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Selig is driven by his lifelong love of the game

The MLB commissioner has always been, first and foremost, a baseball fan.

April 22, 2011|BILL DWYRE

Suddenly, unexpectedly, unimaginably, this Bud is for you, Los Angeles.

Bud Selig was shuffling papers in his office in New York on Thursday, and later talking to a group of sports editors in a previously scheduled meeting. Each surely wanted to know the dish on the baseball commissioner's takeover of the Dodgers, and each, likely, would get many words and no new gems.

Selig is a master at that. He can fill any reporter's notebook with air.

It isn't that he is unfriendly or inaccessible. He is the exact opposite. But he has learned, painfully, over several decades, that prattling on in front of people with pencils and microphones often gets him in trouble. The restrained part has never been easy for him. He is pretty much a guy next door, somebody who delights in sitting around with the guys at the barber shop and talking baseball for hours. As a matter of fact, when he is home in Milwaukee, he does that.

Certainly, many baseball fans in Los Angeles see Selig as a corporate suit who is paid to make tough decisions. He is that now, and does that now.

But the real Selig is much closer to the guy in the barber shop than the one at the head of the boardroom table.

The current Milwaukee Brewers are the creation of a small boy who often went with his mother to watch a minor league team that carried the same name. The family business was an auto sales and leasing company in Milwaukee, Selig Ford, run by his father, Ben. The jump from Selig Ford to 19 years as the czar of the game of baseball is an American success story.

It happened because Bud Selig was, is, and always will be -- first and foremost -- a baseball fan.

When the Milwaukee Braves left in 1965, spirited away to Atlanta by Bill Bartholomay, Selig was devastated. But while the rest of the city and state wrung its hands, Selig set out to do something.

He formed a group of investors, including a brilliant advertising executive named Ben Barkin, to fund the pursuit of a new major league team for his city, and to do so quickly. When a reporter wanted a column on the subject, Selig was on the phone for as long as needed. More than just the local guys sought him out. Before he was really anybody in baseball, he was in the Rolodexes of New York writers.

When there were baseball owners' meetings, even with an announced agenda showing no hints of expansion or ownership changes, Selig was there. Occasionally accompanying him was a young, red-headed local reporter, who would watch in amazement as Selig spent long hours sitting and waiting in nondescript hotel lobbies as the men he needed to reach met behind closed doors. And when the doors opened and Selig approached, he was often rebuffed or ignored. To the owners of the game in the late 1960s, he was "that Buddy guy from Milwaukee."

Some baseball fans now see him as a man of inaction, or slow inertia. That's not accurate, nor was it in the late 1960s in Milwaukee. He and his group tried to buy the Chicago White Sox. When that failed, they had a fallback plan, which was to play host to a handful of White Sox home games in the vacant Milwaukee County Stadium.

That allowed Milwaukee fans to stay somewhat connected to the big leagues, and also to demonstrate that their city was still big league. It worked to perfection.

One exhibition game drew 51,000. In one season, the White Sox played nine of their home games in Milwaukee and that attendance accounted for about one-third of the team's total home attendance that year.

It was easy then, when the same owners who had brushed him off in hotel lobbies all over the country needed somebody to take over a struggling Seattle Pilots franchise after the 1969 season. They awarded that franchise to "that Buddy guy from Milwaukee," who moved the team right away.

Before you knew it, Selig was the champion of the small-market clubs. Then, with many of the small-market clubs grateful for his work on their behalf and championing his cause, he became commissioner in 1992.

Probably the most fun Selig had in the game was as Brewers owner. He loved to wander into the County Stadium press box and needle the writers. He always got it right back, and loved it. Writers didn't need to see him to know he was there. He smoked a huge cigar, perhaps the worst-smelling brand in the history of Cuba.

The young, red-headed local reporter took to making frequent references, in his newspaper reports, to the awful cigar. As in: "Bud Selig, accompanied as usual by his disgusting cigar, said Friday that

One day, Selig arrived in the press box without the smell and said to the young reporter: "All right, you win. My wife made me quit smoking. She said she got tired of reading about it and it would probably kill me."

In ensuing years, when Commissioner Selig did something controversial, the inevitable classic Bowie Kuhn line would be recycled by columnists, as in: "This would have never happened if Bud Selig were alive today ..."

Today, Los Angeles can be happy he is.

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