NEW YORK – Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has never sent an email.
“I’m illiterate when it comes to that stuff, and I’m proud of it,” he confessed to attendees at an event hosted by Politico in New York on Monday. Selig took questions from famed political geek and purported hoarder Mike Allen ahead of Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Citi Field – the home of the New York Mets.
Unfortunately for baseball fans, the commissioner’s reluctance to embrace email – hardly new technology – perfectly encapsulates MLB’s overall complacency in the face of a changing landscape in sports and entertainment.
Selig fielded a variety of questions from Allen, Twitter, and the attendees present about his time at the helm of MLB, as well as his years as owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. Two weeks shy of his 79th birthday, Selig gave an especially vigorous defense of his handling of MLB’s steroid scandal, declaring, “They’re not a baseball problem ... They’re a societal problem,” suggesting that MLB shouldn’t be singled out for failing to prevent PED use among its players.
He even went so far as to refer to the Steroid Era – a period of time in the 1990s and early 2000s that was marred by pervasive steroid use – as “the alleged Steroid Era.” Seemingly perplexed, Allen asked the commissioner why he called it “alleged,” and Selig replied that not all players were on steroids.
Right, except that those who were confirmed or strongly suspected to have used included the game’s most prolific home run hitters at the time, including, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and Jose Canseco.
Although Selig proudly listed his accomplishments on the steroid front over the last decade, the fact is he was coldcocked along with the rest of baseball in 2002 by Tom Verducci’s exposé in Sports Illustrated. In that article, the intrepid sports reporter blew the lid off the game’s steroid culture:
“Steroid use, which a decade ago was considered a taboo violated by a few renegade sluggers, is now so rampant in baseball that even pitchers and wispy outfielders are juicing up—and talking openly among themselves about it.”
The article generated a scandal of Black Sox-level proportions, as the myriad of home run records that had just been broken in the late 1990s and early 2000s were irrevocably tainted, along with the players who set them. Both the owners and the MLB Players Association were essentially forced by public outcry to agree on finally implementing a testing regime in the majors.
Thus the testing instituted by MLB was a completely reactive measure, as Selig and the owners had been all too pleased with the absurd home run totals being posted during the era by McGwire, Bonds, Sosa, and most absurdly by former Orioles leadoff hitter Brady Anderson, who popped 50 homers in 1996 despite never hitting more than 24 in any other season.
Selig assured the attendees that baseball is in “a golden era,” a sentiment he has expressed before, particularly after MLB agreed to $6.8 billion in television deals from 2014 to 2021 with Fox and Turner last year. That figure pales in comparison to the NFL’s agreements with CBS, Fox, and NBC, which from 2014 to 2022 will shell out $27 billion to air games. When questioned about whether the NFL had overtaken baseball in popularity, Selig replied that he doesn’t worry about how other leagues are faring.
While the commissioner doesn’t worry about other leagues, he may want to worry about major declines in national television ratings in 2012, which were down on Fox, ESPN, and TBS. The season-long trend culminated in the worst ratings in World Series history, and the pattern has continued into this season, as big market baseball cities such as New York and Chicago struggle in local ratings.
It's not hard to understand why a 19th century pastoral game that takes about three hours or more to play is now struggling at a time when one of the most popular means of communication allows for only 140 characters of text at a time. If Bud Selig and the rest of MLB are serious about improving their product, they need to be proactive in taking the steps necessary to ensure that the game can adapt to the times. The changes required will no doubt be considered radical, but so were integration, the batting helmet, the designated hitter, and interleague play. Change may often come slowly, but it's hardly an excuse for being content with the present.