A Curt Flood Award? The first should go to Andy Messersmith

“Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way.”—Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons.

My first notice came when I saw San Francisco Chronicle writer Susan Slusser’s praise: “How wonderful! The [Major League Baseball Players Association] is instituting a Curt Flood Award for the Oakland native whose efforts helped bring about free agency and allow players to, eventually, be paid their worth on the open market. It will be handed out for the first time Thursday.”

I know who should receive the first Curt Flood Award, and I hope to God the Players Association thinks likewise. The first Flood Award ought to go to Andy Messersmith.

Flood’s Christmas Eve 1969 letter to then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn was the Second Shot Heard ‘Round the World. “After twelve years in the Major Leagues,” he began, “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” Flood fired his gun from the same city in which a certain former slave proclaimed that living now on free soil made him thus a free man.

Small wonder that George F. Will would nickname Flood Dred Scott in Spikes. “[Scott] was not the last time,” Will wrote in 1993, “that the Supreme Court would blunder when asked when a man can be treated like someone’s property . . . Six years later—too late to benefit him—[Flood’s] cause prevailed. The national pastime is clearly better because of that. But more important, so is the nation, because it has learned one more lesson about the foolishness of fearing freedom.”

Flood’s was the groundbreaker that didn’t quite make it. But the graceful center fielder kicked a door open just wide enough for further pressure. Catfish Hunter kicked it a little further open in 1974, after Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted-for insurance payment to the Hall of Fame pitcher and Hunter was thus awarded his free agency.

The Hunter case didn’t challenge the reserve clause itself. The bidding war to follow for his services was won by the team who actually offered him the third-highest dollar-worth amount among the suitors but the division of the dollars Hunter wanted most, including an annuity to guarantee his children’s education. But it shone a light his fellow players had only suspected might reveal platinum on a fair, open job market.

The official name of the case to come would be John A. Messersmith vs. Los Angeles Dodgers. (Messersmith preferred to be known as Andy, though his middle name was actually Alexander.) The official net result of his almost unexpected 1975 challenge was to finish what Flood began. Almost unexpected?

Messersmith first emerged as a California Angels comer with a bristling fastball, a deadly changeup, a 2.77 ERA, a 3.04 fielding-independent pitching rate, and an upbeat personality that didn’t mind crossing the line to periodic flakiness. The Angels traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers in November 1972, in a multi-player swap that made a somewhat temporary Angel out of Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

He was just as good and stubborn on the mound with the Dodgers, finishing fifth in the 1973 National League ERA race (2.70), then becoming one of the league’s two 20-game winners with a 2.59 ERA in 1974 for a pennant-winning Dodgers aggregation. He also finished second to his relief pitching teammate Mike Marshall in the Cy Young Award voting.

“He’s one of the best competitors I’ve ever managed,” said his manager, Walter Alston, before that World Series. “He can do it all. He can pitch, field his position, has a good move to first . . . Andy is the kind of guy who wants the baseball. He wants to pitch and that’s why I put him up there with the other great pitchers I’ve had the good fortune to manage.”

Andy was also the kind of guy who proved to be just as stubborn talking contract as getting hitters out. He reported unsigned to spring training 1975, the original issue being not whether he’d get a well-earned raise from the $100,000 he earned in 1974 but how much of a raise. Then, according to Wall Street Journal writer John Helyar in The Lords of The Realm: The Real History of Baseball, the Dodgers’ then-general manager, Al Campanis, screwed the proverbial pooch:

As they sat in [Campanis’s] Vero Beach office . . . Campanis infuriated the pitcher. Quite apart from how well the pitcher had performed, quite apart from how much the Dodgers could allegedly afford, he injected a deeply “personal issue.” (Even eighteen years later, the matter cut so deep with Messersmith he wouldn’t elaborate on it.”)

Two things happened. One, Messersmith severed talks with the GM. “This is way out of the boundaries of negotiations; this is something else,” he told Campanis. “I’m not going to deal with you anymore.” He insisted on shifting the talks to Peter O’Malley, the club’s president. The other thing to emerge was a new non-monetary demand. No way, Messersmith decided, would he let Al Campanis be in a position to dictate his career. He’d already had to change teams once when he crossed his first GM, the Angels’ Dick Walsh. Now he wanted a no-trade clause in his contract. “I’m going to have some control of my destiny,” declared Messersmith.

O’Malley was more to Messersmith’s taste but no more amenable to a no-trade clause. “We’ve never given one,” he said, “and we aren’t going to start now.”

So Messersmith refused to sign a new contract and pitched 1975 without one. “At the start,” he’d say later, “it was all personal. Al Campanis had stirred my anger, and it became a pride issue. When I get stubborn, I get very stubborn.” The National League’s hitters got a not-so-friendly reminder. Messersmith led the league with forty starts and seven shutouts, and finished second with his 2.29 ERA, and the hitters only hit .213 against him.

“Every time he took the ball,” Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons said, “everybody in management wanted him to fail and everybody from the players wanted him to succeed. He was doing it for us all.”

By August, however, Messersmith found himself pitching for something above and beyond the need to stuff Al Campanis. The union’s original executive director, Marvin Miller, called him. By that time baseball had only one unsigned player on active duty—Messersmith himself. Miller wanted to know if Messersmith would consider filing a grievance seeking free agency if he finished the season unsigned.

The Dodgers didn’t make it simple for him. Neither did the near-constant questions from sportswriters Helyar summed up as, “So how ’bout that contract, Andy?” They kept hiking the money the longer and the better Messersmith pitched. Come September, Helyar noted, the offer was three years and $540,000 total. But the offer still excluded the no-trade clause that was Messersmith’s most unbreakable demand.

“We had no intention of trading Andy Messersmith,” O’Malley insisted. “He was a quality individual, a quality performer, and a delight to have on the team.” Messersmith took one look at Campanis still in the front office and decided there was no dollar amount able to buy him off.

“When Peter came up with the dough, I was adamant,” Helyar quoted Messersmith remembering. “The money was incredible, but they wouldn’t bring the no-trade to the table. I’d gotten stimulated by Marvin and [union general counsel] Dick [Moss]. Now I understood the significance of what this was all about. I was tired of players having no power and no rights.”

Miller’s only concurrent worry was whether the incredible money would back Messersmith off the grievance track. The union director thus enlisted pitcher Dave McNally, technically unsigned but contemplating retirement following persistent arm soreness. McNally agreed join a grievance. Messersmith had no intention of backing away from it. “I’ve come this far,” he said. “I need to see this through.”

There’s no reason why a club should be entitled to renew a player’s contract year after year if the player refuses to sign and wants to go elsewhere. I thought about it for a long time and I didn’t do it necessarily for me, because I’m making a lot of money. I didn’t want people to think, ‘Well, here’s a guy in involuntary servitude at $115,000 a year.’ That’s a lot of bull. But then, when you stop and think about the players who have nowhere to go and no recourse … this isn’t for a guy like me or any other established ballplayer unless you’re having problems with your owner or something like that. It’s more for the guy who is sitting on the bench and who believes he hasn’t been given a chance.

When the hearings in the case finally took place before arbitrator Peter Seitz, Messersmith stood his ground. And the earth moved under his feet.

After first flattening Kuhn—especially the commissioner’s staggering bid to claim that the end of the reserve clause would mean corrupted or thrown games—Moss delivered a knockout punch with the least likely glove: Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith, courtesy of a Minneapolis Star story from March 1974: “If [a player] doesn’t sign by March 10, I can invoke the option clause. If I do that, I can cut him as much as I want up to 20 percent. Of course, he would then be playing out his option. At the end of the season he would be a free agent.”

In other words, for decades the owners used the strict language of uniform players contract Section 10(A) unlawfully, agreeing among themselves not to sign players who refused their incubment teams’ offers. Seitz, who preferred (and indeed all but begged) that the owners and the players negotiate and settle themselves, was left no choice after the owners’ Player Relations Committee leader John Gaherin told him, “There’s no change in our position. So turn the crank.”

Seitz turned the crank. Miller signed “assent” and Gaherin signed “dissent” on the document aboard which Seitz ruled in favour of Messersmith. (And McNally, though it was understood if often forgotten that the former Baltimore Orioles standout had signed onto the case strictly as a human insurance policy.) Gaherin promptly and almost apologetically handed Seitz a letter firing him as baseball’s arbitrator.

“Curt Flood stood up for us,” Simmons said. “[Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for us all. It’s what showed a new life.”

It would also have been nice and in the spirit of Flood and Messersmith if the union had thought concurrently to finish what former executive director Michael Weiner began in 2011, and bring complete and final pension redress to what remain 600 plus short-career major league players frozen out of the 1980 pension re-alignment.

Weiner and then-commissioner Bud Selig made possible their current stipend of $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service time for up to four years. The bad news: those players can’t pass the stipend on to their families should they pass on before the stipend ends. They also can’t be part of the players’ medical plan. Miller himself is known to have said that failing to review and revamp that 1980 pension realignment while he led the union was his biggest regret.

But if there’s a better inaugural recipient of the Curt Flood Award than the man who finished what Flood began, I’m unaware of him. Baseball players since have known what they owe Flood. They don’t always remember what they owe Messersmith, too. Giving him the first Flood Award would remind them powerfully.

Justice at last for high-tech cheaters?

2020-07-30 JoeKellyFightClub

While such “Joe Kelly Fight Club” T-shirts became popular instantly, MLB and the players union finally agreed to let the commissioner hammer electronic cheaters. But are there catches?

Well, what do you know. Joe Kelly’s Tuesday night messages to Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa may have proven more than just worth an eight-game suspension (being appealed) and his canonisation as a saint in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

They have gotten both MLB’s dubious commissioner and the Major League Baseball Players Association on board with punishing future Astrogaters and Soxgaters. If they’re caught taking or transmitting such electronically-pilfered intelligence, they can be suspended without pay and lose the days of those suspensions in service time.

The news comes from one of the most unimpeachable sources—Evan Drellich, one of two writers for The Athletic (Ken Rosenthal was his teammate on it) to whom former Houston Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, an Oakland Athletic since August 2018 (after a stop in Detroit), blew the whistle on the Astro Intelligence Agency in the first place.

“MLB’s rules on the use of electronics and video grew significantly in the wake of penalties for the Astros and [Boston] Red Sox, according to a review of the document by The Athletic and conversations with officials familiar with it,” Drellich writes in an article published Thursday morning.

The league has newly hired an outside security firm to police the video replay room entrance and no later than next year plans to edit out the signs from the footage players look at in-game.

But no alteration may be as significant as the league’s ability to discipline. Commissioner Rob Manfred has the hammer, although the union can always appeal his decisions.

. . . Kelly was said by some to be delivering the justice to Astros players that MLB did not.

Whether MLB could have effectively administered that justice previously is a complicated question.

Technically, Manfred could have attempted to suspend Astros players had he not granted them immunity during his office’s investigations. But the punishments might not have stood up to expected grievances from the MLBPA because the league and union never before agreed how these specific issues would be handled. In fact, Manfred had declared in 2017, well before the Astros and Red Sox investigations, that he would hold club officials, not players, accountable for sign stealing.

No one condoned throwing at a batter’s head, as Kelly appeared to do when he threw such a pitch to walk Bregman with one out in the bottom of the sixth Tuesday, when they knew without being told that Kelly did only what it seemed at least half of major league baseball’s players—knowing how un-contrite both the Asterisks and the Rogue Sox seemed in spring training after the verdicts—thought was going to be done this season.

(It didn’t exactly take forever for a rash of T-shirts celebrating Kelly’s knockdown of Bregman and subsequent breaking-ball dustings of Carlos Correa, not to mention protesting his suspension, to go on sale online. “Free Joe Kelly” and “Joe Kelly Fight Club,” with or without Kelly’s image answering Correa’s huffing with a mock-crybaby face, seem the most popular.)

Until the coronavirus world tour knocked baseball as inside out as the rest of the world, Astrogate especially and Soxgate concurrently were the number one topic and scandal around the game. At times it was tough to determine which was more scandalous, the AIA and the Red Sox replay room reconnaissance ring, or Manfred having given players immunity instead of using his office’s powers to order them, “Spill, or be spilled.”

Not only did Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant say this was worse than the prior scandals around actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, Dodger pitcher Alex Wood said, “I would rather face a player that was taking steroids than face a player that knew every pitch that was coming.”

Wood faced such players in the 2017 World Series. He had the lowest ERA (1.17) of any Dodger pitcher who pitched five or more innings in the set. He started Game Four in Minute Maid Park and surrendered George Springer’s two-out solo home run to break a scoreless tie and end his evening; he relieved Kenley Jansen for the Game Seven eighth and retired the side in order in Dodger Stadium.

Because the AIA’s apparatus involved either installing an additional and illegal real-time camera in Minute Maid Park, or taking an already-installed camera off the mandatory eight-second transmission delay, the 2017-18 Asterisks couldn’t run their sign-stealing scheme on the road. (In due course, it developed that Asterisk administrators tried but likely failed to urge scouts on the road to steal signs from the stands with cameras or field glasses.)

