This commissioner gotta commission better

Commissioner Rob Manfred hands a piece of metal to 2020 World Series-winning Dodgers co-owner Mark Walter.

Once upon a time, when Ed Fitzgerald chaired the Milwaukee Brewers and former Red Sox star George Scott was their first baseman, Scott surveyed the lay of the team’s baseball land. Then, he offered Fitzgerald sage counsel which the chairman may or may not have taken above and beyond a shaft of Scott’s underappreciated wit.

“You know, Mr. Fitzgerald,” said the Boomer, “if we’re gonna win, the players gotta play better, the coaches gotta coach better, the manager gotta manage better, and the owners gotta own better.” It’s to wonder whether Scott, who died in 2013, might be surveying the lay of baseball’s land today from his seat in the Elysian Fields, adding, “And, the commissioner gotta commission better.”

Good luck with that. Commissioner Rob Manfred remains baseball’s Nero, fiddling while the game burns. The good news is, the fires are scattered and more vulnerable than the current edition of the Pirates. The bad news is, Manfred too often behaves as though this fire needs just a couple of sprinkles to quench while that fire requires gasoline. When he’s able to make up his mind in the first place.

The fact that there is confusion about whether or not there will be a universal DH in MLB for the upcoming season,” tweets former Dodgers and Mets player development official Nick Francona, perhaps channeling his inner George Scott, “is a reflection of how bad the commissioner is at doing commissioner things.”

Commissioner things include something outlined formally in the Major League Baseball Constitution: Section 2(b) and 2(c) let the commissioner investigate and remedy or punish “any act, transaction, or practise charged, suspected, or alleged not to be in the best interests of the national game of Baseball.”  Section 3 outlines the commissioner’s punitive remedies, including the maximum $2 million fine against a team, $500,000 fine against an owner or club executive, and “an amount consistent with the then-current basic agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association.”

In other words, baseball commissioners have slightly broader powers over the game than presidents of the United States have over the country. But they don’t always use those powers when they should and ignore them when they shouldn’t.

Think of things this way: Presidents have itched for grander powers than that chintzy Constitution gave them in the first place. Sometimes they’ve gotten them; sometimes, Congress has handed them to the president on a platter. But even there the president has his (or her, perhaps, in the future) limits, even if he (she) accepts them kicking and screaming.

Richard Nixon once thought that if the president does it it’s not illegal–and was disabused of that idea profoundly enough. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama shamelessly believed, as Clinton’s aide Paul Begala once said, infamously, “Stroke of the pen, law of the land. Kinda cool,” regarding lawmaking which isn’t really the executive branch’s constituted function, though assorted Congresses past have pawned enough of their lawmaking off to the executive branch. Donald Trump once said, “Then I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.”

Maybe those men should have sought to become baseball commissioners. Section 4 of the MLB Constitution says that, unless it’s something on which votes are required, the commish can’t be limited in acting in the game’s best interest.

Tanking teams? Guess what. Section 4 says the integrity of the game “shall include without limitation, as determined by the Commissioner, the ability of, and the public perception that, players and clubs perform and compete at all times to the best of their abilities.” (Emphasis added.) For clubs, you’d have to be naive at minimum or sight and hearing impaired at maximum to believe a club’s performance is limited to the play on the field.

Astrogate? Well, it was fully within Manfred’s right to decide the better part of valour was to hand players on the 2017-18 Astros blanket immunity in return for spilling about the how and why of the Astro Intelligence Agency. That doesn’t mean it was within his smarts. So the Astros got fined $5 million max, owner Jim Crane got fined five hundred large, Manfred threw in a couple of forfeited choice draft picks for good measure, and—except for general manager Jeff Luhnow—the cheaters got away with it officially, if not in the public eye.

If only the powers to act in the game’s best interest included the kind of intelligence test that would have required Manfred to remember the good of the game isn’t restricted to making or saving money for it. He could have told the tankers, “Nobody likes to lose, money or games, but if you didn’t get into this game to even try winning you might want to think about getting out.”

(P.S. The commissioner can force an ownership out, at least by way of calling for a vote to throw him or her out. There’s no “deprivation of property rights” involved, as someone of my former acquaintance tried to plead when Bud Selig finally forced Dodgers owner Frank McCourt to sell. Baseball’s a franchise business. Just like McDonald’s. Break the rules, abuse your franchise, you’re out, whether you’re making Big Macs or a baseball team.)

