Bud Selig prides himself on being a student of history. In two judgments last week, though, baseball's long-serving steward reminded us he can be a fan of selective memory, too, so long as it suits his purpose.
First things first: In a decision that generated little comment but has far-reaching implications, Selig said he would let Barry Bonds' career (762) and single-season (73) home run records stand — that, despite the slugger's recent conviction on an obstruction of justice charge that grew out of an investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport.
That was Selig at his best. The decision displayed pragmatism, since it's almost impossible to erase one set of facts from the record book without altering all the related ones. But it also showed a healthy respect for the connective tissue that makes comparing the feats of one era with another possible, and so binds each generation of fans to the next.
By handling the Bonds dilemma as he did, Selig reaffirmed his trust in the game's fans to get it right on their own; to understand both the times and the context in which those records were set. That way, those upset by the idea of a chemically fueled Bonds — and who-knows-how-many other players during the supersized era — soaring past several of the most important offensive milestones can add as many asterisks to the retelling as they see fit.
Not surprising, perhaps, Selig's decision kept faith with both well-established precedent and his own recent history.
Fifty years ago, as Roger Maris closed in on Babe Ruth's hallowed single-season home-run mark, there was plenty of talk — including from then-commissioner Ford Frick — about adding an asterisk to the record book to note an expanded schedule gave Maris eight more games to eclipse the Babe. Eventually, though, the dissent turned out to be just that — talk — and fans decided for themselves which version of events was the more impressive.
Similarly, Selig refused to amend the record book and award a perfect game last season to Detroit's Armando Galarraga, even after replays showed that umpire Jim Joyce clearly missed the call on what should have been the 27th and final out of the ballgame. By doing so, Selig understood the controversy swirling around the "imperfect game" guaranteed it would be as memorable as all the other perfectos, yet remembered in its unique context.
That trust in the game's fans, Selig said at his annual meeting the Associated Press Sports Editors last week, guided his hand in the Bonds' decision.
"I think that anybody who understands the sport," he said, "understands exactly why."
But more than a few people who understand baseball were stunned by another decision Selig announced Thursday, this one to expand the playoffs by two teams.
"It doesn't seem very fair, and personally, I don't know where his head is at," Giants pitcher and reigning Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum said a day later.
"Players like it the way it is," he continued in an interview with the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times. "It's dog-eat-dog. People know they need to win 11 games to win the World Series."
Lincecum was one of several players voicing displeasure, although the union is already on board to expand the postseason from eight to 10 teams.
"Ten is a fair number," Selig said, adding that details on have yet to be finalized on whether the new wild-card round would be best-of-three or winner-take-all.
Selig no doubt drew some comfort that the postseason expansion he presided over beginning in 1995, despite withering criticism from traditionalists, was a commercial success. Two wild cards were added then as each league went to three divisions, thus guaranteeing an even number of teams for a playoff.
"If I had defiled motherhood I don't think I could have gotten ripped any more than I did," the commissioner recalled not long after. "But now it's fascinating to me. Now they not only like it so much, they want more of it."
While fans of every team in the AL East save the Yankees might be on-board, even they would have to concede the season is already way too long as it is. Adding more teams will only make the divisional races even less meaningful. While 12 of 32 NFL teams make the postseason, and 16 of 30 teams in the NBA and NHL, baseball's season is so much longer that every contender has a more-than-fair opportunity to earn a berth.
And while Selig may also remember the excitement generated by three straight seasons requiring tiebreakers (2007-09) to determine the postseason field, two more wild-card teams also will increase the possibility that a so-so team like the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals will get hot at the right time and steal a World Series.
"Why mess it up, other than for monetary purposes," Lincecum said, "and that's probably what (Selig) is looking at."
Possibly. A half-dozen clubs are skidding along at historic lows in attendance for the month, which would be even more troubling were it not for the fact that much of the lost income from ticket sales has been offset by increasingly lucrative TV deals with local or regional networks. Whether those numbers reveal a new model or simply mask an underlying problem remains to be seen.
Either way, though, the game is headed into uncharted waters, where Selig's sense of history and his business instincts are going to wage a fight to see which becomes his guide.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org.