Manfred must go. How and from whom to choose his successor?

Thomas Boswell

Should this man be baseball’s next commissioner—and none too soon?

Major league baseball’s lockout continues apace. So does the egg on commissioner Rob Manfred’s face, even if Manfred doesn’t acknowledge it.

Bad enough: Few involved in the lockout directly, and few observing it closely, comprehend what Steven Goldman, a Baseball Prospectus writer and (in Forging Genius) the most incisive analyst of Casey Stengel’s success as a Yankee manager, comprehends with little effort and lots of sense:

If one feels the owners have somehow been shortchanged by the players in the past or would be unfairly impacted by the players’ proposals, among them a shortening of the paths to arbitration and free agency, make an objective argument for why this is so. Similarly, if one believes the players do not currently receive their fair share of baseball’s revenues, then prove it as best one is able. Failing to do either is to admit to being a kneejerk partisan. Telling other people that they’re wrong and deserve less money than they’re asking for isn’t just something you can have an opinion on, like whether or not you like creamed spinach . . .

. . . As has been related here and elsewhere, the players’ share of revenue has been falling as owners emphasize younger players. The value of free agency has resultantly been diminished, and whereas some players are still cleaning up, there is an increasing number of players who don’t last long enough to escape Pittsburgh and get some of that sweet Dodgers swag. Simultaneously, not only do the owners not open their books to the players, many of them are clearly not trying. We know that without seeing the books because we as fans can see the teams, see the minimal payroll, note the revenue-sharing payments vanishing without a trace, not to mention the increasing amounts of online and non-baseball revenue that teams now collect. We have to be fair, but we don’t have to be stupid.

Worse: Major League Baseball-owned MLB Network’s summary dismissal of longtime baseball writer/television analyst Ken Rosenthal, over comparatively benign critiques of Manfred published elsewhere eighteen months earlier, has brought corresponding questions to a boil. None seems more glaring than the one asking not whether Manfred’s competent to continue, but whether baseball needs an entirely new way to choose his successors.

The owners hire a commissioner. They can fire him any old time they please, so long as they pay him over the remaining time for which his contract calls. But nobody else in the game has a vote on the hiring. This can and has created a few, shall we say, problems in the past. With the game in Manfred’s hands, it’s made those problems seem like brief if rude interruptions.

Manfred’s current contract expires in 2024. So long as the owners continue to believe he operates by the maxim that the good of the game equals making money for them, his job is safe. Never mind suppressing free agency’s cumulative value; never mind treating the play of the game as a perverse Rube Goldberg experiment to be bent toward the attention-and-thought-challenged; never mind monkeying around with basic equipment such as the baseballs themselves; never mind its owned-and-operated media franchise strong-arming a reporter daring to question Manfred’s competence.

The players have no say in choosing the game’s maximum steward and administrator. Neither do those who manage and coach them. Neither do those charged with keeping the games honest, the umpires, never mind that the umpires have their own issues that Manfred has proven distinctly disinterested in addressing too often. Hands up to everyone who thinks there’s something very wrong with that.

Very well, you holdouts. Allow me to ask you two questions I’ve raised or addressed in the past. 1) Do you buy tickets to baseball games for the distinct pleasure of seeing your team’s owner(s)? (You Yankee fans of the 1980s fed up with George Steinbrenner’s act and hoping to let him have it, sit down, you’re outliers.) 2) Do you believe the commissioner should quit trying to fix what isn’t broken but leave what is broken alone to fix itself?

If you answered no to both, good. Now, hear me out further.

There’s no valid reason on earth why the commissioner should be chosen among the owners alone. Imagine if the president of the United States could be elected solely by the nation’s state governors. That would be seen, rightly enough, as an abomination. Now, if you agree the presidency should be filled by the people acting through the electors chosen based upon the people’s votes, why would you disagree that baseball’s commissioner should be chosen solely by the designated voters from thirty ownerships?

Major league baseball has not just thirty owners but approximately 1,200 players, based upon the 40-man rosters. It also has thirty managers overseeing their players and their coaching staffs, and 76 umpires spread among nineteen umpiring crews. There is no sensible reason anyone can exhume why voting for the commissioner shouldn’t include the player representatives for all thirty major league teams, their managers, and the nineteen chiefs representing their crews.

Perhaps, then, a commmissioner elected thus would be inclined better to see the complete picture and not just the portions that equal maximum revenues on which to base future owner shenanigans. And that provokes the next but just as critical question: from among whom should the game’s next commissioner be chosen?

