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Bud Selig does not deserve your sympathy

Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

COOPERSTOWN, NY - JULY 30: Bud Selig gives his induction speech at Clark Sports Center during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony on July 30, 2017 in Cooperstown, New York. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

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Former baseball commissioner Bud Selig is making the media rounds in advance of the release of his book, “For the Good of the Game.” Yesterday Sports Illustrated ran an excerpt of the book. It’s the part in which Selig talks about his feelings as Barry Bonds was on the verge of breaking Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record.

Forced to follow Bonds from town to town as a minor slump extended the time expected for Bonds to pass Aaron, Selig was miserable, he says. “It was one of the few times in my life I wasn’t excited about going to ballparks, and if you know me that’s all you need to know.” He bopped off the Bonds beat for a day to induct Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn into the Hall of Fame and secretly wished that Bonds would break the record when he was in Cooperstown so he wouldn’t have to be there. “But I received no reprieve,” Selig remembers, “so I trudged on.”

Part of Selig’s unhappiness is at least somewhat understandable. He became friends with Hank Aaron in 1958 and continues to be close friends with him to this very day. No one likes to see bad things happen to their friends. Selig only nods to that a bit, however. He was mostly miserable, he says, because he knew that Bonds’ record-setting performance was powered by performance enhancing drugs, and that did not sit well with him:

We had been caught off guard when McGwire and Sosa passed Maris, but this was almost a decade later. Of course, by then we knew what was going on. This was an age when sluggers found extra power through chemistry, and, of course, Barry was one of the leading men in baseball’s steroids narrative.

This is a bald-faced lie. Selig was not “caught off guard” in 1998 and did not know what was going on only in the run-up to Bonds breaking the record in 2007. He was aware of baseball’s biggest stars using PEDs at least 13 years earlier, but probably even earlier than that, and he and his fellow owners and all of baseball’s leadership did absolutely nothing about it because it did not suit their interests. PEDs in baseball were in no way a priority for Selig until he began to get some heat for it a decade later. All of this is well-documented and Selig is counting on collective amnesia about it all in order to sell his book, obfuscate his own misdeeds and to burnish his legacy.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the FBI mounted a drug investigation called Operation Equine which went after the illegal sale of steroids. The lead investigator for Operation Equine was an agent named Greg Stejskal. While the investigation sought to go after dealers, not buyers, two very famous buyers were uncovered in the course of the investigation: Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. Indictments in the operation were unsealed in 1992, but Canseco’s and McGwire’s names were left out of it.

Two years later, in 1994, Stejskal still stewed over the fact that a couple of star athletes were using PEDs and thought that, maybe, someone should know about it. In August of that year he was at a seminar about sports scandals at the FBI’s training center in Quantico, Virginia. Also in attendance was Kevin Hallinan, baseball’s Chief of Security. Stejskal told Hallinan about McGwire and Canseco’s involvement in illegal PEDs. Hallinan’s response “we’ve heard it too.” He said, though, that baseball couldn’t do anything about it because it had to go through the union to implement testing and that wasn’t happening.

Selig was acting commissioner for two years prior to the Stejskal-Hallinan conversation. He was no doubt part of the “we” who had “heard it too.” For the Commissioner not be aware of that would be impossible to contemplate. Which is to say that even if one makes the unlikely assumption that Bud Selig did not have a general awareness of the use of PEDs in professional sports -- an awareness a Congressional subcommittee spoke of as early as 1973 -- he absolutely knew about specific PED use among two of baseball’s biggest stars at least 13 years before Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s record and likely well before that.

Over the years Selig’s defenders have followed on Hallinan’s assertion that MLB’s hands were tied with respect to PEDs because of the union’s opposition to drug testing. And yes, the union was long opposed to drug testing of any kind. But to suggest that meant Major League Baseball could do nothing about it despite that is ridiculous.

Drug testing is collectively-bargained. Collective bargaining, by definition, involves one side proposing a thing, the other side agreeing, objecting or countering and negotiations ensuing. There is zero evidence that Major League Baseball ever proposed drug testing or pressed the union on the matter in any way in the years after it became aware that the game’s biggest stars were doping. It was not a priority for them. They did not care. Mostly because big sluggers hitting big homers was and remains very good for the game’s bottom line. At the bargaining table the league was far more interested in breaking the union financially, imposing a salary cap and making empty threats about contracting franchises.

But that’s only a small part of it. The bigger part of it involves Selig’s total abdication of leadership on the matter which, history has clearly shown, he could’ve effectively exercised to make combatting PED use a priority in the game but refused to do so. Rather, he merely reacted to bad press about PEDs, doing the bare minimum he had to do to stop the bad press until it was no longer tenable for him to do so. When his hand was finally forced to take real action he grudgingly did so by making the players the sole bad guys in the narrative after which he began a twelve-year-long and counting victory lap in which he has taken full credit for stopping the PED scourge.

