The Men Who Rule Over Baseball: An Excerpt from Jon Pessah’s ‘The Game'

The bespectacled 66-year-old man in the blue blazer, white shirt, and red tie is walking across the thin stretch of grass between the first baseline and the home-team dugout. His name is Bud Selig, and it's several hours before his favorite team takes the field for batting practice. Selig usually enjoys being surrounded by people, but this quiet period before a baseball game is one of the Commissioner's favorites. It's April 6, 2001, and only a few stadium workers dot the stands. He's not sure if it's the serenity of the moment, the simple beauty of the manicured field, or the sweep of the grandstand that evokes the game's past. But for a man who has a lifelong love affair with baseball, it feels like walking into a cathedral.


He glances over at the pitcher's mound, his blue eyes squinting, and marvels at just how high it rises and how gosh-darn close it feels to home plate. He looks beyond the mound to the green walls stretched across the sprawling outfield. Even on his best days growing up on Milwaukee's ball fields, he could never knock a ball over those fences. No; the players who could do that were gods.

There's much about the game he cherishes, though maybe not as much as he did in the '70s, when he was a young owner and the game seemed simpler. So much has changed, so many battles have been fought, so much blood spilled. He often finds himself thinking back to 1992, when he led the revolt against his friend Com- missioner Fay Vincent, took control of the game, and saved it. The game was in chaos back then. Yes, he'd sacrificed a World Series, but it was his good judgment, his innovations, and his political skill — especially his political skill — that brought the game back to life. He's sure of that.

Baseball is too important a social institution to fail — isn't that what he's told every fan, reporter, and lawmaker ever since? If that weren't true, how had he been able to help raise billions in taxpayer money to build baseball stadiums? The game has 11 sparkling new stadiums because Selig persuaded local governments to give him what he wanted — what he ­needed — to keep baseball alive in their cities.

Nowhere is that more true than here in Milwaukee, where the stadium closest to his heart is finally ready. In a few hours the first pitch will be thrown at the $414 million Miller Park. There are still many in this town who bitterly resent bailing out his debt-ridden team, but even the harshest critics admire the architectural wonder he's given them.


Selig's eyes roam his team's new home. The one-of-a-kind fan- shaped retractable roof. A plaza lined with restaurants, shops, and luxury suites. Soaring brick archways that keep the promise voiced in the Brewers' new promotional video: Miller­-Park,­-where­-a­-fan-can't­-help-­but­-feel­-the­-reincarnation­-of­-baseball's-romantic­-past.

Selig walks a few steps down the baseline, his hands in his pock- ets, his slight slouch familiar to any baseball fan. How many times has he already watched the six-minute promo? He loves the clip of Hank Aaron and the Braves winning the '57 World Series and the celebration that followed — the first and last the town's enjoyed during its 50 years of baseball. And the clip of Robin Yount getting his 3,000th hit in a Brewers uniform. He's especially fond of the final passage, which will soon play on the 48-foot-wide screen in center field.

Miller­-Park-­will-­create­-a­-barn-­fire-­of-­passion-­for­-the-­team.­The-­eyes­-of­-the­-baseball­-world­-will­-focus­-on­-Milwaukee-and­-talk­-of­-the-inadequacies­-of­-small­-market­-baseball-­will­-give-­way­-to-­praise­-and­-the-­recollection-­of-­-a­time­-when­-fans-­lived-­and-­died-­with-­their-team­-and­-the-­team-­waged-­battle-­for-­their-­fans.-­A­-time-­when-­loyalty-to-the­-grand-­old-­game-­was-­shared-equally­-between-­players,-owners,-­fans,-­and­-corporations.

Selig smiles. He was the town's 35-year-old boy wonder when he brought baseball back to Milwaukee in 1970. His reward: a team to run as he saw fit. Now he stands in his new stadium, running not just his team but also his entire sport.

Selig takes one more look around the park, then walks slowly into the Brewers dugout. He ambles through a series of tunnels and onto an elevator that brings him up to the .300 Club, where his friends and the city's leaders are gathered to celebrate the place that took him almost 15 years to build. He spends a few hours there, shaking hands and accepting congratulations, until word comes that he is needed back downstairs.

It's time to greet the man who once believed he would become the Commissioner of baseball.

President George W. Bush is working his way through Miller Park's visitors locker room surrounded by Secret Service agents and White House reporters. Just 24 hours earlier, Bush was in D.C., where the popular new President pushed Congress closer to passing his $1.35 trillion, 10-year tax cut. He'd promised his old friend Buddy that he'd throw out the first pitch the night Miller Park opened, and it was a promise he planned to keep.

So he'd flown into Milwaukee on Air Force One earlier this after- noon with Laura, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and his Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor who helped build Bud's stadium. And now Bush is doing what he loves — hanging with major league players, sharing stories of his days running the Texas Rangers, and autographing a baseball for Hall of Famer Rod Carew, now the Brewers hitting coach.

