SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Bud Selig, who spent 23 years as commissioner of Major League Baseball, 35 years as the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, and virtually 86 years as a baseball fan, addressed the Israel Olympic Baseball team on Friday and invited them to ask questions.
There was a slight hesitation before a player blurted: “Are you happy with the game the way it is today opposed to when you left?’’
Selig paused, looked around, and said, “Well, I try to stay away from that.’’
Selig, who retired six years ago as baseball’s commissioner, sees the same thing you do night after night, channel surfing through seven or eight games each day.
The strikeout rate is a record high. The hits are a record low. There are only three teams with more hits than strikeouts. No-hitters are as common as spilled beer at a ballgame. Stolen bases are as popular as crowded lines for the restroom. And there’s more lively action in three hours during a company zoom call than a ballgame.
“Look, I understand all of that,’’ Selig tells USA TODAY Sports. “I hear all of the criticisms. And I don’t deny there are adjustments that need to be made. I have every confidence they will be made.
“Yes, the game has changed.
“But it’s still the best game in the world.’’
Selig is confident that baseball will come up with creative ideas to help assure this generation doesn’t lose interest in the game, while still maintaining their traditional fanbase.
He’s intrigued by the experimental rules in the minor leagues. He’ll tell you that he hated the extra-inning rule of starting the 10th with a runner on second base, but has now come around and accepts it. If MLB can find ways to come up with more action, he’s all for it.
“I’ll give them credit,’’ Selig says. “People are willing to look at different things, and try different things.
“But the one thing I’ll say is that you have to be careful you don’t change the fabric of the game.
“And you’re talking to the guy who made more changes than any commissioner in the game.’’
Selig, who still teaches classes at the University of Wisconsin, Marquette and Arizona State University, remembers the anger and uproar when they added a wild-card berth in 1995. Folks were furious when the American League adapted the DH in 1973. Interleague play in 1997 was chastised.
“We’ve lived through a lot of cycles,’’ Selig says, “and I’m confident they’ll make the adjustment with this one. I remember when the American League went to the DH. I was the only one left from that meeting in ’72. But we went there because the American League needed offense. We were desperate. People thought, “Oh, this is terrible.’’
Beginning in 2022 the DH will likely be permanent in both leagues.
“Look, we talk about change,’’ Selig says, “I remember when we went to the wild card. I got killed. ‘He’s ruining the game. You cant do that.’ How did it turn out?’’
Well, popular enough that baseball expanded to two wild-card berths in 2012, and if MLB has their way, there will be more postseason berths in each league beginning next season.
That, of course, is subject to the new collective bargaining agreement, and Selig, commissioner in 1994 when the World Series was canceled during the strike, wasn’t about to offer an opinion on the prospects of labor peace.
What he will predict is that change is coming to baseball, and as much as the new rules may infuriate loyal fans, the game will go on, and even be better.
“I’m a traditionalist at heart, and pretty cautious,’’ Selig says, “but because there’s a willingness by everyone to make the necessary adjustments, I’m very comfortable.
“The game will be just fine.’’
Some things, of course, may never change.
Selig has been away since 2015, and the politicians and baseball teams still are fighting in Oakland and Tampa, with the A’s now threatening to leave town. This is the greatest financial divide between the game’s big-market clubs and small-market teams in history.
“I’ve been gone 6 ½ years,’’ Selig says, “and they’ve got some of the same problems.’’
While Selig roots his Brewers on night after night, hoping one day they could win the World Series while he’s still around, nothing has broken his heart more this year than the passing of his good friend, Hank Aaron.
“We had such a unique relationship, we talked twice a week every week,’’ Selig said. “I had just talked to him a day before when I went out and got my first vaccination. I got to the office at 9. I was so happy. I was like a little kid when my cell phone rang.’’
It was Susan Bailey, Aaron’s long-time assistant. She told him Aaron passed away. Selig wept, knowing what he meant to him.
“I remember when I first talked to Henry about not retiring and coming back to Milwaukee,’’ Selig said. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘Buddy, I’m not the same guy you remember in the ’50s.’ Well, if you saw Henry in the ‘50s, I never saw any hitter before or since who hit the ball harder to center to right-center and right field.
“It meant so much to me bringing Henry Aaron back to Milwaukee.
“We had so many talks, so many wonderful memories, and we both agreed this game is the greatest, and even with change, it will be all right.
“Baseball is like life, you go through different cycles, and we’re in that cycle now. There are flaws. But it’s one thing to underact, and it’s another thing to overreact, so they’re going to have to figure out what to do.’’
Hall of Fame reunion
Jeff Idelson, who spent 25 years at Baseball’s Hall of Fame before retiring two years ago, is now making a final hurrah where he will preside over their unique induction ceremony on July 25 in Cooperstown, N.Y.
There will be no Hall of Fame players coming except for the three players inducted: Derek Jeter, Larry Walker and Ted Simmons.