Despite knowing no later than 1994 that the game’s biggest stars were drug users, despite McGwire and Sosa breaking records in 1998, despite a reporter writing about androstenedione sitting on the shelf of McGwire’s locker that season (after which the reporter was pilloried by his colleagues, thus deflecting the controversy), despite the offensive boom of the 1990s and early 2000s, and despite Barry Bonds hitting an insane 73 homers in 2001, baseball remained totally silent on PEDs until 2002. What changed that was not the league speaking out or the union having a change of heart and willingly retreating from its anti-testing stance. It was Ken Caminiti and then Jose Canseco admitting to their own PED use publicly and talking about it publicly. Caminiti did so in an interview with Sports Illustrated in June of 2002. Canseco soon followed and promised to write a book about it.

In August of 2002 -- two months after Caminiti went public -- Major League Baseball and the union agreed to survey drug testing that would, eventually, lead to the fully-blown drug testing and discipline regime we have today. It was not placed on the agenda because either the league or the union had had enough. It was not agreed to because of hard-fought negotiations. It was 100% the product of bad press and the desire to mitigate negative public opinion.

It was that -- mere public acknowledgment of PEDs in baseball that put the league in a bad light -- that began to change the game. This dynamic of baseball reacting to public outcry about PEDs as opposed to acting proactively would continue to shape the PED issue in baseball for the next several years:

  • Canseco’s book was published in February of 2005. One month later, as a direct consequence of the book, Canseco, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Curt Schilling were summoned on March 17, 2005 to testify in front of Congress;
  • In the wake of the stir created by Caminiti and Canseco’s admissions the feds launched the BALCO investigation which would lead to the implication and prosecution of Barry Bonds. The book “Game of Shadows,” by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, chronicled that investigation. It was published on March 23, 2006;
  • On March 26, 2006 -- three days after the publication of “Game of Shadows” -- Bud Selig announced that he had commissioned George Mitchell to conduct an investigation into PEDs in baseball which would lead to the Mitchell Report, released in late 2007;
  • Baseball’s drug testing regime -- which before the Mitchell Report involved seldom and spotty testing and resulted in 10-day suspensions for positive tests -- was significantly ratcheted up in in direct response to the Mitchell Report. Several years later punishment was ratcheted up even more severely, but again, only in reaction to scandal, this time the Biogenesis scandal.

We are well aware of how easy it is for the Commissioner of Baseball to set the agenda for the game. Like Rob Manfred has done with pace of play and myriad other issues in recent years -- and like Selig himself did with all manner of issues during the latter part of his tenure -- all that needs to be done is for the Commissioner to voice his concern about a topic. When he does so it immediately rockets to the top of the game’s agenda. The baseball press eagerly begins discussing the issue (almost always in the manner as it was framed by the Commissioner), sports radio begins talking about it, the fans begin talking about it and the league’s narrative on the matter dominates the discussion. There is back and forth and the union has a say in things, but once the Commissioner raises an issue it is out there until it is resolved in his favor or abandoned in the face of popular opposition.

Bud Selig made no effort to do any of this with PEDs. He had zero interest in pressing the issue of PEDs in baseball despite his clear awareness of the problem for years and years. He merely reacted to the heat as a means of self preservation. All action ever taken by the league was done so in direct proportion to how much bad publicity baseball received about players’ PED use. When there was no heat, Selig did nothing. When there was a little heat Selig did a little. When there was a lot of heat he did a lot. At no time, however, did Selig act proactively despite his knowledge of the situation. He turned a blind eye and later played dumb because he didn’t care, because he had other priorities and, later, because -- thanks to the Mitchell Report -- he had successfully convinced the public and the press that he was in no way aware of or responsible for the problem.

Selig is lying when he said he had no idea about PEDs in baseball during the McGwire-Sosa chase. He is lying when he said he became aware of it in the years in between that and Bonds’ final pursuit of Aaron. He wants our sympathy for how saddened he was by Bonds’ PED-aided accomplishments yet says absolutely nothing -- zero -- about why he failed to act until bad press, Congressional pressure, a couple of books which put the game in a bad light and public opinion forced him to do so.

Anyone -- be it a fan or, especially, a member of the baseball press -- who buys into Selig’s words on all of this now is a willfully ignorant sucker. Anyone who uncritically passes his words along or lauds him for his candor is complicit in Selig’s lies and is, effectively, a part of his P.R. team.

Follow @craigcalcaterra