The Selig-to-Manfred era has made plain enough that the next commissioner shouldn’t come from among the owners. Neither should the next commissioner come from among anyone who’s worked in a front office. Nor should the next commissioner come from among the players, the managers/coaches, or the umpires. The perception of certain preternatural biases would be overwhelming enough from among them, even to those who tend to forget those attached to those chosen by the owners alone.

Prior to the Selig-Manfred era, commissioners were a federal judge (Kenesaw Mountain Landis), a former governor and U.S. senator (Happy Chandler), a sportswriter turned president of the National League (Ford Frick), a retired Air Force general (Spike Eckert), a lawyer who’d been the National League’s attorney (Bowie Kuhn), a travel executive turned U.S. Olympics organiser (Peter Ueberroth), a Yale scholar-turned-president-turned National League president (A. Bartlett Giamatti), and an entertainment attorney turned president of Columbia Pictures (Fay Vincent).

Setting aside issues that may or may not have soiled those commissionerships, the deep record shows that only one of those pre-Selig-Manfred commissioners had little enough knowledge or even love of the game: The retired Air Force general (his hiring provoked a sportswriting wag to dub him the Unknown Soldier) played a very little baseball in his youth and was known otherwise to prefer squash, tennis, golf, polo and horse jumping.

The best you could say of him is that he hired the first African-American to hold a major job in the commissioner’s office. To his eternal credit, Eckert broke the colour line in baseball’s administration when he hired Hall of Famer Monte Irvin as assistant director of public relations and promotion operations. Eckert’s successor Kuhn put Irvin in full charge of it, a job Irvin did until he resigned when Kuhn did in 1984.

Since it’s not unprecedented to have a sportswriter/broadcaster become baseball’s commissioner when he grew up, never mind his inability a) to shake the presence of the man (Babe Ruth) for whom he once ghost-wrote or b) to act decisively as commissioner unless it threatened a) (Ford Frick might as well have been nicknamed “It’s a League Matter”), I can think of a very solid candidate.

No, silly, not Bob Costas, whom two-thirds of the world (including me, once upon a time) thought as strongly that he should have the job as Costas thought he shouldn’t, often vociferously. But the candidate I have in mind is a retired longtime baseball writer of impeccable talent, established insight, and genuine love of the game.

He has a concurrent love for golf but is not otherwise sinister. He is known to have walked a very even line between the self-imploding fooleries of the owners and the sometimes self-defeating strategems of the players. He has been known to suffer neither fools nor malcompetent umpires gladly. His knowledge and love of the game is rivaled only that of the commissioner least apologetic about expressing it ostentatiously if lyrically, the ill-fated Giamatti.

There are five books collecting his best work to present as evidence so far; God and an insightful publishing house willing, there’ll come a sixth. Commissioner Thomas Boswell, anyone?

2021: Wanted—a Laundromat

Rob Manfred, baseball’s version of Rube Goldberg’s evil twin.

Once upon a time, when you could be sure . . . if it was Westinghouse, that once-ubiquitous home appliance maker trumpeted its angular front-loading washing machine thus: “You’ll love your Laundromat more every day!” There are those, and they may be legion, who think baseball today needs a Laundromat it can love more every day, too.

But the game may first need to remember where 2021’s laundry hamper is located. “[Major League Baseball]’s dirty laundry,” writes the irrepressibly irreverent Deadspin, “was only forgotten by the general public when some newer, shinier scandal made its way onto the scene.”

Deadspin thus began its proclamation of commissioner Rob Manfred as the eighth biggest idiot in 2021 sports. By the time you finish reading just that particular bill of particulars, you may come to think it’ll take an entire Laundromat—those vintage, Westinghouse-stocked,  self-service laundry versions of the very vintage self-service Horn & Hardart Automats, that is—to get MLB’s washing done.

Thanks to baseball’s owners and their off-season lockout, the keys to the Laundromat can’t and won’t re-open it for badly needed business. Thanks to Manfred’s determination to leave a legacy as having been baseball’s version of Rube Goldberg’s evil twin, baseball has continued calling the repairmen to fix what wasn’t broken while calling the dentist to set the limbs that were.

Manfred has dropped more balls than ever eluded the grasp of legnedary first base fumbler Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart. From almost the moment he succeeded Bud Selig in the commissioner’s chair, Manfred has seemed to administer baseball even further down the line Selig and his then-fellow owners once engineered while ignoring blissfully their roles laying the tracks: Baseball sucks! Bring the wife and kids! 

The Astros caught red-handed in an elaborate and illegal off-field-based electronic sign-stealing operation? The Red Sox caught using their replay room for sign-stealing reconnaissance assuming men on base to receive and transmit the purloined letters? By the rules, Manfred could only fine Astros owner Jim Crane $5 million, “which is roughly the price equivalent of a Nachos Bell Grande at Taco Bell to you or I,” Deadspin snarks. He couldn’t quite hit the Red Sox like that over turning what MLB itself provides each team at home or on the road.

