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?

L’affaire Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal (right), shown interviewing Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts for Fox Sports at All-Star festivities. MLB Network decided Rosenthal’s comparatively mild critiques of Commissioner Nero Goldberg were still a little too harsh for the bosses’ comfort–even if they were published elsewhere.

A very long time ago, the bellettrist Albert Jay Nock counseled a protege named Frank Chodorov about writing: “Frank, don’t pick your reader up by the back of his neck and throw him downstairs. Lead him gently.” Whether Ken Rosenthal is aware of either of those two quiet giants of libertarian thought, he has been that kind of baseball writer, observer, and commentator.

Though he’s not given to rapid and bundled shafts of mirth, Rosenthal rarely fails to inform, instruct, and delight. He was required reading for a very long time on the Fox Sports website; he has been required reading at The Athletic since just about the day that journal was born. His additional presence at the MLB Network simply meant that the network benefitted from a well-seasoned reporter going deep as a finely-composed sauce.

Until it didn’t, as of Monday. If you thought the government government can be petty with in-house critics, for once it looks downright sanguine about them compared to baseball’s government.

The owners of the MLB Network decided that they just can’t have a known non-rabble rousing reporter criticising baseball commissar Rob Manfred on their (read: his) dollar. Never mind that Rosenthal’s apparent thought crimes occurred in June 2020 and weren’t even committed aboard MLB Network.

Permit me to take you back to baseball in suspended animation during the early months of the pan-damn-ic. Manfred and the owners attempted to renege on a deal to pay players full pro-rated salaries for 2020 whenever it might begin, even as they still pondered whether there would be even an abbreviated season. From his roost at The Athletic, Rosenthal (with Evan Drellich, the reporter with whom Rosenthal blew Astrogate wide open upon Mike Fiers’s whistleblowing) was having none of that:

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 . . .

The best commissioners offer statesmanlike presence and superior vision. Few ascribe those qualities to Manfred, and few would argue baseball is in a better place since he took over for Selig on Aug. 14, 2014. Rather than simply enjoy the fruits of the 2016 CBA, a lopsided victory for the owners, the clubs have gorged on them, alienating the players. And once again, they are valuing their own short-term interests over the long-term interests of the sport.

As critiques of baseball’s government go, Rosenthal (and Drellich) were mild sauce compared to numerous lights of varying statures. God and His servant Henry Aaron only know that when I want to compliment Manfred I’ve called him Commissioner Nero, fiddling while baseball burns. Or, Commissioner Goldberg, citing Manfred as a man giving an excellent if troublesome impression of how Rube Goldberg’s evil twin might have been, if Goldberg had had one.

Mild, schmild, MLB Network says. It iced Rosenthal for close to three months, while still paying his agreed-upon compensation, until the 2020 trade deadline at August’s end. When Rosenthal’s MLB Network contract expired at the end of 2021, the network decided not to renew him. Just why it merely iced him almost three months, then waited until his deal with them expired to let him go, is for mere speculation for now.

Under normal if no less tasteful circumstances, dumping actual or perceived in-house critics doesn’t require eighteen months to execute. The truly cynical might suggest MLB Network wanted to sustain a pretense of objectivity, even if it meant keeping Rosenthal on hand rather than dump him at once while honouring his contract otherwise. The less cynical might agree that dumping Rosenthal at once would have left MLB Network with a far worse look than it has now.

“The timing of this news could not be worse for MLB,” writes Sports Illustrated‘s Dan Gartland of Rosenthal’s purge. “The league’s status as a villain and a bully has been cemented during the ongoing lockout, and so even if Rosenthal’s departure was due to, as an MLB spokesperson told the [New York] Post, ‘natural turnover in our talent roster that takes place each year’ and not his 18-month-old criticism of Manfred, just the perception that the league has punished a well-liked and well-respected reporter for a fair critique of a widely despised authority figure is damaging to the network’s credibility.”

As the Boston Globe‘s Chad Finn notes, purging Rosenthal inflicted an unwarranted stain on the numerous reporters working there who lack Rosenthal’s profile:

[T]he decision to dump Rosenthal did their reputations no favors. Major League Baseball executives, particularly original network president and CEO Tony Pettiti, have insisted since the beginning that they want MLB Network to be editorially credible and they would not interfere with the journalistic duties of the correspondents.

