Tag: Rob Manfred

The Rob Manfred Conundrum

Embed from Getty Images

Rob Manfred is the perfect embodiment of sports in 2020.

There has never been a time in American professional sports when the intent of owners and league executives is more clear. Similar to the office of President in the minds of some men, sports are an incredible avenue to generate profit. Team owners laugh and scoff at the idea of winning championships. Their grins spread from ear to ear at the thought of the earnings their shiny toys generate. These are savvy businessmen who largely view the franchises we love as nothing more than an additional stream of income. And despite being totally unable to increase the popularity and relevance of his sport, Rob Manfred makes his bosses very happy. He has secured lucrative TV and licensing deals among other revenue-producing ventures. In some ways, Manfred’s reign is a rousing success.

Life would be great if all of our jobs were that simple. We make our bosses happy and sometimes we reap the rewards (at least during “normal” times). The issue for Manfred is his responsibility extends beyond making money hand over fist for billionaires. The commissioner is the steward of competitive integrity for the league. In order for business to maintain public trust, he or she needs to ensure that the product on the field is fair. The Apple Watch offense, the Houston Astros’ scandal, and the Boston Red Sox sign-stealing scheme are clear demonstrations that Major League Baseball has a cheating problem. The league is like the Ashton Kutcher of pro sports. The foundational integrity of the game is at stake. And yet, Manfred is seemingly content with doing the absolute least to protect it.

It is hard to imagine someone dropping the ball in two significant investigations. At the very least, the first probe should have been a roadmap for the second one. Instead, the Boston “punishment” is impressively weaker than the Houston punishment. In fact, the details of the Red Sox investigation slightly suggest the players were in some way victims of the cheating scheme. This is a quote from Manfred’s statement:

I feel bound by the agreement not to impose discipline on Red Sox players who testified truthfully in this matter. Even if I were not so bound, I do not believe that the Red Sox players who suspected that Watkins used game feeds to decode sign sequences should be held responsible for his conduct. Watkins knew of the rules and was responsible for not utilizing the replay system to decode sign sequences. Some players may have suspected that Watkins was using the replay system improperly, but they did not know that with certainty. Others had no idea how Watkins obtained the sign information. 

Rob Manfred

In Rob Manfred’s absurdist world, the video replay system operator is a bigger culprit than the players on the field. The idea that some players “suspected” Watkins was up to something but didn’t know for sure is laughable. Was Watkins simply a connoisseur of sign stealing? Was he building up his resume to be the future manager or general manager of the Houston Astros? Are we really to believe the video replay system operator wasn’t in partnership with at least one Red Sox player in a sign-stealing scheme? As my grandmother likes to say, I was born at night, but not last night.

The commissioner can’t help but view his decisions through the lens of labor. I’ve said this in a previous column, but it bears repeating. Manfred will do everything he can to limit the leverage of the players union. He granted the Astros and Red Sox players immunity in exchange for open testimony so the Players Association didn’t have a rallying cry for future collective bargaining. Despite their collective public denouncement of the Astros cheating scheme, there is no way the players would accept the precedent of historical player suspensions. It wouldn’t bode well for the future of their union members. As it currently stands, the owners are in the driver’s seat when it comes to CBA negotiations. The union has weak leadership. Manfred doesn’t want to give the players a lifeline. The rationale makes total sense, but it comes at the cost of the game he leads.

All of this begs the question, what are Rob Manfred’s intentions? Is he just an extension of the owners’ desire to cash in on the game? Does he genuinely care about the health of the sport? Is he at all interested in moving the game forward? It is becoming painfully obvious that Rob Manfred lacks vision. The obsession with pitch clocks, mound visits, and three batter minimums is nothing more than window dressing for an utter lack of progressive thinking to make the game better.

Under Manfred’s watch, we’re experiencing the major league version of corporate profit margins, downsizing, and lack of awareness. We’re witnessing a broken free agent and arbitration system. Minor League baseball will soon lose multiple affiliations. The amateur draft, under the guise of the coronavirus pandemic, will almost certainly cut down its rounds in the years to come. The sport has yet to make inroads in black communities and it severely lacks mainstream stars.

And yet, financially the game has never been healthier. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the revenues were pouring in. The business side of baseball is booming. The bottom line is a great smokescreen for a stagnant game. The frustrating part is a lot of us know it’s stagnant, but we keep coming back for more.

And that is what makes Rob Manfred great at his job. He can feign being tough on baseball crime knowing that baseball fans will really be the judge and jury for teams like the Astros and Red Sox. He just needs to do the bare minimum because he knows the fans will do a lot of the heavy work. Fans will continue to watch on tv and pay for tickets. We’ll keep buying apparel. Some will keep creating gifs for social media consumption so MLB doesn’t have to spend more money on marketing. And others will write blog posts complaining about the commissioner’s unimpressive performance. All the while, Manfred continues to make his bosses happy.

