In 'For the Good of the Game,' Bud Selig tells of the MLB steroid era
When I think of Bud Selig, I always think about one particular moment.
It's the 11th inning of the 2002 All-Star Game. The event was held in Selig's hometown Milwaukee, in the beautiful new ballpark he and his family spent a decade fighting to get built. But instead of reveling in what should have been one of the greatest moments of his life, the Major League Baseball commissioner was frustrated, angry and holding his hands out in an exasperated shrug.
Selig was talking to the umpires about the fact that both the American and National League rosters had run out of players — and he was coming to grips with the fact he would have to ruin the All-Star Game by declaring an unprecedented tie.
I was at that game with my dad. I remember the angry shrug, the tie-game decision and the cascade of boos and flying objects that immediately followed.
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And I suppose I expected Selig's new memoir to be the book form of that shrug: a man with the best of intentions and a pure love for baseball, overwhelmed by circumstances beyond his control, and being a little bit defensive and prickly about the whole situation. After all, for everything Selig changed in Major League Baseball — and it's a lot! — the main thing people will most likely remember is that he presided over an era tainted by widespread steroid abuse.
So I was pleasantly surprised to find For The Good Of The Game to be charming, informative and even entertaining. It's no Ball Four, the seminal behind-the-scenes, bridge-burning memoir written by former Yankee and Seattle Pilot Jim Bouton. But outside of those rare exceptions, Selig's book is about the best memoir you can hope to read from a powerful professional sports insider. Much of that is due to the deep love and respect that Selig carries for the game of baseball.
The book's charm also comes from the Forrest Gump-style encounters Selig kept collecting throughout his life. He recounts going to watch Jackie Robinson play at Wrigley Field with a childhood friend who grew up to become U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl; selling a car to future home run king Hank Aaron; babysitting a teenage Joe Torre, who went on to become a Hall of Fame manager; and trying to sell football legend Vince Lombardi on allowing baseball advertising on the scoreboard during Green Bay Packers games. Selig also writes about watching Brewers icon Robin Yount notch his 3,000th hit alongside his "friend," then-Texas Rangers owner George W. Bush.
If you didn't know that Selig and Bush were friends, don't worry — Selig will remind you of that over and over. Between the "my friend George" lines and a jaw-dropping scene where the mild-mannered Selig recounts dropping several F-bombs on Vice President Al Gore during a White House meeting at the height of the 1994 baseball strike, it's pretty easy to deduce who Selig voted for in 2000.
The confrontation came months into the stalemate that wiped out the 1994 World Series. President Bill Clinton had urged the owners and players to undergo arbitration with a mediator he appointed. Clinton eventually asked the mediator to recommend a compromise, but when the players union wouldn't accept the findings, Clinton and Gore walked away from the process. Selig lost his cool when he heard Gore repeat what sounded to Selig like a union talking point.
"What did you f***ing say to me?" the polite Midwesterner yelled at the vice president. "This thing is worse because we agreed to this process and you backed out. Now what the f*** do you say?"
Cursing out the vice president is one of a handful of the type of revealing anecdotes and score-settling passages that typically sell memoirs. The book's very first chapter details how pained Selig was to see the surly, steroid-enhanced Barry Bonds break Aaron's career home run record. "I didn't go to the clubhouse to congratulate him afterward," Selig writes. "I just couldn't bring myself to look him in the eyes and act happy about what he'd done. I don't exactly have a poker face."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pete Rose does not come off well in this book. Selig also criticizes several of the commissioners who came immediately before him, as well as the players association leaders he felt impeded Major League Baseball from addressing widespread steroid use (more on that in a moment).
Selig ticks through the innovations he pushed and how hard he had to work to persuade owners to agree to them: going from two to three divisions in each league, and adding a wild card. (The sole owner to oppose that move: Selig's friend Bush.) Creating interleague play. Instituting video replay. Overseeing two rounds of expansion, and the move of one franchise.
The book certainly has many of the usual flaws of a famous person's memoir: Several anecdotes and phrases resurface from chapter to chapter. The writing style isn't consistent. A few sections feel like the places Selig decided to stuff in all the moments that an editor must have told him readers would expect to hear about — positive decisions like the leaguewide retirement of Jackie Robinson's 42, and disastrous episodes like the time Selig threatened to "contract" the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos franchises.
So there you go. Now, let's get to the steroids.
Between 1961 and 1995 just three players managed to hit 50 home runs in a single season. It happened 23 times from 1995 to 2007. Selig leads with the usual caveats and excuses. "Something was going on, for sure. But we didn't know what it was. Nobody really did. Players were spending unprecedented amounts of time in the weight room," he writes.
The players' head sizes were also expanding, alongside their chests and biceps. Selig admits he was late to grasp the scope and depth of the steroid problem. His defense has two main themes: The first is that everyone else was late to it, too — which is true — and that many of the current steroid scolds had no problem with the sudden influx of 500-foot home runs in the mid-'90s.
Selig singles out Bob Costas — who wrote a blurb for the book — on this point:
"I like Bob. I always have, I always will. ... But he was like so many of the reporters in that era. While the home run race was going on, he was enjoying it like a kid. Years later he'd insist he knew it was fueled by steroids all along."
But the main thrust of Selig's argument is that he wanted to test players for drugs but was repeatedly blocked from doing so by the players union. "We just can't let you start testing, we can't do that," he quotes then-MLB Players Association head Donald Fehr as saying at one point during negotiations.
After years of investigative reporting, public congressional shaming and eventual pressure from the players themselves, the union finally agreed to testing and harsh penalties for positive results. The home run totals dropped, and players stopped looking like professional wrestlers. But the steroid scandal never completely went away, and among other things, Selig had to eventually suspend superstar Alex Rodriguez for an entire season for drug use.
The result of it all: The baseball history and records that Selig so clearly loves are now distorted and tainted by a generation of chemically enhanced performance. Selig has a right to be a bit defensive — those battles over drug testing played out in public — but I wish he had been a bit more reflective on what he, as the head of Major League Baseball, could have done to limit the problem, or fix it faster.
There's one more scene from the 2002 All-Star Game that sticks in my mind. It's from the Home Run Derby, the night before the game itself. Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly had just shamed Cubs star Sammy Sosa by confronting him in the locker room and asking him, then and there, to take a drug test. Sosa had angrily refused, and when he came to the plate, the Milwaukee fans all booed and jeered him as a steroid user and a cheat.
Then, Sosa began launching titanic home runs. As the balls he hit clanged off the upper deck, off the scoreboard, and even off the back wall of the entire domed stadium, the mood turned. The cheers grew louder and louder as the balls flew farther and farther. Everyone was thrilled and entertained by Sosa, and suddenly they didn't quite care what he was or wasn't injecting into his body.
Everyone — the players, the unions, the owners and, as that moment made clear, the fans — shares the blame for baseball's steroid problem. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.