"Something's wrong with this picture, me signing this for you," Bush tells Carew as he hands him the baseball. Everyone laughs. Bush is radiant in his black cowboy boots and dark slacks, a blue satin Brewers warm-up jacket pulled over a 40-pound flak vest. He's smiling broadly as he shakes hands with player after player.

"You've got my support on the tax cut," Cincinnati Reds pitcher Scott Sullivan tells him.

"It's going to be a heck of a lot bigger than anyone thought," Bush shouts back.

Bush is clearly enjoying himself, Selig thinks as he follows the President on his tour of the clubhouses. The two men developed a bond when Bush joined baseball in 1989, a few months after help- ing his father win the White House. They had much in common. Both grew up close to their mothers and wanted desperately to impress their fathers. Both were accustomed to being underestimated, something each uses to his full advantage.

And both have an abiding love for baseball. As a boy in grade school, Bush carried a bat to class every day, idolized Willie Mays, and talked about owning a baseball team, just like his uncle, one of the original owners of the Mets. But his real dream, one of Bush's best friends told a magazine writer just before the 2000 election, was to become baseball's Commissioner.

"He wanted to be Kenesaw Mountain Landis," the friend said. "I'm still convinced that's his goal."

Chances are Selig has seen that article. There isn't much con- cerning baseball that he doesn't read, listen to, or watch. While some scoffed at the notion after Bush was elected President, Bud and others inside baseball know how much George W. Bush wanted to be Commissioner. And how close he had come.


It was one of the many challenges Selig faced after Vincent's removal in September of 1992. Vincent is a longtime friend of the Bush family, and George openly supported the Commissioner right down to the day of his forced resignation. Selig assumed control two days later, but the last thing he wanted was to alienate a friend. Especially one with such powerful connections. So Selig made Bush a promise: he would support his dream to become baseball's next Commissioner.

It was a promise Selig would never keep — there was just too much at stake, and Bush wasn't battle-tested. The owners were pre- paring for another war with their players and union leader Don Fehr, a war Vincent was not prepared to fight. "The Commissioner should represent the players and the fans as well as the owners," Vincent kept telling Selig. That's when Selig knew Vincent had to go.

No, this was not the time for someone else to run his game — no matter how often he told Bush the job could be his.

Selig is sure he made the right decision back in 1992. And he is even more certain now, in 2001, for history seems ready to repeat itself. The labor deal he accepted after the 1994 strike was a truce, not a peace plan. Players are still making too much money. George Steinbrenner — with four titles in the last five seasons and a cable channel soon to launch — is still spending too much money. And Don Fehr is still in charge of the union. The power struggle between Selig, Steinbrenner, and Fehr — which in many ways has defined this era — has not abated.

Billions are again on the line, but this time there is a difference. Selig has made the owners even richer, doubling the value of their franchises and tripling their revenues with new stadiums and television deals. He's growing rich, too, thanks to this new stadium and the $3 million salary — plus bonuses — he now earns as Commissioner.

And he has far more power, too. Last time his main focus was bringing the owners together — a task once thought near impossible. Nothing, he knew, could ever get done without a united front. That accomplished, he now has complete control of labor negotiations. He's spent millions lobbying Congress to get to this moment, and he has a popular friend and ally in the White House, one who's just passed a landmark tax bill favoring many of the rich men who own baseball teams.

How could things have worked out any better?

Every one of the 42,024 seats at Miller Park is filled with fans who've already splurged on overpriced hot dogs, beer, and Brewers merchandise. They've watched the huge bald eagle leave its left- field perch next to Bernie Brewer and swoop down to the pitcher's mound while kids from every county in the state held the edges of a giant, outfield-covering flag. They've listened to longtime Brewers announcer Bob Uecker's well-worn but oddly entertaining jokes and paid equal attention to the introductions of Yount and Rice. Now they're ready for the main event.

"Mr. President, Mr. Commissioner, it's time," a Brewers official says just minutes before the first game's scheduled start.

Bush practiced pitching for an hour with White House spokesman Ari Fleischer a day earlier while waiting out the tax vote. He entertained reporters earlier that night by telling them he was still deciding between throwing a split finger or a straight fastball to Brewers manager Davey Lopes, who is now standing behind home plate ready to catch the first pitch. The President and the Commissioner, still chatting away, follow their escorts into the Brewers.

The two men pause, then Selig climbs the steps and strides to the top of the pitcher's mound. He will throw out the first pitch. The President will have to wait his turn.

Selig is, after all, the Commissioner. And this is his game.

© Excerpted from the book The Game: Inside the Secret World of Major League Baseball's Power Brokers. Copyright © 2015 by Jon Pessah. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.