The Rob Manfred Conundrum

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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.

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4 Comments

  1. RetroRob

    Randy, I agree with William. Excellent piece.

    In the end, we know that Manfred is the owners pawn. That may sound dismissive on my part, but I picked the word for a purpose. Manfred is a smart man, but I’m not sure he’s a creative man. He represents the owners, he doesn’t represent MLB, he doesn’t represent the fans. His goal here is to thread a needle making it appear he’s taking action so Congress doesn’t come a knocking, while also making sure any and all owners appear clean.

    What should have happened is Jim Crane and John Henry both should have been suspended. There was a time when owners could be suspended. George Steinbrenner managed it twice, but thinking back on it now, that says just how much the other owners disliked George for upsetting their apple cart.

    Think about what message a suspension would send to every owner. They’d make sure the GM (or PoBO) they have running the team got the message: “We need to be squeaky clean or it’s my ass.” Now? Nothing to worry about. Each owner knows they’re safe. Cheating pays. Two of the last three championships are tainted, nothing was taken away. As our former overlord Mike likes to say, the Yankees are paying a heavier penalty for signing Gerrit Cole than the Astros or Red Sox are paying for outright cheating. Here’s another: Aaron Boone received a more substantial financial penalty for his “savages in the box” incident than the Red Sox did here for being caught as a two-time cheating team. The Red Sox didn’t have a whistle blower who went public. That’s why the Astros were nailed. The players grumble about the Astros and Red Sox cheating, but almost all of them would do nothing. It took Fiers to break the code of silence, and I’m glad he did.

    Back to Congress. I was not happy when they wasted time 15 years back on steroids. I want my government working on more important things. That said, over time I’ve changed my position. That’s the only reason the MLBPA decided to accept greater penalties and allow for more testing. Congress forced their hand. They weren’t going to do it. The same needs to happen now with Manfred and the owners. Unfortunately, the timing is all wrong. It would be appear frivolous to have a hearing during these pandemic times. Manfred sure knows that.

    • A great article Randy. And a thoughtful reply Rob. I didn’t get the Mike line about the Yanks paying a heavier penalty for Cole, than the Sox or Houston. Can you clarify? The only contribution I may offer to this conversation is that it sounds like a structural change is needed. Building off Randy’s corporate analogy, in many corporations, there is a Board of Directors that holds the CEO accountable. The board is supposed to represent various interests, hold the CEO accountable to these is interests, and fire if necessary / manage succession. Who would be on a board evaluating Manfred? Right now only owners are on the “board”. But it sure would be interesting if there would be a players representative and a fan representative. Who else has a legitimate stake and deserve to be on this hypothetical board?

  2. After thinking that MLB could not find a worse commissioner than Selig, my fear now is that there is someone more clueless than Manfred in the pipeline waiting to take his place in a few years. Frightening stuff.

  3. William Bach

    excellent piece, IMHO !!

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