There will be no fans.
And no media except for the MLB cameras.
The pandemic wiped out the induction ceremony in 2020, and this year will be only a TV-only event out of Cooperstown.
It played a role in Tim Mead’s surprising resignation after less than two years on the job and with the Hall of Fame desperately needing help, chairman Jane Forbes Clark called Idelson. He immediately agreed to step back into the president’s chair until mid-August.
“Going back will certainly be emotional on some level,’’ says Idelson, who starts Wednesday. “Having lost 10 Hall of Famers in the last year is a big piece of that. Its just been a rough, rough year. Its been a rough year for the world, but especially the Hall of Fame.’’
Idelson, co-founder of Grassroots Baseball with Jean Fruth while also working on a new museum project in the Bay Area, has no interest in returning permanently to his old job, but when Clark telephoned asking for help, he called it a “no-brainer for me.’’
“However I can help the institution, especially this year with everything going on with Covid,’’ Idelson says, “it adds another level of importance to me to make sure things go smoothly. I care deeply about the Hall of Fame family, the institution itself, and I’m honored to come back and bridge the gap to a new president.’’
It will hardly will be the traditional induction ceremony, stripping away much of its luster and pageantry, but they still will have that same pride of joining baseball’s most prestigious fraternity: Members of Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
“The experience these guys will have this year,’’ Idelson said, “will obviously be very different because of the world pandemic and the nation doing things differently. It will certainly have a different look and feel. But it doesn’t take away any of the allure of being among the game’s greats.’’
And for Idelson, well, this ceremony gives him a chance to come full circle.
“It has extra meaning to me because I was with the Yankees [as public relations director] when they drafted Derek,’’ Idelson says, “so I’ve known him since he graduated from high school. I’m sure Prince Hal, Hal Newhouser will be smiling from the heavens.’’
Newhouser, a Hall of Fame pitcher, was scouting for the Houston Astros when they had the No. 1 pick in the 1992 draft. He pleaded for the Astros to draft Jeter, believing he could be a future Hall of Famer. The Astros ignored his advice, and drafted third baseman Phil Nevin.
Newhouser angrily resigned.
“I’m sure he’ll be watching,’’ Idelson says.
This week in Ohtani…
Two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani ventured into historic Fenway Park and clubbed an opposite-field home run over the Green Monster on Friday.
Of course he did.
“It seems,’’ Red Sox manager Alex Cora says, “like the sport stops to watch him.’’
How can you take your eyes off him?
He entered Saturday with a league-leading 11 homers and 23 extra-base hits. And, oh yea, he has a 2.10 ERA in five starts with 40 strikeouts, yielding just 11 hits in 25 2 ⅔ innings, with opponents hitting .126. Incredibly, of the 52 batters he has faced with a two-strike count, only one has produced a hit (.019)
He could become only the second player in history to lead his league in homers while also striking out 40 or more batters.
None other than Babe Ruth in 1918.
Monarchs back in action
For the first time in 50 years, the Kansas City Monarchs are back, beginning with their first game Tuesday, May 18, at Legends Field.
The Monarchs were Kansas City’s Negro League baseball team, the longest-running franchise in the history of the Negro Leagues.
Now, in a partnership between the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and Kansas City’s independent league team formerly known as the T-bones, the team is being rebranded as the Kansas City Monarchs.
The Monarchs’ rich heritage will be celebrated, educating fans about the history of the Negro Leagues, with the museum having an exhibit at the stadium while receiving a portion of ticket sales and merchandising in their agreement.
“I’m sure I’ll be a little bit emotional when I see those kids take the field wearing those Monarch pinstripes,’’ said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame Museum. “My thoughts, as so often times when the museum has some milestone moment, will reflect back on Buck O’Neil, who played and managed the Monarchs, and was the first Black coach in MLB.
“We have done Negro League salutes in the past, but this one is different. It’s not a one-off. These are real games and the Monarch uniform is going to be on the field. When these young kids take the field, they will be channeling the spirit of Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neill, Gene Smith, Clarence Brown, Jose Mendez, and all of those legendary stars that call the Kansas City Monarchs home.
“This historic brand now comes back to life.’’
The only numbers that won’t be issued to the players are 5, 22 and 25, representing the numbers that Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, O’Neil and Paige wore while playing for the Monarchs. There will be a formal number retirement ceremony at a later date.
Yet, just seeing those uniforms on display once again, Kendrick says, will resurrect memories and provide inspiration to those who want to learn about the Negro Leagues, hopefully including trips to the museum.
“In our world, for every museum, creating relevancy is so important,’’ Kendrick says. “That’s what we’re doing. We’re making history cool. I really believe it will be a win-win situation for the club and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.’’