The 2018 Rogue Sox could operate their replay room reconnaissance ring in Fenway Park and elsewhere, anywhere, because it didn’t depend on altered or extra equipment. Basically, MLB handed them the keys to the candy store. Who knows how many other teams did as the Rogue Sox did, posting someone to decipher enemy pitch signs and signal them to a baserunner who’d then signal them to the hitter.

Remember: Sign-stealing on the field is as old a brand of gamesmanship as baseball itself. That’s why nobody went more than boo when New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge was recently seen as a runner on second looking as though sending a stolen sign to the hitter.

The 1951 New York Giants posted a coach in the clubhouse/offices above center field in the ancient Polo Grounds to steal signs telescopically and relay them to the bullpen from where signs were sent to hitters who wanted them. (The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!) The verdict on their spectacular pennant race comeback forcing that fabled pennant playoff was left to history, alas.

The Red Sox married classic gamesmanship to off-field assistance handed to them (and anyone else who might have done likewise) in a gift-wrapped box. They didn’t install an extra camera and monitor in the room so far as is known. The new protocols now include prohibiting video room operators from communicating with players, coaches, and managers; and, outside security hired by MLB to guard the rooms, one guard for now and perhaps two after the coronavirus restrictions can be lifted.

Was Kelly punished too harshly for doing only what everyone with the proverbial two brain cells to rub together knew was likely to happen sooner or later, especially when the delayed season’s schedule included the surprise of the Astros facing the Dodgers in two sets? Another Athletic writer thinks so.

“When Manfred declined to punish the Astros, whether you agree with retaliation or not, he all but ensured opposing players would take matters into their own hands,” writes Molly Knight.

The Astros escaped their first series of this pandemic-shortened season against the Mariners without incident. But did anyone really expect none of the Dodgers to seek revenge?

MLB confirmed the Astros cheated their way through the 2017 World Series, and it still took them seven games to beat the Dodgers. It was as close as Los Angeles has come to winning it all since 1988. The scars from that series three years ago are still fresh for Dodgers fans, no matter how often Astros fans tell them to get over it. It’s hard to see how Astros fans would be over it if the trash can had been banged by the other team.

Considering that Kelly has a history as an erratic pitcher who rarely lets an actual or perceived offense go unanswered, it practically figured that he’d be the Dodgers’ version of the Green Hornet, flirting with crime to take down the grand theft felons. But keep in mind, too, that an eight-game drydock in a sixty-game season equals a 22-game suspension for a full 162-game season.

“Manfred may have thought he was sending a message about vigilante justice by giving Kelly an eight-game ban,” Knight writes. “But all he did was draw attention back to the absurdity that Astros players cheated to win a World Series and justice wasn’t served.”

Now Commissioner Nero has a hammer to swing on the high-tech off-field-based cheaters. Even if he catches another such intelligence/reconnaissance operation in the act—or another Fiers blows the whistle—and swing, and the Players Association files grievances on behalf of the hammered. He’d still send the message loud and strong that any more AIAs or Rogue Sox Reconnaissance Rings are verboten.

The question is whether he really will. And, whether the hammer will be a mallet or a marshmallow.

 

Having a wild Wednesday

2020-06-18 NationalsPark

Nationals Park.

What a Wednesday. It only began when MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweeted, “Breaking: MLB and players union are closing in on an agreement to play the 2020 season, via players. Deal expected to be for prorated pay and include expanded playoffs.”

Heyman kicked off what was possibly baseball’s most exciting day since the Washington Nationals shook, rattled, and rolled their way to winning Game Seven of last year’s World Series.

The difference is that the excitement had nothing to do with a gutsy pitching performance, or one manager having to hook a bold starting pitcher whose tank reached empty after surrendering a two-run homer, or another manager calling for a play review so his next pitcher might have a little more warmup time, or the first manager’s best relief option being reached for a foul-pole ringing, coffin-forming home run.

It had to do with baseball itself being exhausted of the unconscionable standoff between owners to whom the good of the game means making or saving money for it and players who don’t like people trying to renege on agreements but whose itch to play the game can be ignored for only so long before they have to scratch it.

On Tuesday came the word that commissioner Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark met up and talked. Come Wednesday, once Heyman hit the merry-go-round switch the horsies galloped almost all over the place.

Some said the deal might be a 66-game season with a postseason expansion from ten to sixteen teams. Others said a 60-game season. Jayson Stark of The Athletic tweeted get your kicks on route 66: “12 games each vs 4 division opponents. 3 games each vs 4 interleague opponents. 6 games (home and home) vs interleague rival.”