But he could have imposed far more stern measures than stripping the Astros of a pair of key draft picks. He could also have imposed something more grave upon the Red Sox than letting them skate by suspending their manager and banishing their video room operator. As one presidential candidate once purred about the other’s party, in debate and on the campaign trail, he had his chance but he did not lead.

That was in 2020. Over a year later, all of that was almost (underline that) forgotten by your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Tack. As in, that new old-fashioned medicated goo pitchers deployed the better to get a grip on something upon which Manfred lacks a grip—making baseballs that are as viable for pitchers to throw as for hitters to hit. The inconsistent surfaces of the balls today compelled enough pitchers to seek medicated help. That some of them saw it as a fine shield for chicanery should have been anticipated, but wasn’t.

So Manfred cracked down . . . about a couple of months after he should have done so. It simply reinforced the suspicions of too many that this commissioner picks and chooses when to enforce particular rules. It also provoked them to ask why Manfred was more alarmed about potentially cheating pitchers than he was about the continuing lack of umpire accountability.

He certainly wasn’t all that alarmed about cheating baseballs. You read that right: after the season, it came forth from Business Insider that two types of balls were used during the year. One was a little more on the dead side, the other a little more on the lively side. The magazine cited an astrophysicist who analysed the balls, found them suspicious, and even spoke to an unidentified pitcher who thought, as I wrote elsewhere early this month, that baseball’s government might have engaged a little game chicanery of its own:

This pitcher thinks MLB was also looking to manipulate particular matchups with the variable balls: send the slightly more dead balls to such lesser sets as, say, the Detroit Tigers versus the Kansas City Royals, since nobody was going to be interested in them, but send the slightly livelier balls to the marquee sets such as the Boston Red Sox versus the New York Yankees.

If you’re looking for a thorough MLB investigation into what we might call Ballgate, save your vision. It hasn’t happened yet. Whether it will happen is only slightly more difficult to guess than it once was to guess which one among about eight different leg kicks and about sixteen different windups Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal was likely to use to throw the next pitch your way.

(Which reminds me that the splendid staffers at Baseball Prospectus, in their book Extra Innings, once posited with splendid evidentiary supposition that the era of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances might have been at least as much the era of actual or alleged performance-enhancing baseballs. So Commissioner Goldberg didn’t start ball chicanery, but it’s possible he’s presided over its current tricks and treats.)

After a few comical responses to on-the-spot Spider-Tack and other substance searches that could have and almost did provoke strip teases by the suspects under potential arrest, Manfred and his administration provided further evidence that today’s baseball handles scandal by engaging one somewhat worse than the incumbent. This time, the name was Trevor Bauer.

This time, Bauer was place on administrative leave over sexual misconduct  accusations described politely as salacious, with each period of leave extended going, going, going, until he was gone, goodbye, for the final two-thirds of the season. His Dodgers—who’d signed him big without doing complete due diligence last offseason; who won 106 games and still had to win the wild card game for postseason advancement (because their historic and division rival Giants won one game more)—almost went to the World Series without him.

Meanwhile, Manfred persisted with his COVID-shortened 2020 season’s tinkerings over the full 2021. On behalf of his often-questionable or at least mis-directed alarm over the length of baseball games, Manfred persisted with the free cookie on second base to open each extra half inning. He persisted with his rule that relief pitchers must face three batters at minimum before they can be relieved. The former remained a mere nuisance. The latter could have gotten someone killed.

That would be Bryce Harper, now the National League’s defending Most Valuable Player, but then taking an errant fastball off his nose and onto his batting-side wrist courtesy of Cardinals reliever Genesis Cabrera—on the first pitch of the top of the sixth. It could have knocked Harper’s block off. It did knock his batting helmet off. It scared the hell out of both teams and the Busch Stadium audience.

The next pitch Cabrera threw hit Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius. The three-minimum rule still prevented Cardinals manager Mike Schildt from lifting a pitcher whose lack of control was obvious to all but the blind. Harper ended up suffering a terrible slump while he struggled to play through the wrist compromise yet recovered to post an MVP season. He also texted Schildt after the fateful game to say he knew Cabrera wasn’t trying to decapitate him.

“Whoever’s a fan of Bryce Harper, whoever has children that are fans of Bryce Harper, support that guy,” Schildt told reporters postgame. “Because what he sent over in a message today was completely a class act.” It was the diametric opposite of the commissioner’s act.

Commissioner Goldberg has also sought, ham-handedly, to make the game pay through the nose for any agreement to make the designated hitter universal. He wants a trade-off: I’ll give you the universal DH, but you give me an agreement that you lose your DH if you lift your starting pitcher sooner than six innings or thereabout. If you think he’s learned nothing from his three-batter relief minimum, wait until you see him flunk this one.

Just as relievers might enter a game having nothing left, for assorted reasons, starting pitchers often enough begin a game on the vulnerable side. If Manfred really thinks he’s doing the game a favour by forcing a team to sacrifice a game’s designated hitter, because the manager got his roughed-up starter out of there early enough before getting the guy killed to death, I think I may have found a buyer for that cut-rate Antarctican beach club.

If and when the owners and the players return to the negotiating table on behalf of ending this lockout, the players should give the owners and their barely-trained seal one answer to that:

Don’t even think about it. It’s long past time for the DH to be universal. Pitchers overall have never been hitters; those very few who were were outliers, and everyone with a brain knows it. We’re tired of wasting pitchers at the plate and watching rallies die. We’re really tired of losing pitchers to the injured list when they get hurt at the plate. The DH is long overdue in the National League, one of whose ancient owners dreamed it up in the first place. Deal with it. End of subject.

Manfred’s alarm at the length of baseball games has yet to address the truest of the culprits, broadcast advertising. You can look it up: Two minutes worth of commercials between half innings equals 36 minutes per nine-inning game. That’s before the commercials during in-inning pitching changes. (You might notice it takes less time for a relief pitcher to come in from the bullpen and throw eight game-mound pitches than it does to run the first minute’s commercial.) And, before extra innings, which are the two second-loveliest words in a true baseball fan’s vocabulary. (The loveliest, of course, are, “Play ball!”)

The next time you watch a game on television or listen on radio or online, make note of every commercial played during the broadcast from the first pitch to the final out. When you add the times of those commercials, you can’t say you weren’t warned that you might have seen a mere two hours’ worth of baseball for your trouble. Thus persists Manfred’s likeliest definition of the common good of the game: making money for it.

Thus, too, were soiled such luminous matters as the emergence of Shohei Ohtani as an international two-way major league mega-star. (And, the American League’s Most Valuable Player.) Such matters as the Braves picking themselves up from the loss of their franchise player-in-waiting Ronald Acuna, Jr. for the second half of the season, dusting themselves off with a trade deadline array of outfield-remaking deals, then wrestling their way to a sixth World Series game in which one of those newly-acquired outfielders, Jorge Soler, led the way bludgeoning the Astros home without another lease to the Promised Land.

Manfred presenting the Braves with the World Series trophy (you know, the one he once called a mere piece of metal) and Soler with the Series MVP award carried all the duplicity of Dmitri Muratov winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight to restore and enhance freedom of expression in Russia—and the Norwegian Nobel Committee enlisting Vladimir Putin to present it to him.

Is it going to take a one-hundred-washer Laundromat to clean up this mess? You can be sure . . . if it’s Manfredhouse.

The lockout is on

Before you start cringing while you lament the lockout, try to keep one thing in mind: It hasn’t canceled any games, regular, postseason, or World Series. Yet. If there must be a “work stoppage” for baseball, let it happen during the off-season. Let yourselves be fooled not one moment, either, that baseball has ceased going to work entirely.

About the only work that’s been stopped is contract offerings and signings between the owners and the players. Be advised that team front offices and staffs will continue going to work and players will continue their customary off-season routines preparing for the season to come.

That slightly surreal rash of tradings and free agency signings leading up to the deadline for the lockout—right down to the Red Sox trading Hunter Renfroe to the Brewers to bring home Jackie Bradley, Jr., he of the modest bat but the immodest outfield defense—is halted. That portion of the annual winter meetings involving the Show is pre-empted.

The lockout, as The Athletic‘s Evan Drellich observes, was somewhat inevitable “for months now, even years.” It’s the first “work stoppage” Major League Baseball has seen since the 1994 players’ strike.

That strike was pushed and provoked by the owners then. This “stoppage?” “Players have grown increasingly dissatisfied with club behaviors and the CBA that enables at least some of them,” Drellich writes, “and owners have shown little interest in making the concessions the players seek.”

Talks broke off a few hours before the Wednesday/Thursday midnight deadline after the owners refused to consider any economic proposal from the players unless the players agreed “in advance” to cease certain demands. Those demands, Drellich writes, include the time it takes a player to achieve free agency and changes to the current revenue sharing system.

The players believe with plenty of good reason that the current revenue sharing ways enable too much tanking, teams refusing to rebuild on the fly in favour of just throwing in the towel, allowing the major league product to perform like the St. Louis Browns while (it is alleged) they rebuild from the ground up.