Around the basepaths…
– Raise your hand if you thought the Minnesota Twins would be among the worst teams in baseball. Their 12-24 start has left them 10 ½ games out of first place, and may force them to be sellers at the trade deadline with the likes of Nelson Cruz, Andrelton Simmons, Michael Pineda, and J.A. Happ likely drawing strong interest. “This is not how we envisioned it going,’’ GM Thad Levine says, “and I think we’re all cognizant of the realities of the game, which is that sometimes things happen that are unexpected.”
– Wasn’t Cleveland supposed to be in a major rebuild this year, trading away Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco, and letting slugger Carlos Santana and closer Brad Hand depart in free agency? They have the youngest team in baseball, and have only one player (reliever Bryan Shaw) who’s 30 years or older. They entered the weekend with the sixth-best record in baseball.
– The team that’s rebuilding and were supposed to be sellers at the trade deadline now could be buyers. Say hello to the San Francisco Giants. Who would have believed they’d be sitting in first place in the NL West with nearly one-quarter of the season elapsed?. Then again, would thought that starters Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeSclafini and Alex Wood would be 10-1 with a 2.01 ERA while catcher Buster Posey is hitting .383 with eight homers and a .716 slugging percentage?
– While the Oakland City Council officials and the Athletics are at each other’s throats, blaming one another for still being stuck at the Oakland Coliseum, let’s squash one idea that keeps being floated. While this is the ninth time they have threatened to move in the last 50 years – they are not moving to Las Vegas. Sure, maybe Nashville, Charlotte, Montreal or Portland, but not Vegas.
– Just in case you haven’t noticed, Gerrit Cole (5-1, 1.37 ERA) is putting on a clinic this season. He has struck out a franchise-record 78 batters through his first eight starts, and has already had three starts in which he has struck out at least 12 batters without allowing a run or walk. The only other pitchers who have accomplished the feat are Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Pedro Martinez. “It’s not like he has three or four good games and then a subpar game or a letdown game,” says two-time Cy Young teammate Corey Kluber. “It’s pretty much every time out there, he’s doing something that is historic or is on the cusp of being historic. I think raising that level of excellence each time out is what’s most impressive to me.”
– How bad has the Baltimore Orioles’ pitching been over the years? John Means, who threw a no-hitter, was the first Oriole pitcher to be named the American League Player of the Week since 1994.
– Former major-leaguers Ian Kinsler and Danny Valencia, who will play for Israel in the Olympics, thanked former Commissioner Bud Selig for taking the time to address their team, and later got autographs from Selig on official Olympic baseballs while posing for pictures. Selig told them: “You’ve got a guy in Milwaukee who’s going to be rooting like hell for you guys.’’
– While Team Israel takes pride in qualifying for the first time for the Olympic Games, they can’t help but find the irony that Team USA may not join them. There are only two spots remaining with the U.S. having to survive a qualifying tournament that includes the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Nicaragua, Canada, Venezuela and Colombia. “I’d like to see them make it,’’ Ian Kinsler says, “because if they’re in the Olympics, you know more people will be watching.’’
– Wasn’t White Sox DH Yermin Mercedes supposed to cool off by now after hitting .417 in April? The fun-loving dude still is hitting a league-leading .374 with a .993 OPS. He’s responsible as anyone for the White Sox having among the best records in baseball – despite losing two-thirds of their starting outfield in Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert. The guy is so popular that he already has his own local hamburger and beer named after him, much less a “Yerminator’’ video launched by their marking department.
– Strikeouts are so rampant now that one scout said he saw two Class A California League games last week in which there were a combined 70 strikeouts.
– The Reds shopped quite a few players during the winter, including some of their prized pitchers, but not Luis Castillo, their opening-day starter. They may now regret not doing so. Castillo is yielding a 7.71 ERA and has given up a major-league leading 32 earned runs and 55 hits.
– One of the most underrated hitters in baseball is Marlins first baseman Jesus Aguilar, who has nine homers and 32 RBI, and having a blast on the field doing it. “He’s been such a breath of fresh air for our guys,’’ Marlins manager Don Mattingly says. “He’s loose all the time. He’s always having fun. I think in general we’re a fun club and guys are having a good time. Jesus has a lot to do with that.”
– Folks may say that wins for a pitcher are overrated. Try telling that to an actual starter pitcher. Jack Flaherty is 7-0 this season in his first eight starts and on pace to become the first 25-game winner in the National League since Hall of Famer Steve Carlton in 1972.
– The secret to veteran starter Madison Bumgarner’s dramatic turnaround, with a 0.47 WHIP in the last five starts, the lowest by a National League pitcher since Hall of Famer Pete Alexander in 1915? Scouts who wrote him off this spring rave about his control and the uptick in velocity. Yet, when you ask Bumgarner, he won’t divulge the secret, although strongly hints that he was no fan of the Diamondbacks’ analytics and simply went back to sheer pitching. “I’m not going to throw anyone under the bus,” Bumgarner said. “I’m going to keep that to myself.’’ Enough said.