Halt right there, tweeted NBC Sports’s Craig Calcaterra: “16 playoff teams is a joke. As it is I have made a mental distinction between the season and the postseason, considering them different things but if they go to 16 the season starts hurtling toward meaninglessness.

Slow down, returned Stark, who ran down a quick list of teams who’d have made last year’s postseason in a 60-game season for a sixteen-team field: the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Chicago Cubs, the Atlanta Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, the San Diego Padres, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Colorado Rockies in the National League; the Houston Astros, the Minnesota Twins, the New York Yankees, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Texas Rangers, the Boston Red Sox, the Cleveland Indians, and the Oakland Athletics.

You may have noticed, as Stark couldn’t resist noticing, that among the missing in that scenario would have been 2019’s world champion Nats.

Then came the first chink in the chain pulling the merry-go-round in its circles, from Heyman’s fellow MLB Insider scribe Robert Murray: “Two sources with direct knowledge do not expect Major League Baseball’s latest proposal to the MLBPA to get a deal done. If a deal will be agreed upon, as [ESPN’s] @JeffPassan said, it needs to be for more than 60 games.”

Around 5 p.m. Pacific time USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale elucidated on the new proposal also including a universal designated hitter for this year and next. Shortly before that, former major league general manager Jim Bowden noted a likely deal would mean both the owners and the players foregoing grievances-to-be.

Then Heyman weighed in again, around 5:20 PDT: “The framework of the deal between Manfred and union chief Clark included: 60 games at 100% full prorated pay, waiver of grievances, 16-team expanded playoffs for 2 years, universal DH, more. Owner sources say it was agreed to pending constituency approval, meaning owners, players

Two hours and ten minutes later, Murray slipped another chink into the merry-go-round’s motor chain: “People familiar with players’ thinking believe that they are seeking more games because they don’t feel a 60-game season is worth losing their right to file a grievance. ‘The ability to file a grievance,’ one agent said, ‘is almost worth letting the owners cancel the season’.”

What seems still to be another key is that the players don’t want a too-short season and a too-convoluted postseason but, as Athletic writer Ken Rosenthal posited, they may be willing to settle for 65 games. May. For a nation starved for major league baseball that may yet prove as good as major medical relief. May.

A day earlier, Yankee president Randy Levine, a man not necessarily renowned as a moderate among baseball administrators, struck another bull’s eye when he isolated one key issue other than dollars tied to that March agreement: “From what I’ve discovered, the holdup is not about the number of games or money at this time,” he said.

The holdup, as I understand it, is about resolving the other items in the March 26 agreement. They include final agreement on all of the health and safety protocols, deciding what happens if a season is interrupted by a second wave of the virus, which players can opt out and under what circumstances can they, and a host of issues like that.

Exactly. The owners often behave as though they forget it won’t be them at risk if baseball returns while the coronavirus’s world tour continues. The players—you know, the ones the fans pay to see play—will be at risk. So will fans once they’re allowed to return to the ballparks. So will the stadium workers, from the concession stand workers and hawkers in the stands to the grounds crews, stadium maintenance, and scoreboard personnel.

The owners also behave as though getting into baseball is a guaranteed financial bath. As though Jerry Reinsdorf didn’t buy the White Sox for $100 million in 1981 but has a team now worth $1.7 billion. As though David Glass—who’d helped Reinsdorf push for the 1994-95 strike—hadn’t bought the Kansas City Royals outright for $96 million in 2000 (he’d been the team president up to that point) and sold them for $1 billion last year. To name two.

Small wonder the players don’t want to surrender their right to a grievance without a battle, and small wonder the owners want them to agree to such a surrender.

So perhaps when all was said and done on Wednesday’s merry-go-round, the best news was the likelihood of the universal DH for this year and next. Unless there’s a codicil somewhere that isn’t yet known, bank on the universal DH remaining universal. At long enough last, the National League will have what a slightly pre-20th century Pittsburgh Pirates owner first proposed for sound reasons and last year’s collective pitchers’ batting average (.125) justifies: the end of a wasted lineup slot and too many rallies aborted in the womb.

There may be a deal to get a 2020 season, any 2020 season, played yet. Maybe by the end of this week, maybe by the end of the coming weekend. But while we’re at it, there is a suggestion we might make to the players who have, otherwise, done a better job than normal of making Joe and Jane Fan understand just who’s done the most to try hustling them.

