- Peter Keating, ESPN Senior Writer
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This story appears in the April 4, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
The Mag: As you get ready for a new year, how would you characterize the state of baseball?
BS: I'm teaching courses at both Marquette and Wisconsin, and I've delivered this answer to both of them: I'm very bullish. I've told my students, Ours isn't just one of the great success stories in American sports business but in American business. Ticket sales are up, the sport is as strong as it's ever been. Not that we don't have issues, but the state of the sport is good.
The Mag: Thing is, most fans would've thought the same about football and its $9 billion in revenue. Can baseball fans be more confident than football fans?
BS: I don't want to comment on football because I'm not there, although I am still on the board of the Packers.
The Mag: Okay, but in terms of divvying up baseball's pie, how is it going?
BS: I have faith in our people. For 30 or 40 years, relationships weren't constructive. Owners ripped other owners, commissioners and players. And the players' union fought back. You don't see any of that now. Nobody back in the Marvin Miller-Bowie Kuhn days ever could've guessed we'd have 16 years of labor peace. Including me, and I was the chairman of the Player Relations Committee before I took this job. We have agreements, we have disagreements. But we have peace. Hopefully, we'll be able to construct a third straight labor deal.
The Mag: Do you think that, overall, the fact that players have a strong union and collective bargaining rights is a plus for the sport?
BS: We used to have a lot of work stoppages and maybe as bad a labor history as we could have. I think we've changed that. Time will tell, but I feel good about it.
The Mag: If you had a vote, would you vote for former MLBPA director Marvin Miller for the Hall of Fame?
BS: You bet. Whether you like someone is irrelevant. Only the impact he made matters.
The Mag: Let's talk about the international game. The World Baseball Classic is one thing people can point to and say you're not just representing owners' interests but creating something out of nothing.
BS: Fortunately, I think I've got a lot of things to be proud of, whether it's
the wild card, interleague play or a change of the economic system.
The Mag: And where does the World Baseball Classic rank among those?
BS: It fits in. Look, we've come a long way internationally, but there's much left to do. The World Baseball Classic is the cornerstone of our international program. Currently, 16 countries compete; I'm told more will try to get in. We opened an office in Beijing and took two teams to China. We've played in Tokyo a couple of times. We've opened in San Juan. We have a lot of interest in Europe after playing there. So we're moving in the right direction.
The Mag: What should we know about your efforts in the Caribbean to deal with scouting and hiding very young players?
BS: We've made enormous progress. We have people there full time, and everybody I've talked to who has been there has said, Boy, is it different already. All that stuff is coming to an end.
The Mag: How soon? Two years, five years, 10?
BS: Oh no, it'll be shorter than that, whether it's a year or a year and a half, two years, three years.
The Mag: How will it end?
BS: We're trying to get a worldwide draft in the next labor negotiation. I believe that's essential.
The Mag: Looking at the financials, it seems that owning a baseball team is one of the great business opportunities. Yet owners never say things are great. They just talk about labor costs and annual profit margins, which don't matter as much as franchise appreciation.
BS: I don't think you hear those complaints much anymore. Occasionally an owner will say that he can't afford this guy, but he's entitled to.
The Mag: Even when they plead for public money for stadiums?
BS: Any weekend the Brewers are home in Milwaukee you can't get a hotel room anywhere and restaurants are crowded. The team brings in a lot of business. I think that's true everywhere. Economists argue about this, but a study showed the construction of Miller Park has brought in $327 million a year for the town. Tell me Milwaukee and Wisconsin aren't better places to live because somebody had the vision to build County Stadium and now Miller Park. To me, it's a public expenditure unlike any other.
The Mag: Then you agree baseball is one of the great businesses.
BS: Well, I don't know about that. I can't compare it to every other business. All I'll say is asset values are a manifestation of the health of a sport. I told the owners many years ago they could judge me on asset values.
The Mag: I think there is a focus on a few teams that seem to be hopeless. How long has it been since the Pirates had a winning season?
BS: This is interesting to me. I don't ever think a team is hopeless. Look, other sports also have winners and losers and teams that haven't won in many years. Pittsburgh is a great baseball town. They are really committed to spending on their farm system, and I'm hopeful it will pay off.
The Mag: The Pirates' financials show the team paid out millions of dollars to the partners.
BS: Now, wait a minute. They only did that once and, by the way, the union went over all of the team's numbers and had no quarrel with them. People keep talking about one or two teams that seem to have no chance, but we have more competitive balance than ever, so obviously the system is working.
The Mag: Are you saying that, to your knowledge, there aren't many losing teams taking money out [of their operating revenues] to make payments to partners or owners?
BS: There are not, there are not, there are not.
The Mag: Is that something you follow on an ongoing basis?
BS: You bet.
The Mag: Are you building a contingency fund for labor problems?
BS: No. But I don't comment on that anyway, I'll tell you that right now.
The Mag: How do you decide when a team is extended too far into debt? There have been reports of the Mets getting help from baseball, and the Dodgers have asked for a credit line.
BS: We have debt-service rules that are a part of our economic structure. In the Mets' case, there was a loan made, as there was to Texas, because a circumstance warranted it. We have a repayment schedule that makes sense. We made a business decision. We lend somebody money, they pay us back.
The Mag: About how many teams' debt levels are you comfortable with right now?
BS: Almost all.
The Mag: Let's talk about gambling. I was watching a Marlins game last year and saw a big ad for a casino on the leftfield wall.
BS: Life has changed. I'm sensitive about this issue, but casino gambling is legal. Any gambling involving baseball, though, is a no-no.
The Mag: Could you see a major league team in Las Vegas?
BS: I learned long ago never to say never. But I would have great, grave trepidation.
The Mag: Do you think performance-enhancing drugs, let's say anabolics, increased injury rates by putting too much mass on players?
BS: I don't know. We've spent a lot of time analyzing that. I will say I'm proud we have the toughest testing program in sports. A trainer said to me this morning, "Commissioner, you have no idea how different it's been in the clubhouse the past six, seven years." Our minor leagues testing program is about to start its 11th year. Imagine that. In the past, we've had drug problems, amphetamines, cocaine, but we could not get testing going because the union fought it. That we've come as far as we have is remarkable.
The Mag: Do you wish you could've done something earlier?
BS: Of course. People say I should've screamed and hollered. Well, I did. I want to repeat, my minor league program is in its 11th year. I've done what I had to do. We cleaned up the game.
The Mag: Would you vote for Barry Bonds for the Hall of Fame?
BS: Fortunately, I don't vote for the Hall of Fame.
The Mag: But you said yes to Marvin Miller, so we can talk hypothetically, can't we?
BS: Well, I don't have a vote for Marvin, either.
The Mag: How about this? As commissioner, you're the custodian of the historical records of baseball. Should the recent numbers stand?
BS: Every decade has brought a different thing that impacted the game. You just can't start changing records.
The Mag: You named John Thorn historian of baseball. He's known for debunking myths we didn't even realize were myths. Can you accept that Abner Doubleday didn't invent the game?
BS: I have accepted it. It's part of what started all this. We have a committee that will include some of the great historians in this country, and I'm very happy about it. In fact, I'm the one who pushed for it.
The Mag: You're also the person who brought us an All-Star Game that matters. Do players treat it like it means something?
BS: The first All-Star Game I saw was in 1950, Comiskey Park in Chicago. Ted Williams broke his elbow in the first inning but played the whole game. By the '80s and early '90s, guys were leaving in the third inning, and no one seemed to care. We'd been talking about making a change for a couple of years. In 2002, Ron Santo said to me, "We used to love the game. You have to put something in it to make it important." Henry Aaron told me the same thing. The next year, we were in the ninth inning, 6-5, nobody had left and both teams were on the top step of the dugout. I said to myself, Hey, this does count.
The Mag: Is the sport too stuck in tradition?
BS: I wanted to be a history professor when I was a kid, so I guess what I'm about to say would come out of me. Baseball is a social institution, by my classic definition, and social institutions are resistant to change. And that
was true of baseball until 1992.
The Mag: Fans have this image of the commissioner as their advocate. In reality, of course, you represent the owners, as well as the game. What is your job description?
BS: I have a fan's mentality. I still walk the ballpark. I love talking to people and I love talking to fans. Look, the commissioner's job is often misunderstood. People will say, You oughta do this, that. I keep working on the economic model for the sport.
The Mag: How long will you stay in this job?
BS: I hope Dec. 31 of next year I'll be done. Nobody believes that, starting with my wife and family and a million other people, but ...
The Mag: It seems a plus for you to work here in Milwaukee. How much do you get to be a fan on a daily basis?
BS: My best days are when I'm home at night on my satellite. I'll watch 15 games in one form or another. I'll also get a lot of work done. It's nice and quiet here.
18hInterview by Buster Olney
10hDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com