Now hear this: Only two teams are known to have tanked successfully, meaning they tanked to rebuild and ended up in the Promised Land: the Astros and the Cubs. The Cubs tanked to build their 2016 World Series champion within just a handful of seasons; the Astros tanked likewise to build their long-since tainted 2017 World Series champion.

Time was when teams tried to urge certain star players out of the lineup the better to enable them to reach particular milestones before the home audience. It’s a lovely thing to behold when a man does it at home, but when his team tries maneuvering him into it it besmirches the competitive mandate.

That kind of tank usually drew a fury of indignation against the team that put coffers ahead of the honest competition, ahead of the presumption that a team must and does put its best possible lineup forth in the best interest of winning an honest contest.

Today’s tanking teams put coffers ahead of an honestly competitive season. In perhaps one of the top five perversions of “stop us before we over-spend/mis-spend/mal-spend again,” the owners would rather see a small handful of teams abuse their fans than demand such teams do what needs to be done to ensure at least an effort to compete.

Commissioner Rob Manfred audaciously calls it “this defensive lockout,” needed because the Major League Baseball Players Association’s vision for the game “would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive.” If you believe that, my Antarctican beach club’s sale price has just dropped another hundred grand. “It’s simply not a viable option,” Manfred’s statement continues. “From the beginning, the MLBPA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.”

The union says the lockout was anything but “defensive”—“It was the owners’ choice, plain and simple, specifically calculated to pressure players into relinquishing rights and benefits, and abandoning good-faith bargaining proposals that will benefit not just players, but the game and industry as a whole.”

“This drastic and unnecessary measure,” says a statement from union director and former first baseman Tony Clark, “will not affect the players’ resolve to reach a fair contract. We remain committed to negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that enhances competition, improves the product for our fans, and advances the rights and benefits of our membership.”

Do you notice that the owners through Manfred didn’t mention the fans but the players through Clark did? Do you notice the owners didn’t mention enhancing competition but the players did? The player are also concerned, rightfully enough, with younger players getting their major league earnings due and with younger players no longer subject to arbitrary whims that include suppressing them in the minor leagues when they’ve shown themselves Show ready.

“There’s also a feeling among players that front offices have become very good at manipulating the system to their advantage,” says the union’s chief negotiator, Bruce Meyer. “We want to make changes designed to incentivize competition for players, and remove disincentives for that competition. We want to find ways to get players compensated at an earlier stage of their careers when the teams are valuing them the most. And we want to preserve the fundamental principles of a market system.”

Tanking to one side, both sides have a couple of troublesome competition proposals. The owners are said to want a fourteen-team postseason; the players are said to prefer twelve.  Both should be rejected out of hand, no further questions asked, because postseason competition needs no further dilution than has happened in the wild card era.

Not long ago, there came a proposal for four-division leagues that might require expanding the leagues to another team each. I’ll see and raise: expand each league with one additional team each (and, this time, please do make damn sure there’s a real market for major league baseball in the new locales), but return each league to two divisions.

You’d actually have something resembling baseball the way it once was, after its first expansion: eight-team divisions, two in each league. Now, eliminate the damn wild cards and make it plain enough that either you’re playing for first place or it’s wait till next year, and don’t even think about tanking any longer.

Then, you remove the number one reason why the postseason loses its audience the deeper it progresses—saturation. Today’s postseason involves a maximum forty-two games. This still isn’t as crazy as the National Basketball Association’s maximum possible 98 postseason games, but it’s insane enough. In two divisions of eight teams each, baseball could (should) re-align itself to best-of-five League Championship Series and leave the World Series its best-of-seven self.

Guess what? In that re-alignment, you’d have a maximum of seventeen games, and the postseason wouldn’t even think of sneaking into the wee small hours of the month of November.

No, I’m not angling to become baseball’s next commissioner, but I’m only too well aware that the postseason has become a plaything through which the common good of the game becomes even more equal to making money for the owners and provoking the players to demand their cuts of it, too.

“[B]oth sides, after years of discontent, could be interested to test the other’s resolve,” Drellich says of the lockout now on. “The owners, as well, might believe that the free agents who remain when the lockout concludes will feel pressure to sign quickly, and therefore, at a discount.”

Don’t believe for one nanosecond that the owners should get away with crying poverty. Not when such new deals or extentions come forth as those recently handed to a Mets trio of Mark Canha, Eduardo Escobar, and (especially) Starling Marte; plus, Sandy AlcantaraJavier Baez, Byron Buxton, Wander Franco, Avisail Garcia, Kevin Gausman, Jon Gray, Robbie Ray, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien (is it me, or did the Rangers just drop about $512 million on new signings including Seager?), and (especially) Max Scherzer.