Then, because the commissioner cannot accept that criticism comes with his job, the network goes and dumps the popular and respected Rosenthal for what were accurate rebukes? The perception is not fair, but Manfred’s actions implicitly suggest that the reporters who remain are in lockstep with how the commissioner’s office wants the league covered. At the very least, they now know what the consequences are for being critical of the boss.

Or, the bosses, if you remind yourself that Manfred serves at the owners’ pleasure and can be dumped by the owners any old time they choose it—provided, of course, that they pay the rest of his contracted-for salary. You know, just as the Yankees paid off in full all those decades ago, whenever George Steinbrenner decided to throw out the first manager of a season.

Since the lockout began, MLB Network has limited its live programming. MLB.com notoriously purged players’ faces from their stat pages. The site also published an FAQ on the collective bargaining agreement negotiations on day one of the lockout . . . entirely through the eyes of Manfred and his bosses, the owners.

Thus the most significant issue with professional sports leagues establishing their own media networks. They can be valuable resources for fans during off-seasons. But they can also become a league’s version of Izvestia. “No one is expecting Rosenthal to be allowed to bash Manfred on MLB Network,” writes Gartland, perhaps forgetting for the moment that Rosenthal’s bash wasn’t aboard the network, “but it’s refreshing when league-owned media outlets publish less-than-flattering stories.”

Weep not for Rosenthal, whose roosts at The Athletic (as a writer) and Fox Sports (as an on-air reporter/commentator) are at least as secure as a bank vault. Weep instead for the thinking person’s sport that’s been used, misused, and abused by a commissioner and his paymasters for whom genuine thinking proves beyond their pay grades.

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.

Roots and Blues

Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.

Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. takes Corbin Burnes across the Colorado state line in the All-Star Game. Manfred wants baseball back to its roots? How about also knocking off these hideous All-Star uniforms and letting the All-Stars represent their teams in their own uniforms again? It was good enough for the Home Run Derby, it should stay good enough for the All-Star Game.

Who are the faces of baseball today? Put the current injured lists to one side. Barring unforeseen complications or corollary issues, one and all on those lists now will be back either this season or next. Barring, too, one player of extraterrestrial achievement—you should spot the one most likely to produce it the rest of the year, too—it shouldn’t really be a singular face.

They should be players like Ronald Acuna, Jr., Pete Alonso, Mookie Betts, Shane Bieber, Kris Bryant, Nick Castellanos, Jacob deGrom, Rafael Devers, Freddie Freeman, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge, Clayton Kershaw, Trey Mancini, Shohei Ohtani, Max Scherzer, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis, Jr., Mike Trout, Brandon Woodruff.

Instead, the face of the game, singular, seems to be its ten-thumbed, two-left-feet, too-lawyerly-for-his-own good commissioner, a man who seems almost never to let pass a chance to let the stars shine in baseball’s sky without sending up a homemade cloud.

On Home Run Derby Night, the Coors Field audience and baseball nation transfixed upon Ohtani (the prohibitive favourite), Soto, Mancini (the sentimental favourite), Guerrero, and Alonso (the eventual winner), among others. During the All-Star Game—which the American League won, 5-2—Ohtani and company were at least as watchable and discussable as those missing in action due to health concerns might have been.

So, perhaps naturally, Rob Manfred stepped all over himself yet again. Asked whom he thought the face of baseball is today, Castellanos named Manfred. Informed of that designation, Manfred said no. Then, he dropped a few matters to indicate his lips said no-no but there was yes-yes in his eyes.

He told a Baseball Writers Association of America meeting the day of the All-Star Game, “I think anything that distracts from the attention being on what goes on in the field is a bad thing.” Unfortunately, Commissioner Nero—who’s spent too much of his commissionership fiddling while baseball seems to burn—went on to do just that.

Manfred could well enough have waited until after the All-Star Game, confined his remarks to the BBWAA to just his thought on “distraction” from the All-Star field, then said he’d talk a little more the day after if they were willing to listen. (And who wouldn’t have been?)

I’ve already discussed his thought that the doubleheader of seven-inning games might disappear after this season. (And, why I think keeping the idea is sound as a nut.) Manfred also spoke of disappearing the free cookie on second base (known to wags as “Manfred Man”) to open each extra half-inning, a disappearance devoutly to be wished. As would be the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. (Unless they enter during a jam and get rid of the side before batters two, three, or both appear.)