Rob Manfred is the perfect embodiment of sports in 2020.

Rob Manfred And The Deterrent That Isn’t

Rob Manfred missed the mark.

The punishment levied against the Houston Astros management is both historic and significant. It is a sentence that many believe is deserving and will serve as a deterrent for future behavior. Except it very well may not be a deterrent because the main culprits, the Houston Astros players, are walking away scot-free. It is hard to curtail crime when the ones who actively break the rules are immune from the consequences. If anything, Rob Manfred’s investigation tells players that you can continue to undermine the integrity of the game because management is the only entity potentially exposed to repercussions.

To be clear, I’m all for gaining competitive advantages within the rules. If a catcher can’t put signs down well enough to hide them from a runner on first, so be it. When a runner on second base can relay signs to a hitter, that is on the pitcher and catcher. If a team can identify a tell in a pitcher’s set up, then the pitcher deserves his fate. However, manipulating available technology and building a communication system through that technology is clearly crossing the line.

The commissioner’s ruling is an important one for institutional checks and balances. It was a clear statement that franchises have to regulate organizational behavior. What it did not do was directly address the act of illegal sign stealing in baseball. The Astros were seemingly punished for allowing the stealing to continue. They were not punished for it happening in the first place. The commissioner took the weakest route possible to give the illusion that he is protecting the game’s integrity.

We need to address the elephant in the room. Manfred granted players immunity (prior to the launch of the investigation) in exchange for honest testimonies for one reason. He didn’t want a fight with the MLBPA. The commissioner did not want to allow the players’ union to have a rallying point in their CBA discussions. Manfred is well aware that he is in a strong position at the bargaining table so weakening that position doesn’t make much sense. Even if it comes at the cost of the sport he represents.

It would’ve been in the best interest of baseball if Manfred invited a fight. Did the Astros players really have that much leverage when clear visual evidence was being revealed on social media every day? Outside of Astros fans, were there people denying what their eyes and ears were telling them? It is really difficult to impose a deterrent to a clear problem in the game when the main perpetrators are immediately protected from punishment. What exactly is the end goal when the threat of consequences is removed from the equation?

Then again, why would any of this ultimately matter to Manfred? He comes out looking like the good guy. He can give the appearance of being really tough on crime. The media can focus on managers and general managers getting fired while completely forgetting about the ones who executed and benefitted from the rule breaking.

These decisions also create a tenuous “adult vs kids” scenario where management is supposed to be the grown ups and the players are the adorable toddlers just being kids by harmlessly drawing pictures on white walls with permanent markers. It is a dangerous and undermining dynamic to create. The players know exactly what they’re doing. They’re going to challenge the limits whenever they can to gain an advantage. This adult vs kids dynamic is even more ridiculous when you consider one of the scheme’s masterminds was a 38-year-old player on his last legs and considered a savant in the industry.

This is not to say Luhnow, Hinch, and Cora don’t deserve their punishments. They absolutely do. You can make the case that their penalties aren’t harsh enough (at least for Luhnow and Hinch). If MLB came down with a John Coppolella-level sentence it would be deserving. It is also laughable that Jim Crane was not only protected in Manfred’s statement but praised for being a good owner. This is the same tone deaf attitude that allows the offenders on the field to get a hall pass. It also keeps the commissioner in the good graces of the almighty owners.

The players needed to be severely punished in this case. A precedent should have been set. The idea that MLB investigators wouldn’t be able to determine which players participated in the scheme is absurd. Lucas Apostoleris was able to hop on YouTube and provide us our first visual evidence of the cheating occurring in real time. Jomboy was able to expand on this and provide more evidence. We can both see and hear the precise moments when the scheme was taking place. We can see when hitters are laying off nasty pitches.

A simple Google search reveals at least some of the players involved. There is no public evidence of AJ Hinch destroying two monitors. Yet there is clear evidence of Evan Gattis and George Springer using the scheme to aid their at-bats. How can Manfred honestly tell the public he couldn’t identify the players who took part when we can see it for ourselves? The decision to grant immunity was strictly a matter of the commissioner not having the fortitude to fight a union that is desperately looking to pick one.

In the context of labor climate and negotiations, this decision makes total sense. The problem is we can’t entirely view this sport through that prism despite MLB being a multi-billion dollar private corporation. MLB is also in the business of competitive integrity. The sport loves to get on its high horse when it comes to steroids and tradition. It loves to remind you of the heroes of yesteryear. When it comes to punishing the cheaters of today MLB decided to cower. The Astros punishment is not truly a deterrent to future sign stealing. It is a relative slap on the wrist that lets players know that you can get away with a lot if you just tell MLB what they want to hear.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén