Commissioner Nero fiddles while MLB burns

2020-07-28 MarlinsPark

Marlins Park, which won’t host the Marlins vs. the Baltimore Orioles for a second day in a row after the Fish were flogged with COVID-19.

A month and a half ago, I wrote that Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred had to go. The grounds already were several. Now, you can add that Manfred won’t even think about closing the Show for the season unless the coronavirus infects enough players on a team to rule it out of competitiveness.

Just when you thought you’d seen and heard everything from Manfred, the spectre of several Miami Marlins COVID-19 positive, of the Philadelphia Phillies’ clubhouses infected, and of games cancelled over positive tests, prompted this commissioner to put the competition ahead of health and safety.

MLB Network interviewer Tom Verducci, who normally writes for Sports Illustrated, asked Manfred just what it would take to close the Show, whose early performances have already run the gamut from farce to foolery and back under several Manfred-pushed rules experiments.

Those weren’t what the interviewer addressed, though. The issue was COVID-19 outbreaks among one team at minimum. Forget dropping the ball. Manfred threw it from the mound over the outfield wall. It only began with the commissioner saying the Marlins’ outbreak wasn’t “a nightmare,” before four more Marlins tested positive, raising the total number to seventeen—fifteen of whom are players.

“A team losing a number of players, making it completely noncompetitive, would be something we would have to address and have to think about making a change,” he said. “Our first concern is the health of the players and their families. And making sure we do everything possible to minimize the spread of the virus to our employees.”

Do you really need me to suggest that Manfred spoke out of both sides of his mouth while making clear enough that a team rendered futile on the field took even a slight priority over that “first concern” about player health and that of their families?

The Marlins outbreak, which may or may not have been seeded in Miami, prompted the Phillies to test en masse on Monday, while the same day’s scheduled Marlins home opener against the Baltimore Orioles was cancelled, as was the Phillies’ scheduled game against the New York Yankees. Tuesday morning came word that the tested Phillies tested negative. Their Tuesday game against the Yankees is postponed anyway. So is the second scheduled game between the Marlins and the Orioles.

Four of the Marlins’ infected were pulled away before the Sunday game against the Phillies, including scheduled starting pitcher Jose Urena. Manfred could and should have stepped in to cancel it if the Marlins’ administration didn’t. He didn’t, either. Indeed, that the game got played not after a call from competent medical and health observation but in a group text-message vote.

Last Friday, around the time the Fish began to flail, and two Atlanta Braves catchers were sent home showing symptoms but testing COVID-19 negative, Thomas Boswell fumed over the sense that Manfred already put the coffers of his bosses, the owners, ahead of the good of the game with his gimmicks such as a sixteen-team postseason, a free man on second to open each extra half-inning, and a three-batter minimum for relief pitchers.

Concurrently, though, Boswell hammered Manfred’s apparent lacking when it comes to his sport’s taking the pestiferous pandemic seriously enough to be the adult in the room when need be.

“You don’t measure disaster for a country — with refrigerator trucks lined up with corpses — the same way you measure it for a pro sport,” he wrote. “But how do you measure it for a sport? I don’t know . . . League bosses, who are not at risk, and athletes, who think they are invulnerable, are both going to be tempted — to keep playing chicken with the virus until it makes them stop.

“As most of the world already knows, by then it is usually disastrously too late.”

Manfred chose the media platform MLB itself owns to say he’d close the Show first and foremost if any team loses enough players to leave it non-competitive. (Resist the temptation to remind him of a pre-existing condition, Marlins fans.) He put that ahead of “our first concern” of the health and safety of players, their loved ones, and other MLB team employees.

A certain American president of dubious repute is often seen and even heard believing the coronavirus world tour has been nothing more (and nothing less) than a plot cooked up somewhere, anywhere, to thwart his re-election campaign. Now a baseball commissioner of dubious repute can be seen as possibly believing the pandemic has been a plot cooked up to keep the owners from making money.

Dave Martinez, the manager of the defending world champion Washington Nationals, looked upon the Marlins outbreak and shivered. “I’m going to be honest with you, I’m scared. I really am,” Martinez told Washington’s ABC news affiliate.

