- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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The new president of the United States got to stand atop the Capitol steps this week and address the nation. The commissioner of baseball, on the other hand, didn't even have to leave his office.
Here at ESPN.com, we're cooperative that way. We always aspire to make things easy for Bud Selig. Everybody knows that. So since this was a week for Americans to reflect on the state of their Union, we thought:
What better time for the commissioner to reflect on the state of his union?
So we asked Bud Selig about the big issues facing his sport. Here's just some of what he told us:
• He stayed away from uttering the words "salary cap," but he'll be watching "carefully" before making any "strong judgments" about the need for major revisions in baseball's labor/revenue-sharing system when the current labor deal expires in December 2011.
• He is so concerned about ratings and weather conditions during the postseason that he is actively working on changing late game times, and even the schedule format.
• He disagrees with people who think March is the wrong time to play the World Baseball Classic.
• And he said -- repeatedly, in fact -- that there's only one explanation for his sport's odd, slow-motion offseason: Baseball is played in the same world that's now staggering through the worst economic mess of his lifetime.
He said all that and much more. So read on, as we present Bud Selig's State of the Union address, or at least Bud Selig's State of the Union Q&A:
The "C" word
Jayson Stark: This has been one of the strangest offseasons in baseball history, with more than 100 players still unsigned in late January. We're starting to hear murmuring, from your friends on the other side, about collusion. How would you respond to that talk?
Bud Selig: Well, I'm certainly not going to respond to that. But let me say this to you. The last two [owners] meetings, I've had Paul Volcker and George Will come in and talk to the owners. We're in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. No one seems to know where this is headed. Obviously, I'm very concerned. I've lived through a lot of economic recessions in my day. I've never seen anything like this. And neither has anybody else. And so while, in the past, I've felt baseball was recession-proof, this is different. And each owner is going to have to determine, personally and from his team's standpoint, what that means. So are people surprised? I note where Mark Cuban said the other day that this is going to be a nuclear offseason in the NBA. The NFL has said the same thing. So the uncertainty of these times, and the seriousness of it, certainly should not be underestimated, [and] nobody should be surprised. All you have to do is watch the news every day to understand just how serious this is. We don't live in a different world. We're part of all this.
Stark: On the other hand, the Yankees have spent nearly half a billion dollars on three free agents. So the kind of talk you hear these days from owners is: "The Yankees are bad for baseball we need a salary cap." It sounds a lot like the talk you heard 10 years ago. Do you think the Yankees' actions this winter represent a serious problem for the sport?
Selig: I'm not going to comment on individual clubs. I haven't in the past, and I won't now. Every club has to do what they have to do, and I'm very comfortable saying that. I'm proud of the system we have. I think we've had more competitive balance than we've ever had. And we have labor peace now through 2011. So I'll continue to watch what happens in the system and make my judgments at the appropriate time.
Stark: Well, taking the Yankees out of it, are you concerned that some teams can't afford to pay their star players or keep their players, to the point where you would need some sort of salary cap?
Selig: I'm not going to make that kind of judgment. The fact of the matter is, we've had, up till now, more competitive balance than we've ever had. So I want to continue to watch things. And I'll make very strong judgments, but at the appropriate time. And now is not the appropriate time.
The competitive balancing act
Stark: OK, then let's talk about competitive balance. I know how happy you were about what happened in Tampa Bay. But the Rays were the only team in the bottom 15 in payroll that made the playoffs. Do you think that the current revenue-sharing system is enough to maintain the kind of competitive balance baseball needs to succeed?
Selig: I'm proud of the current system. We went through a lot of travail, a lot of anguish, to get where we are today. And we have more than $450 million in revenue sharing. We had Milwaukee in the playoffs for the first time since 1982. Minnesota is very competitive. Obviously, we know the Tampa story. I think there are enough illustrations around to prove the point. However, nothing in life stays the same. And I will very carefully watch what goes on. But we have till 2011 to make those judgments.
Stark: I know you have concerns about the postseason. How likely is it that World Series games will start before 8 o'clock on the East Coast this year? And have you been able to tighten the postseason schedule so the World Series doesn't stretch until Nov. 5?
There's concern everywhere -- big markets, medium and small. Everywhere.
”-- Bud Selig
Selig: Let me go back to the starting times. Of course, I have concerns. And it's the East Coast region. A little less in the Central. Certainly, the Mountain time zone and the West are different. But having said that, Ed Goren of Fox and I have had a lot of very constructive conversations. I'd like to have earlier starting times, and maybe find one even earlier where, if it isn't a day game, it's very early in the evening. What's interesting to me is that the sport has never been more popular. The television ratings, the local ratings, during the season, are spectacular. Attendance has been unbelievable. And I'm proud of all that. And then we get to the postseason. And everybody has different theories: "The sport is popular regionally, or locally." And so forth. I don't want to pick on the Phillies or Tampa or whatever. But we're really going to try to do some things so that the postseason ratings are commensurate with the rest of the season. Earlier starting times are very important to me, no question about it. And I have at least some reason to be optimistic.
Stark: What about the postseason schedule itself? You've said in the past you'd like to tighten it.
Selig: We're working on that. I'd love to tighten the schedule.
In the PED zone
Stark: You know it's not possible to address baseball's state of the union without bringing up performance-enhancing drugs. But I want to raise an issue I haven't heard you discuss. If Mark McGwire's vote totals are any indication, then players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens aren't likely to ever be elected to the Hall of Fame. How badly would it reflect on baseball if the Hall of Fame doesn't include the all-time home-run champ, the man who was once the winningest right-hander of the live-ball era and the man who broke Roger Maris' record -- not to mention the all-time hits leader [Pete Rose]?
