Being commissioner of a major sport means never having to answer a question candidly. It means you can maneuver around difficult issues.
When Michael Jordan, at the height of his powers, abruptly “retired” in 1993, I asked NBA commissioner David Stern if Jordan’s curious “retirement” was actually a way for MJ to serve a gambling suspension without having any disgrace attached to it.
“I don’t answer ridiculous questions,’’ replied Stern — a perfectly evasive way of not answering a question.
“Well, just answer this one please, so we have you on record,’’ I ventured.
He did. So we have it on record that Jordan’s short-lived retirement was officially not a gambling suspension levied by the commissioner. I’m not sure I believe it, but such is the nature of the reporter-commissioner word dance.
We had a couple of classic examples of this Tuesday when baseball commissioner Rob Manfred was at his All-Star Game news conference being asked about “juiced baseballs” at the same time NBA commissioner Adam Silver was at the Summer League in Las Vegas getting grilled about clear tampering violations regarding free agent negotiation moratoriums.
Manfred played Mickey the Dunce and said the balls are not juiced while admitting there might be “less drag” on the baseballs that keep sailing over the fences. Silver admitted to some obvious tampering violations, then said, “We have rules we can’t enforce.’’
Reading those goofy interviews was especially timely for one who just finished Bud Selig’s “For the Good of the Game,’’ a 319-page autobiography by the man who served as baseball commissioner for 22-plus seasons.
Liberated from the office, Bud is finally able to spill some truths about how he really felt during baseball’s tumultuous Steroid Era.
Regarding Barry Bonds’s overtaking of Hank Aaron as baseball’s home run king, Selig writes, “It was not one of the highlights of my life . . . Bonds simply wasn’t likeable . . . The reality is this was an ongoing nightmare for me . . . he was doing things that I certainly didn’t like . . . This was an age when sluggers found extra power through chemistry, and, of course, Barry was one of the leading men . . .’’
Selig knows he’ll go down in history as the Steroid Commissioner. In the book he admits, “There is plenty of blame to spread around in this sad chapter, and I’ll accept my share of the responsibility.’’
I asked him what he means by this.
“I was the commissioner,’’ he said Wednesday afternoon via phone from Milwaukee. “I’ll always accept responsibility. But I don’t know what else I could have done. It’s a subject of collective bargaining. We fought, we argued, went to mediation, but I am the commissioner and the buck stops here. I’m proud of what we did. We wound up with the toughest testing program in American sports. I’m not saying we solved the problem, because I’m not sure anyone will ever know if we’ve solved the problem completely or not . . . I had to live through all that stuff and it was painful.’’
My favorite portion of Selig’s book is near the end when he comes clean on the 2001 sale of the Red Sox from the Yawkey Trust to a group led by current Globe owner John Henry. I have always characterized the transaction as a “bag job” orchestrated by Selig. After claiming for years that he had nothing to do with it, Selig in his book characterized the transaction as, “a three-headed solution that I put together to help revitalize one of our most valuable franchises, the Red Sox . . . I orchestrated one of the greatest triple plays in baseball history . . . I favor local ownership. I always have. But in this case the creative solution, the one I engineered, was the right one.’’
Asked about this Wednesday, Selig said, “John Harrington and myself went through names. We do that everywhere. The idea that this was some kind of inside job is nothing because, No. 1, the Henry group had the cash and others didn’t have the cash. That’s all I’m going to say to you.
“The commissioner has to deal with facts. As it turns out — what can I say to you? They’ve won four world championships, saved Fenway Park, did a lot of stuff. So I think the judgment was the correct one.’’
Selig also claims in the book that he was involved in negotiations that allowed Theo Epstein to leave the Red Sox for the Cubs.
“Both teams needed to get on with their futures,’’ Selig writes on page 294. “I finally persuaded Henry, [Tom] Werner and [Larry] Lucchino to do what was good for baseball, which was for Theo to come to Chicago. They agreed to a deal that involved some minor compensation, and [Cubs owner Tom] Ricketts had his man.’’
Refreshing. A man who is no longer a commissioner is liberated.
Someday Rob Manfred, Adam Silver, Roger Goodell, and Gary Bettman will be able to talk like this.
“I did that job for 22½ years,’’ said Selig. “I understand that there are some things that sometimes . . . There are difficult decisions that involve a lot of constituents and sometimes you just can’t move ahead like you want to . . . It’s a sensitive job. There’s a lot of politics. When I was writing this book, I found it easier to be candid than in all the years I was commissioner.’’