Selig savors baseball moment

Bonds, Ripken, Gwynn are focus, not labor

October 02, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

SAN FRANCISCO - Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has a lot on his mind these days. Baseball is heading into another labor storm and the economics of the game soon might force him to make some painful decisions, but he is determined not to let anything get in the way of this season's feel-good finish.

Barry Bonds will be in Houston tonight to continue his assault on Mark McGwire's single-season home run record. He needs one to tie Big Mac at 70 and another to erase a 3-year-old mark that was expected to stand a long, long time.

San Diego Padres star Rickey Henderson returns to Qualcomm Stadium to continue his any-minute-now attempt to break Ty Cobb's all-time record for runs, as well as gather the three hits he needs to join the exclusive 3,000-hit club.

Baseball also is celebrating the pending retirements of Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn while gearing up for an interesting final week of regular-season play and the start of the postseason.

The celebrations have been muted in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, but Selig seems convinced baseball has played a role in helping the nation rise up in a wave of patriotism and commitment after the tragedy.

"The emotion in the ballpark has been - to me - a remarkable blessing," Selig said during a visit to Pacific Bell Stadium on Sunday. "I think the clubs, the players, everybody has handled this very well.

"I said on Sept. 11, in our own small way, my only hope was that we could be helpful in the healing process and beginning to restore some sense of normalcy, and I emphasize in a small way. It doesn't deal with the horrific tragedy, but as a social institution, I would hope that social responsibility has manifested in a positive way ... and I think it has."

In the wake of Sept. 11, baseball's problems seem trivial now, but Selig eventually will have to deal with another set of troublesome labor issues as well as the possibility of relocating one or more struggling franchises. He's just not going to deal with any of that while Bonds still has a chance to enchant baseball fans with his sweet swing and a couple of the game's best-loved players are saying goodbye.

"Everybody understands the situation," he said. "We've got great races going on. We are gathered [around the Bonds chase] because of the history about to be made today or shortly. Let's get to that afterward. Let's just enjoy what we've got going on."

Even the exciting home run chase has a way of putting the commissioner on the spot. Bonds and his performance again raise questions about the dramatic upturn in some offensive statistics and the possibility that the sudden glut of 50-plus and 60-plus home run seasons might actually diminish the exploits of Bonds, McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

Selig, perhaps predictably, doesn't agree.

"I think it's an absolutely stunning and remarkable accomplishment," he said. "I don't know if the players are better today, but they are bigger. The bats are different. The balls are different. The stadiums are different. Medical technology is different. If it was so easy and there is something that is contributing to it, then why only Bonds?"

Wait a minute. Did he say the ball is different? Selig and Major League Baseball have long denied the baseballs used during the past decade have been enhanced in any way. He quickly corrected himself Sunday, saying he was talking about the modern baseballs in comparison with the balls from the "dead ball" era of the early part of the 20th century.

What he seemed to be saying, however, was: Why ask why? The country needs some cheering up, and baseball is providing a variety of entertaining and inspiring story lines. Why look past the silver lining?

Selig has promised to avoid discussing the serious business issues that figure to dominate the coming off-season until after the World Series, but even the Bonds homer chase is entangled in the unsolved economic issues that haunt the industry.

He is, after all, a free agent after the season, and there is no guarantee the Giants will be able to keep him.

"What that says is, that's the way the system is," Selig said. "I know, just walking into [Pacific Bell Park] and talking to people, they are very unhappy about it. That's a manifestation of the system that exists."

That system also has left several teams in deep financial distress and created the possibility some teams might have to be moved or even closed down to improve the overall financial condition of the industry.

Former Orioles president Larry Lucchino, for instance, is in South Florida on a mission for the commissioner, attempting to help the Florida Marlins work out a deal for a new stadium. Implicit in that attempt is the likelihood the team will be moved if a ballpark deal cannot be struck.

If one or more teams are relocated in the next few years, baseball owners may again give serious consideration to placing a team in Washington or Northern Virginia, something Orioles owner Peter Angelos says would do serious damage to the economic foundation of his franchise.

"Franchise relocation is one of a myriad of possible solutions," Selig said. "No decision has been made at this time. There is not any team that I could say with any certainty is going to relocate."

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