MILWAUKEE -- Economists can argue about whether a recession still officially exists in America. Wall Street has bounced back; Main Street, not so much. But here's one place where there was no recession: Major League Baseball.
In the midst of truly difficult economic times, since mid-2008, baseball has seen only fractional attendance decreases from the record levels of 2007, and still averages more than 30,000 fans per game. Revenues have continued to grow to an estimated $7 billion for '10.
Given the state of the national economy, these numbers are remarkable. They are so encouraging, in fact, that MLB Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig said of the past two seasons:
"These have been two of our greatest years given the economic environment, given the heartache that we've seen in the last 2 1/2 years. And I worried about it a lot before each year, because you really didn't know how it would go. I was nervous, much more than normal, because nobody knew. But yet, the last six years are the six greatest years in baseball attendance and our revenues continue to go up each year. It's absolutely stunning. It's remarkable."
In an interview with MLB.com, the Commissioner recalled a call he had received from conservative columnist and genuine baseball fan George Will.
"George Will called me one morning at the end of September and said: 'You ought to be proud. You beat the recession again,'" Selig reported. "I hadn't thought of it in those terms, but I think that's true.
"It shows you how entrenched baseball is in society. And so when I keep saying, 'This is baseball's golden era,' nobody could have forecast this. And certainly when you went into the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, to have the kind of numbers we've had the last two years is unbelievable. It only goes to prove that the sport has never been more popular."
The game on the field was too good to be widely ignored. "The year of the pitcher" returned baseball to its classic form. It was a good year for parity. The Giants won their first World Series championship for San Francisco. The Rangers made their first World Series appearance.
This pushes one of the Commissioner's favorite buttons.
"There are so many myths going around about how baseball doesn't have parity," Selig said. "We have more parity than any other sport, by far. And the fact that we wound up with San Francisco and Texas in the World Series is classic proof of that."
There are other leagues that also could be mentioned in the parity discussion like the National Football League, but there is no question that strides have been made toward a more level economic playing field in baseball during Selig's 18-year tenure as Commissioner. Major increases in revenue sharing and a game that is more prosperous in general have allowed more franchises to be truly competitive. In the last 10 years, 14 different franchises have competed in the World Series. Six of those franchises were making their first World Series appearances.
Many fans can recall the firestorm that occurred when Selig first proposed the Wild Card concept. Now, there is an apparently growing school of thought that this thing has worked so well that two more Wild Card teams would be just swell. This is one topic currently before the Commissioner's Special Committee for On-Field Matters.
"Back in 1993 and '94, the criticism I took was almost abusive in some ways," Selig said, adding with a chuckle, "and it's worked so well now they want two more [Wild Card teams].
"People resist change. Baseball is a social institution. By its indigenous nature, a social institution is reluctant to change. I found that out, over and over. But these changes worked; the Wild Card, Interleague Play, revenue sharing, changing the whole economic model, new stadiums."
Selig said that throughout, he has been sensitive to the wishes of baseball fans.
"Maybe it's my upbringing," he said. "All those years when I was in Milwaukee [as president of the Brewers], I used to walk through the stands, and I knew where the season-ticket holders sat. I have a feel for how baseball fans feel because I did that for 30 years. You never forget those lessons. Baseball is a great game with its great traditions and its history, and you've got to be sensitive about that. But there does come a time when you've got to change it a little bit."
With the game withstanding severe economic problems in the larger society, with the game on the field thriving in more ways than one, there is speculation that Selig will not, in fact, retire, when his current term finishes at the end of 2012. He will have served more than 20 years as Commissioner at that point. Only Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first Commissioner, served longer in this post, 23 years. Selig said that he still intends to retire at the end of 2012, but he acknowledges that informed opinions can differ.
"I meant what I said about retiring," Selig said. "I know nobody believes that, including my wife, the members of my family. But I have a book that I want to write, I want to teach. At that point, I will have done this 20 years and that's a long time. If there were something going on, and people said, 'In the best interests of the game, would you stay?' Certainly, I would think about it. But hopefully, we will get everything done, and I'll be done by Dec. 31, two years from now. Most of the owners don't believe that, either, but I do."
The Commissioner is not being asked to stay because baseball is struggling. The game's inherent worth has now stood not only the test of time, but the test of hard times.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.