The MLBPA’s Player’s Trust has committed $1 million to minor league players whose leagues may not play this year because of the coronavirus’s not-so-grand world tour. Yet there remain a little over six hundred former major league players who played before 1980 whose careers were short for assorted reasons—and who were frozen out of a pension plan re-alignment that year which gave full pensions to players with 43 days major league service and full health benefits upon one day’s MLB service.

Longtime MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller eventually said that not revisiting that mistake was his biggest regret. His successor once removed, Michael Weiner, collaborated with Manfred’s predecessor Bud Selig in getting those players $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service.

It was a beginning, but there were two problems. One is that the players in question can’t pass those monies on to their families upon their deaths. The other is that the ill-fated Weiner—who loved baseball deeply, left no doubt about it, and earned a reputation for reasonableness even in his hardest negotiatings—died of brain cancer before he could have the chance to think about pressing the matter further.

Others have tried prodding Clark toward giving those pre-1980 short-career players a second look and building upon what Weiner and Selig began. Himself a former longtime first baseman, Clark has disinclined thus far. Even when New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden acknowledged, by way of a source inside the MLB apparatus, that Clark “isn’t gonna have any appetite for siphoning money from his rank and file. That’s why he won’t even talk to these old players.”

Legally, neither MLB nor the players’ union is obliged to send another dollar their way. (Neither, for that matter, is the separate Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, likewise disinclined, especially after forcing three of the 600 plus—former pitchers David Clyde and Gary Niebauer, and former first baseman Eddie Robinson—off its pension services committee.) Morally is something else entirely, when you remember that those 600+ players were Players Association members who stood with their fellows during the moves and pickets that pushed open the door toward free agency and all its riches.

If the Players Trust can send drydocked minor leaguers $1 million for openers, surely the MLBPA can find a way to do further right by those 600 plus who were frozen mistakenly out of the 1980 pension realignment. Assorted current players sort-of strong-armed their teams into taking better care of their drydocked minor leaguers. Such players might want to think about their wrongly frozen-out major league predecessors a little more.

Even a commitment to revisit and readjust the pension plan for those pre-1980 short-career players when the Show gets back into business would be a serious step toward resolving Miller’s regret and finishing what Weiner and Selig started.

This commissioner’s time should be done

2020-06-16 RobManfredBaseballsThat was last week: Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred saying there would absitively, posolutely be major league baseball in 2020. This was Monday, to ESPN: Manfred saying, “Not so fast.” Never mind that the March agreement the owners are trying to walk back gives Manfred absolute authority to order the season to go.

“I’m not confident,” he told ESPN’s Mike Greenberg for a special called The Return of Sports.  “I think there’s real risk; and as long as there’s no dialogue, that real risk is gonna continue.”

Not long from there, Manfred said . . . of course! It’s the players’ fault, for ending “good faith negotiations” that anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows really means “on the owners’ terms” coming from his lips. Anyone with the same two brain cells also knows that the owners crying “good faith” equals Donald Trump closing his Twitter account.

Want to know what the players really turned down over the weekend, with an emphatic harrumph of, “Seriously?”

The owners wanted a 72-game season at 70 percent pay per game played, 80 percent if the one-time-only (we think) expanded postseason (the owners wanted the players to say yes to 22 more such games) was played to the end. The players would get a 64.5 percent pay cut taking 100 percent of the safety risks—there’s still the coronavirus on its grand tour, you know.

Ken Rosenthal, writer for The Athletic, half the team (with Evan Drellich) who blew open the Astrogate/Soxgate illegal sign-stealing scandals, thinks plausibly that Manfred—whose powers include acting in the game’s best interest but who’s employed purely by the owners to whom the game’s best interest involves making money for them first—would rather incinerate the forest than see it for the trees.

Rosenthal also thinks Manfred is beginning to get one thing: strike a deal with the players who aren’t buying the owners’ Kickapoo Joy Juice or see his legacy as a baseball commissioner go into the tank.

The threat of a billion-dollar grievance from the [Major League Baseball] Players Association has forced Manfred to reconsider exercising his right to set a schedule for the 2020 season and return to his original mission of reaching a deal that is acceptable to both sides. What he wants now, according to sources, is to stop bickering with the union, start negotiating and reach an agreement that will bring the sport at least temporary order.

Yet for a guy who suddenly is looking for peace, Manfred sure has a funny way of showing it.

He and the owners, supposed stewards of the game, are turning the national pastime into a national punch line, effectively threatening to take their ball and go home while the country struggles with medical, economic and societal concerns.