Unfortunately, the mid-level players often get bypassed during collective bargaining issues and often bear the brunt of whatever new CBAs cost. The talks usually involve “a league minimum and free agency eligibility,” as ESPN’s Buster Olney observes. “The players’ middle class, which has seen salary diminishment as a lot of teams apply analytics and identify cheaper replacement-level players, while other teams adopt the tanking strategy and cut payroll dramatically, has mostly been left out of those conversations.”

Scherzer isn’t the only player concerned about that plus making sure the owners can’t further suppress real competition and the full free agency picture. “Unless this CBA completely addresses the competition (issues) and younger players getting paid,” Max the Knife says emphatically, speaking as a member of the union’s eight-member player subcommittee, “that’s the only way I’m going to put my name on it.”

More competition issues? How about pushing the owners to push Manfred away from that ridiculous three-batter minimum for relief pitchers? How about pushing them to make the designated hitter universal, once and for all time, and eliminate the single most automatic out in the game? And, to make it so without one insane owners’ proposal that it be tied to a six-inning minimum for starting pitchers?

How about knocking it the hell off with monkeying around with the baseball itself (yes, MLB used two different sets of balls with two different actual weights in 2021—unbeknownst to anyone), then just develop and use a viable ball that favours neither pitcher nor hitter but makes it as level a confrontation as possible?

People thought Pete Alonso (Mets first baseman) was talking through his batting helmet when he waxed last June about MLB manipulating the balls themselves on behalf of impacting free agency. An astrophysicist discovered not only the different ball weights this year, but spoke to one unnamed pitcher who suspected the possibility that MLB might send different-weighted balls to stadiums hosting certain series: say, deader balls to sets between lesser teams but livelier balls to those hosting, say, the Yankees vs. the Red Sox.

I’d say that demands a full-throttle investigation. If people could and did go slightly mad over pitchers using that new old-fashioned medicated goo, they ought to go slightly more mad over ball cheating by baseball’s administration itself. The MLBPA should bring that up—and stick it in the owners’ ears.

The best news about this lockout is that it did happen during the off-season. Assorted analyses say strikes in sports are becoming things of the past. The bad news is that unreason isn’t going to become a thing of the past any time soon. Not, at least, until baseball’s ownerships today continue to prefer manipulation over competition, and the players increase their concern that competition be diluted no more.

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.

Be prepared for Show over

2020-07-27 MiamiMarlins

The Marlins players—not team management, not health/safety experts—elected to play Sunday despite COVID-19 already hitting some of them. Now eleven players at least plus two coaches are COVID-19 positive. Where were the adults in the room?

MLB and the players’ union,” tweeted ESPN’s Buster Olney early Monday morning, “made the mutual decision to try to play a season this year, and those two entities share the ethical responsibility of pausing, postponing or cancelling if that’s what is in the best interests of players and staffers. The Marlins’ situation tests this.”

The Miami Marlins’ situation is that fourteen people with the team, mostly players but a few coaches, tested COVID-19 positive while the Fish opened the truncated regular season in Philadelphia. Including their scheduled Sunday starter against the Phillies, Jose Urena. The team has postponed at least their Monday home opener against the Baltimore Orioles.

A series postponement may not be unlikely. Which might disappoint the Orioles purely on baseball terms, having just accomplished the unlikely feat of beating the Boston Red Sox two straight (7-4, 7-2) on opening weekend, after getting their brains beaten in 13-2 to open the set.

Exactly where the Marlins so affected caught the infections is still, pardon the expression, up in the air. They played an exhibition against the Braves in Atlanta the day before the regular season finally began, and the infected players and coaches could have been hit either in the Truist Park clubhouse or in the Citizens Bank Park clubhouse.

The New York Yankees were supposed to open in Philadelphia Monday night and station themselves in the same visitors clubhouse the Marlins just vacated. Says ESPN, “Sources told . . . Marly Rivera that the Yankees have been informed that the visitors’ clubhouse has been completely fumigated several times. The Yankees also brought their own clubhouse personnel down from New York City to work the game, if it happens. No decisions have been made yet, sources said.”

That was early Monday morning; now as I write it’s later Monday morning. A season postponement? It may happen. Major League Baseball convened an “emergency meeting” Monday in the wake of the Marlins’ situation. The Yankees-Phillies game for Monday is postponed, too. And, yes, this is getting quite out of hand.

But a season postponement may not happen yet, either. USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale reports, “There will be additional priority testing for teams who have an outbreak, MLB officials say, but no serious talks as of yet cancelling or pausing the season. In the words of one owner on the conference call: ‘Obviously, the situation is fluid’.”