Selig: I've said before that all of you -- the baseball writers -- have to make your own judgments. I'm proud of where we are. You know, it's interesting you bring that up. I had eight trainers here yesterday, eight professional athletic trainers, as I like to call them. I meet with trainers all the time. When we come to performance-enhancing drugs other than HGH, there's no question we've done a remarkable job. My minor league program is entering its ninth year -- its ninth year. So the idea that we didn't react quickly is nonsense. Having said that, I'm not going to make a judgment on what the writers decide. If they decide Mark McGwire shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame -- and I agree with Tony La Russa, I have great fondness for Mark McGwire -- then that's a judgment they'll have to make. We've done everything that we can do. And we did it despite a lot of anger and contention. [Otherwise], I would have had a tougher program seven or eight years ago.
Stark: Nevertheless, it's still a commentary on the era, and the sport, to some degree. What do you think it's saying?
Selig: Well, that's a subjective judgment that some of the voters are making. It's their commentary on the sport, and I'm not being critical. They're entitled to feel whatever they want to feel. But I think we reacted pretty quickly. And all sports have had these kinds of problems. So again, I really don't want to get into that debate, because the writers are going to have to come to their conclusions. Whether I agree with them or not is all academic.
Stark: Here's another performance-enhancing drug question: J.C. Romero and Sergio Mitre both were suspended for substances they bought over the counter at the mall. Does this indicate there are any holes in the performance-enhancing drug program that need to be closed?
Selig: I don't think so. Look, the government needs to do a lot of work. I've asked the trainers, the professional athletic trainers. I've asked the doctors. They wish the government would do more from the regulation standpoint [about supplements]. But as far as they're concerned, they've been telling players what they can and can't do, and what they should not do. And you are responsible for what you put in your mouth and your body.
Stark: Let me ask you about the World Baseball Classic. By all accounts, it was a great success last time, except maybe for one area. And that's here in the United States, where, as you know, the United States didn't make the final four. So how much is the long-term success of the WBC tied to the USA's success on the field, particularly in this country, when you've got to compete with March Madness?
Selig: The World Baseball Classic was a huge success, and it will be an even bigger success this time. Look, what are we trying to do here? We're trying to internationalize the sport. So whatever happens, happens. I, frankly, am not going to worry. The United States winning or not winning, I don't think is critical to the success at all. You've got a lot of interest all over the world.
Stark: I still hear people in baseball questioning whether March is the best time to hold the WBC. Do you think it's possible that down the road, we could see the WBC, or at least the semifinals and finals, taking place at a time other than March, such as during the All-Star break, for instance?
Selig: No, I don't think it's possible. After all, the season ends around the first of October. So [if it were held after the World Series], the players are gone for a month. So you can't bring players back. And the playoff teams are worn out. So could we play it any other time? I don't think that's practical. March is where pragmatism takes over. I think it's the only time.
Teams in trouble
Stark: Back to the economy, is there any danger that this economy could place any of the smaller-market clubs in serious financial jeopardy?
Selig: I don't know that. You could say that about a lot of businesses. I don't know the answer to that. I have no evidence that any of that is happening right now. But there's concern everywhere: big markets, medium and small. Everywhere.
Stark: So just so we're clear, as big an impact as the economy is having, you don't see it having that kind of impact? You don't see any chance of a baseball team declaring Chapter 11?
Selig: I certainly hope not.
The economy's true victims
Stark: One more question along these lines: The economy, and the way this market has unfolded, could result in the retirement of some great players, like Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas, even though they still want to play. Do you have any sadness, just as a baseball fan, if that's part of the fallout of this winter?
The World Baseball Classic was a huge success, and it will be an even bigger success this time. The United States winning or not winning, I don't think is critical to the success at all. You've got a lot of interest all over the world.
Selig: You bet. I love Ken Griffey Jr., and I like Frank Thomas a great deal. But the market is going to have to play out. You know, I emphasized this over and over at the outset of our conversation, that we've never lived through anything like this. This is really of concern. You have restaurants closing, and hotels. It's just stunning to me what's going on. So I want to say this a little more lucidly than I said it the first time. I'm stunned if anybody thinks that there's something [like collusion] going on [and] doesn't understand what the economy is doing. I really am. The heartbreak all over. People losing jobs. People losing homes. And that's everywhere.
Stark: How would you respond to the people who say these teams and players are making all this money, so they should be helping the people who allowed them to make it?
Selig: I wish you could see some of my mail. That's what people say. They hold all of us responsible. They say: "How can you people do this? Don't you understand how bad it is?" You know, the one thing I always say to the clubs, and now I'll say it to you, is we are a social institution, and we have enormous social responsibilities. And so we have to always keep that in mind when we're operating the clubs and operating our sport. The automobile companies have been major sponsors, and now that's disappearing. So does anybody really not quite understand why that would play a role in all this?
Stark: So is there anything baseball can do to reach out to people who have been affected by this economy?
Selig: I hope so. You know I've been very sensitive about ticket prices. And a lot of clubs are offering a lot of discounts. We know that people can't travel as much. So I really hope that we can fulfill the needs of people who want to be entertained, who love our sport [but are hurting]. It's true that our sport is more popular than ever. The interest is enormous. But we've got to be very sensitive to the economic environment we find ourselves in.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.
From the Yankees' free-spending ways to the current economy to the WBC, Bud Selig talks a little baseball.