PHOENIX — Arizona has become synonymous with baseball. Its growth in the Grand Canyon State is due in large part to Commissioner Emeritus Bud Selig.
When Selig took over Major League Baseball’s leadership in July of 1998, eight teams trained in the state for spring training and the Arizona Diamondbacks were in their inaugural season.
Today, Arizona is home to 15 MLB teams and 10 facilities, many state of the art.
It’s one of the reasons Selig will be inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in July.
It’s hard to imagine a time when baseball fans didn’t flock here for March, but at the start of Selig’s tenure, many wondered if spring training in Arizona would survive.
“If you would have seen spring training facilities 30 years ago, 40 years ago, 20 years ago, they were nothing,” Selig said. “There were no fields, a small little facility at each place, and then slowly but surely they began to grow and then communities got involved, because spring training is so good for all parties and so that’s what happened.”
Steve Cobb, executive director of the Arizona Fall League, has seen the growth of spring training firsthand.
“Arizona’s become the preferred spring training state,” he said. “You’re not traveling a great distance for spring training. There are certain situations in Florida where you’ll spend two to three hours on a bus each way just to play a game, whereas here it’ll be as little as 10, 15 minutes, and no more than an hour.”
Selig’s impact on baseball in Arizona is clear as he helped oversee the growth of the Cactus League, but perhaps more impressive is the influence Selig had on the sport as a whole.
“It was the busiest 22 years in baseball history,” Selig said of his tenure. “More change than ever before, because the sport needed it. They were sometimes highly criticized. We talk about baseball as a social institution, and when you change something, people don’t like change. That comes with the territory. You have to finally decide this is the right thing to do or not, and if it is the right thing to do then go do it.”
During the time Selig was commissioner, baseball saw expansion of the sport internationally, playoffs were expanded with “wild card” teams, franchise values increased, and new swanky ballparks were built that helped spark a growth in attendance.
One of those franchises that Selig helped was the Diamondbacks.
In 1993, Valley businessman Jerry Colangelo was approached about bringing a major league team to Arizona by county supervisor Jim Bruner and sports attorney Joe Gargagiola Jr.
As the acting commissioner in baseball, Selig awarded Colangelo and a group of investors the franchise in 1995.
“I was convinced that Arizona was gonna be really good, and it was,” Selig said. “He (Colangelo) had to get a new ballpark built, and that was challenging, but then stunningly in 2001 they won the pennant, and played in one of the most dramatic World Series played.”
Colangelo believes “Bud Selig deserves a lot of credit for being a strong proponent of Major League Baseball in Arizona. In the award of the team, in the formation of an organization (and) in the support he gave us as we were launching a new franchise. I will forever be grateful of that.”
Selig’s induction into the Hall of Fame will fall on his 83rd birthday.
“I’ve been through so much in my lifetime, I didn’t really think anything could overwhelm me… but this overwhelmed me,” Selig said. “I was sitting there the next morning after the election with (Atlanta Braves president) John Schuerholz, who’s going in there with me.
“I said to him ‘Johnny… Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, you and me.’
“It’s a great honor.”