Manfred had the same power to tell the 2017-18 Astro players, “You’re going to spill, or I’m going to spill you.” The Astros might not have even thought about trying that non-apologetic apology/apologetic non-apology presser last year before the pan-damn-ic shut spring training down.

And Manfred could have made an effort toward more than near-boilerplate in denouncing cheating, the way A. Bartlett Giamatti—then president of the National League—did in upholding the suspension of ball-doctoring Phillies pitcher Kevin Gross, even if Manfred isn’t anywhere in Giamatti’s league as a writer, speaker, or thinker:

Acts of cheating . . . are secretive, covert acts that strike at and seek to undermine the basic foundation of any contest declaring the winner—that all participants play under identical rules and conditions. Acts of cheating destroy that necessary foundation and thus strike at the essence of a contest. They destroy faith in the games’ integrity and fairness; if participants and spectators alike cannot assume integrity and fairness and proceed from there, the contest cannot in its essence exist.

Manfred’s ham-handed bid to try tying the universal DH to the expanded postseason was so clumsy—though not quite as clumsy as his try at reneging on the pro-rated players’ pay deal before last year’s irregular season finally launched—that you couldn’t blame the players union from saying no, nein, and nyet. The commissioner also gives little indication that he understands the former’s benefit to the game on the field and the latter’s compromise of it.

Has anyone shown Manfred the historical futility of pitchers at the plate instead of throwing to it? (Does he even know the DH was a National League idea first?) Has anyone explained to him the universal DH isn’t going to add jobs as much as it’ll offer a fair number incumbent pine riders chances to get in the game, because they may not be leather virtuosi but they can sure swing the bat and create runs?

Has anyone really sat Manfred down to explain that the postseason was diluted and saturated already with the double wild cards in each league without his even thinking about making last year’s pan-damnic-ally inspired expansion/dilution a permanent thing? Has anyone explained to Manfred that the more postseason games, the more saturation, and the more general fan interest dissipates by the time the World Series rolls around?

All that and more might require something that seems beyond Manfred’s competence, if not his being. Whatever errors his predecessor and former boss Bud Selig committed, and Selig was baseball’s Fiorello La Guardia in that regard (the legendary New York City mayor: When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut), even his least flexible critics never questioned that Selig genuinely loved baseball.

Few fans and certainly no commissioner before or since have been as eloquently shameless in loving baseball as deeply as the ill-fated Giamatti loved the game. It’s not even close. But not even in anger would Selig refer to the World Series trophy as just a piece of metal, under any impetus. Dive into the voluminous published writings about his successor and you won’t go more than a few minutes without seeing questions as to whether Manfred even likes, never mind loves the game. One minute it seems yes, the next, no.

Baseball hasn’t been quite as irrevocably “traditional” as its self-appointed purists wish to think. Much like the country that is its home, the game has rid itself of dubious traditions in the past and created or allowed newer ones throughout its history. It takes a commissioner of vision to conjugate the distinctions and develop or promote the remedies required if and when required.

Manfred isn’t exactly a man of vision. Unless you consider monkeying around with the ball, awarding free cookies on second base to open extra half innings, imposing arbitrary limits on pitching changes, ignoring the real culprit of protracted games (hint: it takes less time to bring relief pitchers in and have them ready to face the next batters than to run the commercials that run during those changes), and fiddling while the tankers burn the their fans and the game itself visionary.

It’s enough to make you afraid of what’s going to happen when the current collective bargaining agreement finally does expire after this season. That is, unless Manfred and MLBPA executive director Tony Clark—himself not necessarily over-endowed with vision—decide at last to start thinking about the true good of the game above and beyond saving or making money for it.

Maybe it’s time to consider a different way to choose a baseball commissioner. From the beginning, the commissioner has been the owners’ pick alone. Maybe it’s finally (if not long past) time to bring the players into that process. Maybe it’s time for a commissioner to be chosen from a vote of thirty team ownership representatives and thirty team player representatives.

Quick: Name one fan who ever paid his or her hard earned dough for a day or night at the ballpark to see the team’s owner—except perhaps for lusty protest over protracted calamity. (Who else remembers the Yankee Stadium Banner Day winner of the late 1980s, wearing a monk’s outfit, carrying a Grim Reaper’s scythe, from which hung the placard, “Forgive him, Father, for he knows not what he does”—and ejected from the yard promptly on official orders?)

Manfred is in over his head holding the job. He shouldn’t have had the job in the first place. But so long as he does—barring an uprising among his employers, the owners, he has it through the end of 2024—this commissioner gotta commission better.

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