"It was a lot of emotion, a lot of history," Selig said of the event, "and I think symbolic of everything that's gone on for the last 50-some years."
During the Selig part of that half-century, and specifically his 23-year run as commissioner, MLB has grown from the ashes of the 1994 strike into a $9-billion industry built on massive TV contracts and the skyrocketing profits derived from the sport's advanced media enterprise.
Selig isn't the sole reason for that, obviously. But he turned out to be the right man at the right time and somehow was able to break the owners' maddening cycle of tearing down and then rebuilding the sport every few years. Selig also pushed to implement strict PED testing and penalties, expanded video replay, interleague play and the imminent pace-of-play rules.
"I think he always had the best interests of the game in mind," Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said. "I don't think he was a small-market guy, I don't think he was a big-market guy. You look at the things that Bud has done with the advancement of drug policies and how good it is in baseball right now -- with no work stoppage in 20 years -- those are some great accomplishments."
A friend in Wilpon's corner
Selig officially steps down Jan. 25, when he will be replaced by commissioner-elect Rob Manfred, so this was the final time he presided over the quarterly meetings for MLB's 30 owners.
On the last morning of these meetings, everyone gathers for what amounts to a general assembly. Reports are read, issues are discussed.
The whole session usually is finished in less than three hours, and once it ends, the owners -- luggage packed and loaded -- beat a hasty retreat to their private planes. That's when Selig takes his turn at the podium to address the media, maybe flanked by a few MLB officials.
On this occasion, however, a handful of owners stuck around to watch, with the Mets' Fred Wilpon standing toward the back.
Selig and Wilpon have been close throughout the commissioner's tenure -- a relationship often referenced during the team's myriad financial issues, including the fallout from the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme.
Despite the very public mess, Selig has been unwavering in his support of Wilpon, even authorizing MLB loans to help the franchise remain stable. Without that loyalty, the Mets' situation might have turned out differently. But Selig's backing in this instance gives some insight into the bonds he forged as commissioner and how those ties may have helped him get things done.
"You know, Bud worked at this 24-7," Wilpon said. "He's the kind of person that got everybody's opinion, is thoughtful about those opinions and then tried to get people to move together."
Wilpon said Selig would always quote one of his mentors, John Fetzer, who owned the Tigers when Selig purchased the bankrupt Seattle Pilots in 1970 and brought them to Milwaukee as the Brewers. According to Wilpon, Selig would tell everyone, "If you do what's best for the whole game, it's really in your best interests. Although at that point, it doesn't really seem to be. But you've got to do what's in the best interests in the overall sense."
Added Wilpon, "Bud did remarkable work in terms of that."
Bringing everyone together
Some would say that becomes harder to define when what is most lucrative financially for the 30 owners might not necessarily be the same as the "best interests of the game." But Major League Baseball is a business, after all, and Selig was paid close to $30 million in salary by the end -- he will earn as much as $10 million as commissioner-emeritus -- because the sport made piles of money during his tenure.
"In 1992, when I took over, things were not good," Selig said. "In fact, there's no other way to say it -- it was a mess. But I knew in the early and mid-90s, the one thing as we move forward, we were going to have to do things together.
"You can always have differences. But there's a way to handle those."
Selig had one last bump in the road last August when the owners gathered in Baltimore to vote on his successor. Selig had endorsed Manfred, his chief operating officer, but there were a few small pockets of resistance that required some ironing out. Despite that turbulence, Manfred eventually got enough votes and Selig could declare victory. That kind of diplomacy was mentioned often Wednesday during Selig's party in Scottsdale.
"Each and every speaker talked about the fact that everything Bud accomplished was a result of his ability to bring unity among the 30 owners," Manfred said. "It's a tribute to his personality and personal skills that he could produce the kind of unity that has literally revolutionized this game."
On Thursday, in what seemed like a parting gift, Selig got word that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had rejected the city of San Jose's antitrust case against Major League Baseball, which has not allowed the A's to pursue a downtown ballpark there. MLB has been fending off antitrust cases for decades and is undefeated.
"Well, when you win, you're always happy," Selig said that morning. "This is good for baseball. It makes me feel good."