How brave and bold of them.

With the coronavirus world tour still playing and only too many people still treating it from somewhere between carelessness and ignorance, getting a major league baseball season going from any point this summer was going to be tricky enough. We knew that right out of the proverbial chute, when young Washington Nationals star Juan Soto tested COVID-19 positive on Opening Day, though he’s asymptomatic just yet.

For all the fun and folly accompanying the season’s long-delayed opening, it’s no kind of fun when fourteen Marlins test positive over opening weekend. That followed two Braves sent home after testing positive but no symptoms showing yet.

When the Nats hosted the Yankees to open the delayed season, there was commissioner Rob Manfred sitting on national television talking more about . . . his sixteen-team postseason array. The designated hitter wasn’t even a millionth of the gimmick that idea is. It only begins with removing more than half the urgency of a regular season whose competitive urgency was already diluted by its wild card system.

Sure we’ve loved it when wild-card winners turn up the last team standing with the World Series trophy hoisted high. Including the Nationals, who did it last October after a staggering regular-season comeback. But we’re not fools. We know damn well that the wild card system has equaled asking fans to sit on edge over the thrills, spills, and chills of teams fighting to the last breath for . . . second place.

Manfred and his Major League Baseball Players Association counterpart Tony Clark have a genuine burden on their hands trying to navigate the sport through a terrible pandemic that’s yanked their country and half the world over, under, sideways, down. And the big thing for Manfred opening was a postseason array that might, maybe, probably see the sport’s best teams knocked out early and often.

“If Manfred’s judgment is this bad or if he is this pliant to the money lust of his bosses,” fumed the Washington Post‘s most valuable player, Thomas Boswell, “then what chance is there that he will have the backbone or the leadership skills to shut down this season if needed?”

Backbone? Leadership skills? Like the New York Police Department brass who sooner sent a few flunky cops to trial rather than root out the bottom-top corruption it took Frank Serpico and David Durk going to The New York Times to even try rooting it out, Manfred didn’t have the backbone to bring the powers of his office to bear and drop real hammers against the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox over their caught-red-handed, off-field-based, electronic sign-stealing cheatings.

Manfred slapped three managers and a general manager—whose teams executed them without Manfred—but the owners allowing it on their watches and the players availing themselves of it got away with it. You think that’s the Manfred who’s going to have the backbone to stop the season if the viral infections metastasise among the troops?

At his bosses’ behest, Manfred forced Clark and his charges to fight a ridiculous-sounding counter-battle against the owners using the coronavirus tour’s shutdown of spring training and the regular regular season to shove a de facto salary cap for the season down the players’ throats. That’s Manfred’s idea of backbone.

“The scary core of MLB’s predicament — and soon the NBA’s and NHL’s, too — is: Playing our sport is what we do, who we are and how we make our money,” Boswell wrote. “We’re going to try to do it until the virus stops us.”

From all over the world we’re learning the lesson that this is a terrible basic assumption. You get ahead of this virus before it even looks like a problem, or it ends up crushing you. South Korea, Japan, Australia, Canada and Germany, with a combined population of 325 million (the United States has 330 million) had 15 deaths Thursday. Arizona, with 7.2 million, had 89 dead.

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. 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.

You saw it yourself watching the games that finally arrived. Enough players, coaches, managers were playing chicken. Please. There’ve been how many ballplayers who played through injuries, “manning up,” earning their praises, and ultimately hurting their teams because they were fool enough to play through injuries? What’s trying to play unmasked and unsafe through a pestiferous pandemic, then? Supermanning up?

That was before the depth of the Marlins’ infections emerged. And now emerges, from the Philadelphia Inquirer, that deciding to play Sunday’s game in Philadelphia wasn’t decided by MLB, by Marlins team leadership, by the union, by health and safety experts, but by . . . Marlins players, by way of a group text message. Fish playing chicken. Bet the Phillies clucked, too, if not necessarily with unanimous approval.

I admit it. It was easy enough to bask in the Show’s return and either forget or keep as an aside the risk that the coronavirus would have innings enough to play among the games and the teams. Even while some of the worst ramifications of baseball’s gimmicky 2020 season experiments—the free runners on second to start each extra half-inning; the three-batter minimum for relief pitching appearances—delivered things uncomfortably between the rock of disaster and the hard place of farce.

Taking a few small but profound safety precautions doesn’t exactly mean the end of the world as we know it. No matter how many would-be God, Juniors in government from the top down really do want to use it as cover for their next nefarious real attacks on what remains of our freedom.

