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Bud Selig On Orioles' Rebuilding Plan: 'I Don't See Where There's Another Way'

September 3, 2019
Former Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig believes the Orioles' current rebuilding plan, which all but guarantees plenty of losing short term -- often referred to as "tanking" -- was the only way forward for the club, and he's confident the Baltimore-Washington region can support two successful franchises long term despite the difficulties currently facing the Orioles. 

The Orioles triggered a full-scale rebuild last summer in the midst of a 115-loss season. The organization is now in the early stages of working to make general manager Mike Elias' stated goal of building an "elite talent pipeline" a reality, which has meant improvements to analytical, player development and international scouting capabilities. 

Though the losses have piled up for the big-league team (92 through Sept. 2), the club is well on its way to a top draft pick for a second consecutive year. That'll give Baltimore a chance to add another potential star after taking catcher Adley Rutschman with the No. 1 pick of the 2019 draft.

Selig, 85, was the league's de facto commissioner from 1992-1998 and the official commissioner from 1998-2015. He says the Orioles' current path was the only one the club could've taken regardless of how painful tanking can be.

"If you know your team is not good, tell me another way, because I've been in this business for 50 years," Selig said on Glenn Clark Radio Sept. 3. "Tell me another way that they could do it. As far as I'm concerned, there's not even a doubt about it."

The Orioles are aiming to be the next team to follow an aggressive rebuilding plan en route to a World Series championship. The Astros won the World Series in 2017 after losing 100-plus games every season from 2011-2013 and 92 games in 2014. Elias and Mejdal were top assistants for GM Jeff Luhnow during the turnaround. The Chicago Cubs won the championship in 2016 after losing 87-plus games every year from 2010-2014. Orioles manager Brandon Hyde was a big-league coach for the Cubs from 2014-2018.

With the high draft picks garnered through rough big-league seasons, the Astros and Cubs acquired superstars who were vital to their respective championship runs. Neither club was simply stockpiling top picks with their losing seasons; each team gave ample opportunities to unheralded players to prove they could be a part of the long-term solution, which proved fruitful.

But the Astros' plan drew criticism in its early stages, and now the Orioles' plan is, too. Former Baltimore Sun Orioles beat reporter and current ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian said tanking isn't the only option for non-competitive clubs to get better and lamented the attendance numbers for tanking teams. Sports Illustrated's Jon Tayler suggested in a tongue-in-cheek column that tanking clubs like the Orioles should be relegated because widespread tanking is bad for the sport

"I think you're always going to have some teams that are good and others that have to rebuild," said Selig, who owned the Milwaukee Brewers from 1970-2004. "But if the Cubs and the Astros can do it to where they are today, and it's been true all along, I don't see where there's another way. And as I said, I've run a team and I've been through a lot of things. I think what the Orioles are doing now is something that they have to do. Some day, you'll thank them."

"... Branch Rickey, the greatest baseball executive of all time, used to say rebuilding jobs take three to five years," Selig added. "He said that in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and he'd be right again today."

That said, the Orioles are in a more difficult spot than the Astros and Cubs were when both of those clubs launched their rebuilding efforts. Not only are the Orioles in the American League East -- the toughest division in baseball -- but there's also uncertainty surrounding the club's local television deal, a major source of revenue for any major-league team.

As part of the Montreal Expos' relocation to Washington, D.C., ahead of the 2005 season, Selig-led MLB brokered a deal with Orioles owner Peter Angelos to soften the blow of a team moving into the Orioles' broadcast territory. As such, the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network was born and would broadcast games for the Orioles and Nationals. The Orioles owned 90 percent of MASN when the network launched in 2005, and the Nationals' stake would eventually top out at 33 percent.

Rights fees for both clubs were to be renegotiated after the 2011 season, but an agreement about what the Nationals should be paid couldn't be reached. A decision about the Nationals' rights fees from 2012-2016 has been caught up in the courts since then, though a ruling Aug. 22 suggests there could be light at the end of the tunnel for the dispute

Given the MASN saga and the Orioles' attendance issues -- the club has averaged more than 30,000 fans just once since 2006 -- can two teams thrive in the mid-Atlantic?

"That's easy. That's really easy. What about Oakland and San Francisco? You've got two teams in Chicago. This is a big market, Baltimore and Washington. Why couldn't they be successful?" Selig said. "That's the question I'd have to ask myself, and for a long time they were and they will be again. There isn't a doubt in my mind. 

"Look, you can say if you're a Washingtonian, and I heard that for years, well, why shouldn't we have a franchise? That's a tough one to answer. On the other hand, Baltimore's a great franchise, wonderful franchise. There's no doubt in my mind Baltimore can be very successful. They both can be successful."

To Selig's point, the Orioles won the most regular-season games in the American League from 2012-2016, during which the Nationals went to the playoffs three times -- same as the Orioles. But the decisions the Orioles made -- from short-sighted trades to ill-fated long-term contracts to falling behind the rest of the league analytically -- caused the club to crash in 2018. 

Meanwhile, the Nationals have kept on trucking. They're in solid position to reach the playoffs for the fifth time since 2012. They're averaging about 28,000 fans per game, well more than their neighbors to the north. They have a young nucleus of players who should keep them competitive for years to come.

Such a stark dichotomy between the two clubs might not be what Selig had in mind back in 2005, but he's confident the Orioles will bounce back.

"Number one, we had to move the Montreal club. We didn't have a choice, unfortunately, and as it turns out, Washington has been a very good franchise -- a big market, a market of over five, six million people," Selig said. "I have great respect for Peter Angelos. I'm sad about what's happened to the Orioles, but they'll fight their way back. Is it a major-league city? Oh, of course it is. Are you kidding me? Yes, it's a major-league city."

Selig's new book , "For the Good of the Game: The Inside Story of the Surprising and Dramatic Transformation of Major League Baseball," is available now.

To hear more from Selig, listen to the full interview here:

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox