Selig's comments suggest retirement is near
But on Wednesday, when he reiterated his plan to retire, he did so more directly, more forcefully, and in all frankness, more seriously than he has in the past.
Selig's current contract expires at the end of 2014. He has been Commissioner since 1992, serving a longer tenure than any other Commissioner but the first one, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who held the office for 24 years.
The context for Selig's remarks on retirement came in an interview with MLB.com while reviewing the past year in baseball. The Commissioner discussed the successful addition of two Wild Card teams, making the point that rather than diluting the quality of the postseason, the additional Wild Card teams contributed to the drama of the playoff chase.
The additions of the two teams brought the postseason field to 10 teams. There has been some thought that adding another two teams would not be an unreasonable maneuver. At this point in the interview, Selig, without solicitation, spoke of his retirement.
"We're golden at 10 [teams]," the Commissioner said. "We're at 10 for the next two years, and then they can do what they want to do. After that, I'm going back to our alma mater [the University of Wisconsin] to teach history. I'll be 80 years old. That'll be enough."
Selig, as he has often stated, was a history major at Wisconsin. He has endowed the Allan H. Selig Chair in the History of Sport and Society in the United States, as well as a distinguished lecture series in the same field at the university. Selig has remained a prominent presence on the Madison campus. His recent lecture on business ethics at the university's School of Business drew a standing-room-only crowd.
In the past, Selig typically had spoken of retirement only when he had been asked about it. And in the past, while insisting that he was going to retire, he frequently added in a humorous vein that his wife, Sue, did not believe that he was actually going to retire.
There was none of that in these remarks.
Selig had said he planned to retire at the end of his term in 2009, but then received a three-year extension from Major League owners. He later said that he would retire at the end of 2012, but the owners subsequently extended his contract for another two years.
There are valid reasons why the owners continue to extend Selig's tenure as Commissioner. Baseball is in a period of unprecedented prosperity, and not at all coincidentally, unprecedented competitive balance.
These conditions are a direct result of Selig's policies. Coming to the Commissionership as the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, he knew firsthand about the difficulties of competing as a small-market franchise. So he led the charge in instituting measures -- such as greatly increased revenue sharing -- which served to make parity in competition a possibility, then a reality.
Over the past 12 years, for instance, 27 of the 30 Major League clubs have qualified for the postseason.
"We have more competitive balance now, more parity, whatever you want to call it, than we've had at any time," Selig said Wednesday. "This is exactly what I set out to do back in the '90s. When you think of the abuse that I took initially, this is truly remarkable."
Baseball had gross revenues of $1.2 billion in 1992. This year, Selig said, gross revenues would be about $7.5 billion and could exceed $8 billion in 2013.
MLB recently agreed to national TV rights contracts for $12.4 billion, more than double the amount of the previous contracts.
The economic prospects of the game are so good that escalating rights fees for local TV broadcasts in larger markets seem to hold the possibility for creating a new imbalance in revenues.
"I am concerned about that, I can't tell you that I'm not," Selig said. "But we have enough substantial mechanisms in place that we should be able to work our way around it."
Selig added that revenue sharing was one of the principal mechanisms.
The game, as Selig frequently suggests, is best "when we keep the focus on the field." That is where the primary focus was in 2012, on individual and collective accomplishments.
"The dynamic is so good because of the level of competition," the Commissioner said. "The drama was just incredible. And again, with the Wild Card [additions], it has worked out even better than I envisioned."
The quality of that competition was indisputable. Judged by any reasonable standard -- competitive or financial -- baseball is in a far, far better situation than it was in '92 when Selig took over as Commissioner. From someone who has covered him for more than three decades, this time his retirement remarks sound like a final decision, not just a possibility. The thing I couldn't believe was that in two years he would be 80.