In his twilight, Bud Selig won't alter his version of history

Bud Selig teaches three college courses a week at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin and Arizona State. Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

PHOENIX -- About 15 minutes before class, the professor sits down in an office a few doors from Room 550 at Arizona State University's law school, where he will commence a two-hour lecture titled, "The Power of the Commissioner."

The twin slivers of clear wire curl a hearing aid into each of his ears. They're a reminder that despite his eagerness to address the volumes of questions from the class, Bud Selig -- who sold Joe Torre his first car in the late 1950s, tried to lure the White Sox to Milwaukee in the 1960s and bought the Seattle Pilots and moved them to Milwaukee to become the Brewers -- is 82 years old. He was born into the Great Depression, six months after Henry Aaron in 1934.

We are old combatants now, the power and the watchdog, and twilight nears. Selig is 34 years older, but both of our roots to the game are old and forgotten, where criticism was antagonistic and the battleground was not real or fake news but accuracy or inaccuracy, with the goal of getting it right. The demand for accountability did not make one an enemy of the state.

When his longtime public relations man Rich Levin would call, you knew the blast furnace was coming ("Howard, I have the commissioner on the line ..."). A call from Bud Selig meant getting yelled at until he calmed down. It meant he was displeased with something you wrote, but it also meant that as a writer you were respected. Unlike with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, a call from Selig meant you were not gum under his shoe; but most importantly, it meant Selig was paying attention to you because you were the vehicle speaking to the public, and the public mattered.

"Yes, we've had our disagreements, but I tell this to the students: You have a job to do, and I have a job to do," Selig says. "I listen to Donald Trump again, and it's discouraging, because this idea about [the media] being your enemy is just nonsense. We can have disagreements. It really is nonsense."

Selig is in the fourth chapter of his life, having traveled from an outsider committed to returning big league baseball to Milwaukee to being the ultimate insider as owner of the Milwaukee Brewers to commissioner of baseball and now to history professor, the place he promised he would land when he left the game. He teaches three days a week, one day at Marquette University, another at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the third, "Major League Baseball since World War II," every Friday at Arizona State. His fifth chapter, he has always said, will be as a memoirist.

He enters a class with a group of about 20 law, graduate and undergrad honor students who likely have never been so close to power in their lives. He promises to be blunt as he sprinkles stardust and star power in their fresh, unlined faces, naming names from his interactions with the venerable, the legends and the giants of the game, as well as the infamous, as casually as if he were reading a family letter. George Steinbrenner, Marvin Miller, Charlie Finley, Marge Schott, Bart Giamatti, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire.

And with the last three names, I'm reminded that the last time the two of us were in a numbered room together, it was March 17, 2005, in Room 2154 of the Rayburn Building of the House of Representatives, the day of the famous hearings before the House Government Reform Committee, when McGwire shrank, Palmeiro very nearly perjured himself, Sosa forgot how to speak English and Curt Schilling, for all his previous tough talk, was reduced to a child -- a meek little schoolboy under oath and unprotected by the clubhouse. The students are taken by Selig, and he is awash in their deference. He has the floor, but something terribly important is missing.

IN SO MANY ways, Bud Selig has won. He went from a fan whose team left to the most powerful person in his sport. When he took over as commissioner, annual revenues were hovering around $1 billion. He left current commissioner Rob Manfred an empire, as both league and players' association sources say the game's revenues are expected to top $10 billion and could go as high as $12 billion. The game's oil well, MLB Advanced Media, is a spinoff that league sources say is worth $5 billion -- and the union and its players who make the game don't receive a penny of it.

The game has not had a labor stoppage since the disaster of 1994, and over Selig's 22 years as commissioner, 23 new stadiums were built and one market, coincidentally his former Milwaukee team, the Atlanta Braves, broke ground on two. He was a Jewish boy born into the Depression, an adolescent during World War II and the Holocaust, who grew to be worth hundreds of millions. For years, Selig commanded salaries of more than $30 million annually, more than virtually every player, other than perhaps Alex Rodriguez.

He's got a statue of himself in front of Milwaukee's Miller Park, and this summer, he will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, the mention of which allows him to be magnanimous.

"A lot of people think it's an unpopular opinion, but I think Marvin Miller belongs in the Hall of Fame too. There were so many battles ... but if you make a significant contribution, you belong, and no matter how you felt about him, you cannot say Marvin Miller did not make a contribution," Selig says of the longtime union executive.

What is clear, however, on this day -- and on so many of the days when our paths have crossed over the years -- is that Selig seems to crave most what will always elude him: total victory. He wants it all, but for all the stadiums and revenues, labor peace, wild cards and interleague play, he cannot win on steroids, he never will, and he seems convinced that if he repeats his side just enough, one day history will tilt in his favor. It is a Sisyphean exercise.

"And I honestly believe with all of my heart that with the amount of opposition we were getting, we did everything." Bud Selig

It isn't so much that Bud Selig and I disagree on the facts nearly as much as we disagree on how the sport reached the place it is now, how utterly unheroic baseball was in reaching its redemption. Before class, Selig and I catapult ourselves backward, tilling the well-worn territory of history for once proving Marvin Miller wrong to his deathbed about steroids, about his famous trip to his pharmacist after a bottle of androstenedione was seen in McGwire's locker, of how former union No. 2 man Gene Orza once said cigarettes were worse than steroids ("A preposterous thing to say," Selig says). These details all return to blaming the players' association for the steroid era.

In twilight, introspection awaits. It often tortures because the years are gone, and there's no taking them back: no do overs, no rewrites. Somewhere in twilight, when the torture finally grabs hold, there is recrimination about doing something different that could have protected the record book, about keeping the game from taking the worst hit any team sport has taken on drugs, the worst collective institutional failure, where everyone -- players, teams, writers, fans and, yes, the commissioner -- all have to take their part.

But there will be no introspection in twilight for Bud Selig on the question of performance-enhancing drugs. He stands unbowed. He blames the union, then and now. He won't acknowledge the role of public and congressional pressure for motivating him. He won't acknowledge the historical role of collusion in the players' distrust of him and their subsequent lack of cooperation with the investigation that would produce the 2007 Mitchell report.

In a few moments, he will walk into Room 550 and tell his story to his students, virtually all born during the steroid era, and if they do a little reading on the subject beyond the professor's words, Selig will have pushed the rock up another hill, to another audience, only to see it split in half once again.

"I have gone over this so many times. You know this," Selig says. "And I honestly believe with all of my heart that with the amount of opposition we were getting, we did everything. One of the things that really aggravates me is the idea that 'they were slow to react.' No we weren't. ... I did talk about it. I can take you year by year. I've thought about it a thousand times; I just don't understand what else anyone thinks I should have done, even with the retrospect of history."