Baseball’s better commissioners have been remembered among other things for appearing the next best thing to statesmen. Find me someone with skin in baseball’s game—a fan, a player, an owner (even), an analyst, a broadcaster, an historian—who’d call Manfred a statesman, and I’ll find you the last sworn-in government of the lost continent of Atlantis.

It’s been hard enough to think of Manfred as someone who genuinely loves the game after he made such remarks as the World Series trophy being just a piece of metal, trying to explain why it was one thing to discipline three 2017 Houston Astros while taking owner Jim Crane off the Astrogate hook but something else to strip their World Series championship.

Now Manfred has little choice other than that between finding and striking a deal with the players to get a 2020 season at all, or let it go and watch as nobody but the most stubborn among the tunnel-visioned takes Manfred or the owners seriously as stewards of the game any longer.

Remember: The owners are talking through their domes if they think anyone with an IQ higher than half (.064) the collective batting average (.128) of MLB’s pitchers last year buys their poverty cries. As Thomas Boswell pointed out early Monday, the average major league team value jumped by over $1 billion in the past six years—from $811 million to $1.9 billion.

Manfred’s contract as baseball commissioner is extended through the end of 2024. Assuming he doesn’t do anything else to implode the game between now and then—even assuming he finds a way, somehow, to be as Rosenthal describes, “the adult in the room, a leader with a sense of the game’s place in our society, the caretaker of the sport”—maybe it’s time at last to think of a better way to choose his successor.

There’s no reason on earth that the commissioner should be hired by and beholden to the owners alone. There’s no reason on earth a plausible candidate shouldn’t stand for election by the owners and by the Players Association through the thirty team player representatives. The commissioner should be beholden to neither faction but the consensus choice of both.

“Players come and go, but the owners stay on forever,” then-American League president Joe Cronin once told the late Marvin Miller, early in Miller’s tenure as the union’s executive director. Let’s just see about that. The owners stay only until they designate successors (think of the New York Yankees’ Hal Steinbrenner or the Detroit Tigers’ Chris Illitch) or sell. Fans don’t wear team jerseys with the names of owners on their backs.

The game stays on forever. And with very few exceptions the first thing you think about when you think about the game is the men who’ve played it. You don’t think of Joe Cronin as a meaner-than-a-junkyard-dog league president before you think of him as a Hall of Fame shortstop and even a manager. You don’t think of Joe Torre as baseball’s top cop before you think of him as an outstanding catcher/third baseman and a Hall of Fame manager.

You don’t always think of Bill White as the first African-American (and next-to-last) president of the National League before you remember him as an outstanding first baseman who also helped shepherd the St. Louis Cardinals through their racial growing pains. You don’t think of Nolan Ryan as a baseball executive (including a term as the president of the Texas Rangers) before you remember him as a Hall of Fame pitcher with seven no-hitters on his resume.

You don’t think of the late, ill-fated Mike Flanagan as a Baltimore Orioles executive before you remember him as a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher. You don’t think of Eddie Lopat as a snake-in-the-grass baseball executive (when a Kansas City Athletics player reminded him about a promised salary raise, Lopat the general manager shot back, “Prove it!”) before you think of him as a pitching star on five straight Yankee World Series winners.

You don’t even think of Al Rosen as the baseball executive who put a shot of rocket fuel into player salary inflation when he was the San Francisco Giants’ general manager (the once-notorious Bud Black deal), before you think of him as a powerful third baseman who swept the first-place votes as the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1953, but whose career was torpedoed by back and leg injuries.

But you probably think Manfred wouldn’t be able to tell you any of that. You’d probably be right. He has to go. And, among numerous other lackings, the owners need to own up and agree—whether or not they’d accept that their duplicities brought us here in the first place—that baseball needs a better way to choose a better steward. A steward to whom the good of the game isn’t always the same thing as making money for it.

The owners, running out of feet

2020-06-14 CamdenYards

Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Other than frustrated Oriole fans who’d like to throw things at Peter Angelos, baseball fans don’t spend money to see their teams’ owners. The owners still don’t get the message.

But . . . but . . . not. profitable. That’s what enough of Major League Baseball’s owners kept trying to tell us while they tried to strong-arm their product (the players, in case you keep forgetting) into playing a short 2020 season and accepting less than their agreed-in-March pro-rated 2020 salaries. Right?

