Baseball named a new commissioner Thursday to succeed Bud Selig, who can now at least continue his farewell tour knowing that his hand-picked successor, Rob Manfred, is in place.
When he comes to Washington as part of that tour, the city should hold a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in his honor. It should be Bud Selig Day in the District.
There had been five commissioners of baseball during the time Washington was abandoned by Major League Baseball, when the Senators left the city following the 1971 season for Arlington, Texas.
Bowie Kuhn presided over that departure, and he was a local, born and raised in Takoma Park. He and others who followed passed over Washington while various relocation and expansion efforts to bring baseball back failed — often because of the team up to the north, the Baltimore Orioles.
The irony of this, of course, is that the Orioles don’t come into existence 60 years ago unless the Griffith family — the owners of the first incarnation of the Senators — agreed to allow the St. Louis Browns to move to Baltimore and into their territory. The Orioles had to make a payoff, of course — $300,000 and a deal by brewery owner and new owner Jerry Hoffberger to buy advertising on Senators broadcasts — but, looking back, that was easy, compared to what Selig is dealing with between the two clubs in his swan-song season.
For those who criticized Selig and baseball for the creation of the Mid Atlantic Sports Network — the regional network that set up Orioles owner Peter Angelos to put money in his pocket for Washington Nationals telecasts — you are getting a glimpse now in the MASN fight about how truly difficult it was for Selig to engineer the Expos’ move to Washington.
It’s one thing to sit around talking to your fellow baseball fans in the District and say, ‘Hell with Angelos, Washington deserves a baseball team.’ The reality was that Washington had become through events part of the Orioles‘ business, first with the aggressive marketing by the late Orioles owner and Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, and then with the placement of the new ballpark so easily accessible for Washington-area fans.
The Orioles‘ piece down south was not nearly what they claimed — upwards of 25 percent — but the fact is that if you wanted to see Major League Baseball before 2005 around here, you had to pay Peter Angelos. This guy, of all people — who built his fortune as a litigator — was going to go to court to do all he could to prevent a team moving to Washington.
Now, though, the MASN deal is falling apart. The deal set up the Orioles as a 90 percent owner of the network, with the Nationals at 10 percent and Washington’s share to rise by 1 percent a year until it reached a cap of 33 percent. Also part of the agreement was a five-year reset of the amount MASN — essentially Angelos — had to pay the Nationals for their television rights.
It’s become really messy. The Lerners, the Nationals’ owners, have asked for nearly $120 million — almost three times what they receive now. Angelos probably had a laugh at that one. Selig created a panel of fellow owners to reach a deal, and they came up with a figure for the Nationals that was far less than $120 million. MASN didn’t like that, either, and has gone to court to battle Selig’s authority as commissioner and the efforts to force Angelos to go into his bulging pockets to pay more to the Nationals.
The MASN fight is a window into how hard it was for Selig to make all the moves to put a team in Washington. This commissioner, more than any other, knew what it was like to be abandoned by baseball. His Milwaukee Braves left for Atlanta in 1965, and he devoted much of the next five years of his life fighting to get baseball back in his city. When the expansion Seattle Pilots went bankrupt in 1970, he bought the remains and moved it to Milwaukee, where they became the Brewers.
Selig knew the hole in the soul of his city without baseball for just five years. He was well aware and sympathized for a city that had been without a major league team for 33 years. He knew that the team up the road — the Orioles— didn’t truly fill that void. He heard the same arguments about the Chicago White Sox 90 minutes away from Milwaukee.
When the stars aligned — a city willing to build a new ballpark and a line around the block of owners willing to put up the money to relocate a doomed franchise — Selig said yes, the only one of the commissioners who did.