Unfortunately, Manfred didn’t address that third part, so far as I know. He must have been asleep at the switch the night Bryce Harper and Didi Grigorius got hit back-to-back by a fresh Cardinal reliever whose control took the night off but whose manager couldn’t relieve him legally until he faced his third batter.

The law of unintended consequences too often escapes Manfred’s lawyerly ways.

He also suggested he’d like to ban defensive overshifting, formally, as part of what he says is part and parcel of returning baseball “to its roots.” He suggests the owners are all in on that return, though long experience tells you that with most owners changes or restorations have less to do with the game itself and more to do with whether something means making money for it, which usually means for themselves.

Never mind that the shifts could and would be neutralised if teams start instructing their batters to take advantage of all that free real estate. Screw the unwritten rules. Just hit the ball onto it. Take first base on the house before the shifters can scramble for the ball. Even if the other guys have a no-hitter going to the final outs. I’ll say it again: you hand me that free territory with a no-hitter going, let your pitcher hold you to account when I show up on first on the house.

I’ll say it again: that, or an infield you know to be full of butchers enabling such base hits, should be the only time you want to see a widespread return of bunting. In all other situations, a bunt is a wasted out. Outs to work with are precious. Why waste a third of your inning’s resources and do the other guys such a favour?

You guessed it: I’m all in if Manfred really does bring the universal designated hitter back to stay in 2022. Guess which defensive position sports the Show’s worst slash line this year? (.109/.149/.142.) The worst OPS? (.291.) The most wasted outs? (No other positions show more than the catchers’ 40; these guys show 221.) A real batting average (RBA: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by plate appearances) of .167?

Hint: Since the final decade of the dead ball era, they’ve hit a collective .166. Tell me how long a catcher, an infielder, or an outfielder would survive in the Show—if he was lucky enough to get to it at all—with that kind of hitting. Even if he was the defensive second coming (based on runs saved above their leagues’ averages at their positions) of Ivan Rodriguez, Keith Hernandez, Bill Mazeroski, Ozzie Smith, Brooks Robinson, Barry Bonds, Andruw Jones, or Roberto Clemente.

Manfred should consider the Pirates owner of 1891 who first proposed what we know now as the DH. About whose proposal a journal of the time, The Sporting Life, said in concurrence:

Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball. It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.

It wasn’t an invention of that nefarious American League. And if it hadn’t been for Chris (I am der boss pressident of der Prowns!) von der Ahe, reneging on a previous commitment to support William Chase Temple, when the idea came up at the next National League rules meeting, the NL would have had the honour of introducing what Pirates catcher-turned-Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack tried but failed to introduce to the AL fifteen years later.

If you want to see a little more leveling out between pitching and hitting, be advised that when the DH is used this year (by AL teams, and by NL teams playing interleague in the AL Park) the DHs have the best OPS (.767) in Show at this writing. If you want more “strategy”—and you won’t throw things at me when I remind you that 95 percent of all “strategy” is plotted before the game begins—you should prefer that number-nine batting order slot go to either a second cleanup type or an extra leadoff type.

“Returning baseball to its roots” can be tricky. Even if it suggests Manfred might finally be willing to quit trying to prove that the birth child of that backstreet affair between Rube Golberg and the Mad Hatter should be a baseball executive.

It depends on the roots to which you want to return. How about eliminating regular-season interleague play? How about eliminating the wild card system that’s produced the thrills and chills of teams fighting to the last breath to finish . . . in second place?

How about a best-of-three division series with each league’s best first-place finisher having a bye while the other two winners slug it out? How about returning the League Championship Series to the best-of-five of its birth and childhood? How about thus eliminating October saturation and restoring the World Series to its proper primacy?

Unfortunately, those beg one further question right now: Since Manfred can’t seem to find the right way to make serviceable, field-leveling baseballs (easier to look into an acceptable stickum for pitcher grips, as he’s also doing), how far above his pay grade would those and other reasonable moves really prove?

Back to baseball’s roots? Be gone, hideous 2021 All-Star uniform! The threads (especially the American League’s “road” blue) made the horrific 1970s single-colour pajamas of some teams resemble something from Pierre Cardin. If players wearing their own uniforms, representing their teams, is good enough for the Home Run Derby, it’s still good enough for the All-Star Game.

Where have you gone, Bart Giamattio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.