Baseball Lords Are Upset by Plan for a New King

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is surrounded by reporters as he leaves a press conference on May 15 at Major League Baseball headquarters in New York.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is surrounded by reporters as he leaves a press conference on May 15 at Major League Baseball headquarters in New York. –Bebeto Matthews/AP

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The search for Major League Baseball’s next commissioner has been unusual for an organization that has $8 billion in annual revenue and regards itself as a Fortune 500-caliber company. A search firm has not been hired, and there has been no attempt to vet a wide ranging list of internal or external candidates.

Instead, Bud Selig, who has run the sport with a firm grip for 20 years and plans to step down in January at 80, has orchestrated his succession plan with secret meetings that, several owners said, have left little doubt about his wishes. Selig, they believe, would like the sport’s 30 owners to anoint his deputy, Rob Manfred, as baseball’s next commissioner.

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But as Selig’s final season unfolds, Manfred’s candidacy is meeting turbulence from an unexpected antagonist: Jerry Reinsdorf, the 78-year-old owner of the Chicago White Sox and long one of Selig’s most loyal allies in the game. Reinsdorf has broken ranks and tried to upend the plan to slide Manfred into the commissioner’s office, several owners say.

In discussions with other owners, Reinsdorf has raised questions about Selig’s transparency as commissioner and argued that Selig should play only an advisory role in picking his successor. Reinsdorf argued that, unlike owners who have hundreds of millions of dollars invested in their teams, Selig has no ownership in the game after he retires.

“What I have said about Rob is none of your business,’’ Reinsdorf said in a telephone interview, interjecting an expletive.

Reinsdorf said he “had never said a bad word about Bud,’’ who he said “was the game’s best commissioner.’’ But he said that he believed that the owners — not Selig — should be in charge of picking the next one.

A spokesman for Major League Baseball said that “a formal process was just announced that includes input and participation of all 30 clubs.’’

“Out of respect to this process, it is inappropriate to comment,’’ said the spokesman, Pat Courtney.

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This account of baseball’s behind-the-scenes deliberations is based on more than 20 interviews with owners, senior team officials and Major League Baseball officials. All of them — except for Reinsdorf — spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had been told by Selig not to discuss the matter publicly.

The process to select the next commissioner and the palace intrigue it has sparked provide a window into how decisions are made in an organization led by Selig’s authoritative, intensely hands-on management style. Under his tenure, the sport’s revenue has grown exponentially, and it has had notable labor peace. His approach has garnered fierce loyalty from many owners and a sense of alienation among others, who have complained that only a select group, which meets confidentially with Selig, is allowed to be involved with the sport’s most important decisions.

It was at one such private meeting — at his office in Arizona in March — that Selig told his trusted circle of a dozen or so executives and team owners, including Reinsdorf, that he was appointing them to be part of a succession committee. Some urged Selig to continue his tenure, fearing that their own role in the game would be diminished if he left.

Selig suggested some specific candidates — nearly all from within the game — but gave the committee no authority to begin interviewing them. It was important, the commissioner cautioned, that the committee’s task remain confidential. He did not even want anyone else in baseball to know of its existence.

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But in the weeks that followed, word of the meeting spread throughout front offices, irritating some owners who believed that Selig was trying to bar them so he could retain as much control as possible.

Last week, at owners meetings at Major League Baseball’s offices in New York, Selig announced that he had appointed seven team owners and executives — including Reinsdorf — to a succession committee.

Reinsdorf began agitating last year with a few other owners, proposing that he and two others should run the league instead of having one full-time commissioner. He has also contended that Selig was not transparent enough with owners. Making Manfred the next commissioner, Reinsdorf has argued, would only continue such practices.

Reinsdorf’s decision to oppose Selig is striking, because both men were at the heart of the effort to push out Fay Vincent as the commissioner in 1992.

With Vincent gone, Selig, who was then the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, was named the acting commissioner and it was in that role that he presided over the sport during the 232-day players’ strike that derailed the last two months of the 1994 season and forced the cancellation of the World Series. In 1998, Selig was named the official commissioner.

Reinsdorf’s allies say that after years of having a direct pipeline into Selig, the White Sox owner is concerned that his power could wane under Manfred; Reinsdorf has never been close to the 55-year-old deputy. Reinsdorf, a passionate advocate of owners’ taking a tougher stance with the players’ union and a central figure in the 1994-95 strike, is also driven by the belief that Manfred will not combat the union, with whom he has negotiated a series of collective bargaining agreements. Despite the lobbying, Manfred still appears to be the front-runner for the position.

The other candidates being considered include Disney’s chief executive, Bob Iger; the San Francisco Giants president and chief executive, Larry Baer; the Atlanta Braves chairman and chief executive, Terry McGuirk; and the Detroit Tigers president, chief executive and general manager, David Dombrowski. Senior business executives in the commissioner’s office — Tim Brosnan and Bob Bowman — are seen as even longer shots.

(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.)

Since Selig’s previous deputy stepped down in 2010, Manfred has taken on more responsibility and increasingly been seen as Selig’s heir apparent. In the past two years, Manfred, under Selig’s direction, has led efforts to investigate a drug ring in Florida that resulted in the suspension of several players, including the slugger Alex Rodriguez. Manfred also played a significant role in the complicated sale of the Dodgers to a group led by Magic Johnson.

Manfred followed the path of many other sports executives: He attended Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He then went to Harvard Law School. At 31, he made partner at the firm Morgan Lewis, and served as an outside counsel to baseball until 1997, when he became the head of the league’s labor relations department.

If the owners endorse Manfred — the new commissioner will need 23 of 30 votes — it will allow Selig to keep his hand in the game. When he was the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, he was a leading force in choosing four commissioners, including himself in 1993. Now, it appears that his biggest obstacle in selecting another is his longtime ally.

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