What a country. We were the “can-do” people for so many generations. When somebody told Ben Franklin to go fly a kite, Ol’ Ben said, “Hell, yes. Who cares if it looks like rain?” And lightning struck.

We gave the world the lightning rod, swivel chairs, automatic flour mills, suspension bridges, fire hydrants, compression refrigeration, coffee percolators, circular saws, dental floss, lathes, doorbells, lock-stitch sewing machines, combine harvesters, solar compasses, Morse code, circuit breakers, sleeping cars, ice cream makers, rotary printing presses, jackhammers, safety pins, dishwashers, fire alarm boxes, elevator brakes, burglar alarms, breast pumps, and submarines.

We gave it condensed milk, light bulbs, mass-produced toilet paper, electric stoves, escalators, vacuum cleaners, motorcycles, refrigerator cars, air brakes, fire sprinklers, mimeographs, synthesisers, air brushes, phonographs, cash registers, metal detectors, electric irons, electric fans, thermostats, photo film, electric mixers, fuel pumps, stop signs, smoke detectors, and zippers.

We gave it medical/surgical gloves, mufflers, remote control, batteries, the assembly line, hearing aids, air conditioning, offset printing, the powered airplane, automatic transmission, traffic lights, toggle light switches, hydraulic brakes, toasters, polygraphs, garage doors, radio arm saws, audiometers, instant cameras, electric razors, freon, sunglasses, car audio, electric guitars, bug zappers, and the Richter scale.

We gave it programming languages, fluorescent lamps, digital computers, fiberglas, xerography, Teflon, deodorant, cruise control, microwave ovens, space observatories, Tupperware, credit cards, transistors, defibrillators, supersonic aircraft, cable television, and correction fluid, a.k.a. Liquid Paper. (Hey, hey, she was a Monkee’s mother!)

We gave it bar codes, the artificial heart, voltmeters, lasers, LEDs, weather satellites, jumbo jets, personal computers, microprocessors, e-mail, cell phones, the Heimlich maneuver, digital cameras, ethernet, stealth aircraft, and the Internet.

For openers.

We fought and beat dreaded diseases past, and we made a few of them extinct while we were at it. We also fought and won a couple of world wars and finally defeated the most ruthless and bloody tyranny ever to rule anywhere on earth. We also invented baseball as the world’s known it roughly since the year before one of us invented pressure tape.

You’re telling me that the “can-do” people are now the “don’t-even-think-about-it” people? You’re telling me the people who invented all the above now consecrate and abet leadership and neighbourly luddism that tries to rule us without knowing a coronavirus from a computer virus?

All of a sudden it looks easier for the Cleveland Indians and the San Diego Padres to think about winning a World Series than it did for us to beat smallpox and polio. (You don’t want to know the bureaucratic loop-de-loops Edward Jenner and Jonas Salk would be put through today to get their vaccines to, you know, the people who need them.)

God forgive me, it was too easy to get lost in the thought that the Show was really back no matter what. Even with the piped-in crowd noise. Even with the cockamamie-looking empty ballparks other than cardboard cutouts of humans and other living creatures. It was even easier to laugh our fool heads off when Adam Duvall’s home run Saturday bopped the cutout of Jeff McNeil’s Alaskan malamute puppy right in the snoot.

Well, it was just as easy to anticipate the return and itch for major league ball no matter the lingering risks. It’s not so easy or funny anymore. As much as I might enjoy the games themselves, for all the gimmickry and all, I’d rather wait till next year than continue the risk that more than just a school of Marlins have to fight the damn virus.

Mr. Manfred, Mr. Clark, show some real backbone and be ready to just say no to the rest of the season. To pay the players their pro-rated 2020 salaries, thank them for giving it the old college try, and call it sick pay. Then—assuming more of them haven’t tested positive in the interim—to send them home to safety and their loved ones.

Don’t even think about how the owners can’t possibly afford it. Everyone from the rock-bound coast of Maine to the smoggy shores of California knows that’s only slightly less of a lie than anything out of a politician’s mouth.

We went almost four months without the Show. If we have to, we’ll survive without it the rest of the year. Because too many people still aren’t wising up and living safe just yet, and too many leaders are still using it as an excuse to play Gods, Jr. And, from the early look of it, too many players, coaches, and managers still do think or act as though they’re invulnerable.

In more than one way, the Marlins just told baseball world otherwise. “[H]ere we have it,” writes a rueful Stephanie Apstein for Sports Illustrated, “the least surprising possible outcome of MLB’s decision to fly some 1,500 people around the country, from one coronavirus hotspot to another, buttressed by a hope and a prayer and instructions not to spit, in service of playing baseball: They have to stop playing baseball.”

We have to have adults in the room. Now.