But . . . but . . . not. profitable. Never mind that the redoubtable Thomas Boswell once actually figured out that, over the past century’s time, baseball owners have hauled down a twelve percent compound annual rate of return: “That kind of tax-free compounding . . . is like striking an oil well that never runs dry.”

But . . . but . . . not. profitable. Baseball’s such a money loser that MLB just nailed a billion-dollar deal with Turner Sports—you may recall that its founding father once owned the Atlanta Braves—to “keep a playoff package that includes one of the league championship series on the network,” according to the New York Post. Earning MLB at least $150 million a year more than under the current deal set to expire after next season.

Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen couldn’t resist. “But baseball is dying!” he snarked. And who could blame him?

When you’re a group that pulls down the aforesaid compound annual rate of return, Boswell said three days ago, and you happen to be baseball’s stewards, “holding the sport in multicentury trust for fans who love it and support it,” you “have a duty to take the brunt of the financial hit from the coronavirus. In the long run, the owners, as a group, are always the huge winners. The players just pass through and get what they can grab — some of them a fortune but most far less.”

. . . The owners’ position appears to be: We don’t want to lose money. The whole world is. But us, no. We want players to accept additional pay cuts below a prorated level (but we won’t show you our books). In contrast, we will take a $0.00 year but not a share-the-pain loss . . .

. . . The owners are so self-protective, so oblivious to the good of the game, they even want to maximize their defenses against a second wave of the virus. Oh, we will play until the normal Oct. 31. But don’t talk to us about playing games in November because that would increase the chance of an erased World Series, lost TV money and losses for us.

That was three days before the Turner Sports deal. Now, remember, as Boswell does: The owners want the absolute maximum safety margin if the Show comes back, but if you assume the coronavirus isn’t quite finished with its grand tour guess who takes the maximum safety risk?

Hint: They’re the ones you pay your hard-earned money to see in uniform on the field, at the plate, on the mound. Accuse me as you must of flogging a dead horse, but nobody hands over anywhere from $15 to $150 or more per ticket to take themselves and their families or friends out to the ballpark to see Peter Angelos (not counting frustrated Oriole fans wanting to throw things at him), Mark Attanasio, Jim Crane, Bill deWitt, John Henry, Mark Lerner, Arte Moreno, Tom Ricketts, Hal Steinbrenner, and company.

Again assuming the coronavirus tour isn’t finished, the maximum risk takers are also the ones who guide you to your parking spot; sell you the food, drinks, souvenir hats and jerseys and other chatzkahs of rooting; post around the parks to keep the lunatics from spoiling your fun; and, run the park facilities from the gates to the scoreboards to the concession stands and back.

Show me a baseball owner and I’ll show you someone who shoots himself in the foot so often it’s a wonder he has a foot left to shoot. Of all the cliches you can attach to the so-called Lords of Baseball, and it’s been true for just about the entire life of professional baseball, the truest may be that they never miss the opportunity to miss an opportunity. (Except, perhaps, for the tax write-offs.)

Here’s the sport that could and should have dropped the big one on its competitors and gotten major league baseball back onto the field on the Fourth of July. “You get 15-games-a-day visibility before the NBA and the NHL return,” Boswell wrote, “as well as a two-month jump on the NFL.” So much for that idea.

That kind of image enhancing would have been worth more than the entire difference ($4.6 billion, roughly, if you’re scoring at home) between what Hal Steinbrenner’s late father paid to buy the New York Yankees from CBS in 1973 and what the Yankees are worth today.

The only shock, then, in the players all but walking away from the negotiating table on starting a delayed 2020 season—as The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich put it Saturday, “The March agreement between the parties empowers commissioner Rob Manfred to set the number of games as long as the league awards the players their full prorated salaries, with the caveat that the league make its best effort to make the schedule as long as possible”—is that anyone should be shocked.

Except, perhaps, by the owners looking for every possible way to renege on the March agreement, and the players—not always eloquently, not always with their best (unshot) feet forward—looking for every possible way to thwart them.

Remember the wisdom of the late Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, again: We try every way we can think of to kill this game, but for some reason nothing nobody does never hurts it. Come Monday, when the players asked the commissioner to finalise seasonal plans, we may begin learning whether Anderson is still right.

MLB’s own Saturday statement said they were “disappointed” that the players chose not to negotiate “in good faith.” Set aside for the moment how similar that is to the classic Communist tack of claiming the invaded were the invaders. Remind yourself that, from time immemorial, the owners demanding “good faith” is like hearing Attila the Hun sing “All You Need is Love.”