I go from here, home, back here every day, that’s all I do. I wash my hands, I went from 47 times a day to probably 99 times a day. Wear my mask everywhere I go. But there’s always that concern, you know. You don’t know, because of my heart condition, what happens to me if I do get it. I have to be extra careful. With that said, sometimes I tend to put myself aside and worry about other people more than me. I think that’s why I’m here, because I worry about those guys before I put myself first.

Martinez’s Nats were scheduled to travel to Miami to play the Marlins this coming weekend. “He says the players are his family, and he’s already lost a lot of sleep this month,” tweeted the Washington Post‘s Nats beat writer, Jesse Dougherty. “When asked about whether he has doubts about going to MIA this weekend: “Hopefully they make the right decision. That’s all I’m going to say.”

And, from among the players who opted out of playing this season over the pandemic, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price is probably more secure in believing he did the right thing. Especially considering baseball’s health and safety protocols have had issues and hiccups tracing back to the beginning of that delayed spring training called “summer camp.”

Now we REALLY get to see if MLB is going to put players health first,” the lefthander tweeted after the Marlins news exploded Monday. “Remember when Manfred said players health was PARAMOUNT?! Part of the reason I’m at home right now is because players health wasn’t being put first. I can see that hasn’t changed.”

That and more is what the commissioner says isn’t “a nightmare.”

Manfred and only too many within and without MLB thought any COVID-19 hits would strike maybe one, two, three players or MLB employees in just a sixty-game season. “Time to blow up that assumption,” Boswell wrote this morning.

If half of the Marlins team can test positive within a few days, then the scale of danger to health — the number of people who may get sick and the severity of the damage they may suffer, including prime-of-life pro athletes — just shot through the ceiling.

Our assumptions, while well-intentioned, have been blown to pieces. And in short order, so will the season of one, or perhaps several, of our sports.

So has been Manfred’s reputation, what’s left of it. The commissioner showed what kind of leader he was operationally, factually, and even morally before the coronavirus went on world tour. It wasn’t a great showing.

He’s never been able to bring himself to address complete umpire accountability. He slapped the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox on the wrists over illegal dugout phone and AppleWatch sign-stealing cheating in 2017 and handed down a nebulous directive rather than demand an immediate rule book change and clarification.

He let Red Sox and Houston Astros players walk in return for information rather than bring the powers of his office to bear on them over their off-field-based, illegal sign-stealing cheatings. He suspended two managers for this year (Carlos Beltran, a 2017 Astros player, was forced out of managing the New York Mets before he managed even a spring training game for them) but never even thought of holding the teams’ ownerships to real account.

The cheating players skated, their owners paid what amounted to tip money (for them) in fines, their fan bases were forced (sometimes kicking and screaming) to come to terms with chicanery that compromised each’s recent World Series titles, and Manfred dismissed the World Series championship trophy—which many thought should be stripped from both the Astros (2017) and the Red Sox (2018)—as just a hunk of metal.

He never quite suggested he might be interested in investigating whether the Astros and the Red Sox might be right in suggesting they weren’t exactly the only ones willing to flout rules against off-field-based electronic sign-stealing, either.

Nor did he demand the Yankees explain why they’re so desperate to challenge a judge’s ruling that a disciplinary letter over their 2017 sign-stealing cheating be made public, either, or said anything else about the letter itself. “[I]f the infractions cited by Manfred [in the letter] were as minor as originally claimed,” asked Beyond the Box Score writer Sheryl Ring in mid-June, “why are the Yankees so reticent to turn the letter over?”

Don’t forget Manfred’s push on behalf of his bosses, the un-impoverished owners, to try reneging on that March agreement and gaming the players out of their full pro-rated 2020 salaries if and when the season got underway.

Now that COVID-19 has taken out about half the Marlins’ playing team, Manfred is slightly more concerned for teams’ competitive ability—which can also be viewed as making money for the owners—than their health?

Here’s something on which the owners and the players might unite if put to them properly. Manfred’s successor, and every commissioner to follow, should be anyone except another owner, his hand-picked successor, or other baseball official. The successors should also be elected by representatives of all ownerships and by the players through their team player reps.

But I’m convinced even more that Manfred must go. Commissioner Nero’s been fiddling while MLB and the country that loves it burn. His music is cacophonous.

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