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The Hits Just Keep On Coming

Bill Dwyre

June 14, 2006|Bill Dwyre

There is no crying in baseball, but there must be a few moist spots on the desk of Commissioner Bud Selig these days.

Just when he might have thought it was safe to get back in the water, just when it seemed that the indifference that greeted Barry Bonds' 715th home run would indicate fans knew Bonds was a cheater and didn't care, along came Jason Grimsley.

Selig must feel like the climber rescued from the mountaintop, only to die at base camp of food poisoning.

To know Selig is to understand his agony. What he cares about most is something so corny that, to even write it in this age of sarcasm and truth-spinning, is almost laughable. But here goes: Bud Selig cares about the integrity of the game.

So when law enforcement and good old-fashioned newspaper investigative reporting in the BALCO case indicate that Barry's bulk is not all God-given, Selig kicks a wastebasket, wrings his hands and hopes his sport can get through this.

Then, a new shadow emerges, one of Arizona pitcher Grimsley, federal agents and the performance-enhancing human growth hormone (HGH). Grimsley allegedly names more players, then retires from the game.

More baseball scandal. More reason for fans to wonder every time a player gains 20 pounds, 15 home runs or 10 mph on his fastball. More reason to buy Laker and Clipper tickets.

So Selig stews. He has been before Congress, he has battled the players' union and established a drug-testing program with teeth. But the hits keep coming.

Somehow, that's not surprising, because his very presence as the reigning pooh-bah of baseball is a strange fit.

The son of a car dealer in Milwaukee, Selig was mortified when the Braves were whisked away in 1966 by an ownership group with sights on the emerging Atlanta market. To this day in Milwaukee, the word "carpetbaggers" has a different connotation than in the rest of the country.

To show baseball that Milwaukee still was a solid baseball town, Selig persuaded the Chicago White Sox to play some games at Milwaukee County Stadium, almost always to sellout crowds. He stalked troubled franchises, went to owners' meetings, walked hotel lobbies awaiting the end of meetings.

He was a young man with a dream and a financial commitment from a number of well-heeled Milwaukee businessmen. He stayed the course, persevered, and became both an irritant and an easy bailout for baseball when one of its teams just couldn't cut it. In 1970, the Seattle Pilots, after one season in the Pacific Northwest, became the Milwaukee Brewers.

Flash forward to now.

The young owner who became leader of the small-market group, who painstakingly built a consensus that eventually led to revenue sharing that, to this day, keeps the Brewers, the Kansas City Royals and some other small-market teams in business, is now commissioner. To many, including some owners who called him, not affectionately, "Buddy," that remains a stunning fact of life.

But like all things he has done, Selig did it his way, slowly, cautiously, one conversation and one phone call at a time. Between 1992 and '98, he was "interim" and "acting" commissioner -- it was six years before he got the modifiers taken off the title. Eventually, he sold the Brewers and that piece of duality was gone.

Now, like it or not, he is baseball's show. Congress beats on him. Union head Donald Fehr beats on him. A sportswriter labeled him "Bud Lite" and it stuck, replacing the less clever but alliterative "Bumbling Bud." The game he presides over remains hugely popular and filled with cheaters.

So, what's a man to do? At 71, Selig probably will do what he always has. He will call meetings, make phone calls, build consensus, go to his favorite frozen-custard stand in Milwaukee for his hot dog lunch, get his hair cut at the same place, call up friends and even dreaded sportswriters and hurl jabs at them, expecting some back.

He will move so slowly, and come across as so unpolished in his public utterances, that fans will assume baseball is a shambles, and Jay Leno will have new material. Then, one day, with expectations gone, there will suddenly be a way to test for HGH and players will have to be mostly players again and not mutants.

Attendance will hit new highs and the Yankees and Red Sox will play another thrilling American League championship series that rocks the Nielsen ratings.

Down the line, somebody will prepare Selig's tombstone. It will say: "He Battled for Baseball's Integrity. Slowly."

\o7Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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