Does Manfred Have a Vision Thing?
August 20, 2014 by Jeff Kallman • Print Story •
Baseball has a commissioner-elect, whose incumbent job is as Bud Selig's second-in-command (chief operating officer), and whose ascension to the top job has seemed all but assured since he was promoted to his current position in hand with Selig's retirement-to-be announcement almost a year ago. Sports Illustrated's Cliff Corcoran, writing of the election itself, said Rob Manfred's ascension "represents an unprecedented continuity in leadership for MLB." This is not entirely a consummation devoutly to be wished.
The good news begins with Manfred never having been a baseball owner. The not-so-good news is that he's been groomed by the first commissioner ever to have come into the job straight from the owners' ranks. And the questions that ought to be asked Manfred should begin with whether he believes the common good of the game is the same thing as making money for the owners.
It's a question the answers for which Selig would often have been stuck, when he wasn't replying with actions and policies that indicated he thought, "Yes," especially prior to the current long labor peace era. Three-division league alignments, wild cards, second wild cards, and season-long interleague play have filled the owners' vaults and fatted television reserves but not necessarily done the game many favors.
Consider, too, that Manfred may have been elected unanimously at last but he wasn't exactly the no-questions-asked universal favorite at the outset. It took several vote rounds for him to win. There was a faction, led by White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, opposing Manfred on the grounds that he's "soft" on labor, never mind that Manfred has been perceived as a significant key in baseball's decade-plus labor peace; Manfred was one of the major figures helping the owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association achieve three new collective bargaining agreements (2002, 2006, 2011) without strikes. (Which leads to the next piece of good news: Reinsdorf's influence likely being minimised irrevocably, after his opposition leadership may have infuriated his once-ally Selig.)
The current agreement expires in December 2016. Manfred will have almost two full years on the bridge when that occurs. And he will have issues with which to contend regardless. Herewith some questions he should be asked:
1) Bud Selig came from the ranks of the small-market owners. (Reinsdorf helped Selig purge Fay Vincent, whom they feared would obstruct their plans for a war with the players' union that led ultimately to the 1994 strike.) Yet he presided over a collective bargaining agreement whose limits on bonuses for international free agents and draft picks can be seen as throttling smaller-market teams who, as Corcoran phrased it, "might not be able to compete for established major league free agents (but) could instead overpay, in a sense, for amateur talent, allowing them to sign players who may have dropped in the draft due to signability issues and to stock their farm systems with premium talent" before the 2011 CBA.
How will Manfred propose to the owners and to the players that the limits on bonuses for amateurs and/or international free agents be adjusted the better to prevent such spectacular mishaps as the Astros' backfiring bid to lowball one prime pick (number one pitcher Brady Aiken) that cost them three prime drafts, all in a bid to game the system as it is now?
2) The incumbent agreement makes teams eligible for free agency compensation only if they extend qualifying offers to their free agents-to-be. The player rejects the qualifying offer; the team with which they choose to sign surrenders its top unprotected draft pick to the now-former team. As Corcoran said, "as the rigid slotting system and the move away from free agency and toward player extensions has increased the value of high draft picks, that extra cost of a top pick has had a deleterious effect on the market price of mid-range free agents." Not to mention the team the free agent leaves having that much extra juggling to do in cobbling together a competitive roster to come.
Would Manfred approach MLBPA director Tony Clark to suggest that, at long enough last, the owners' ongoing bids for free agency compensation, which have always done more harm than good to themselves and to the game itself, ought to be phased away, gradually but surely, considering that baseball's competitive balance has never been better than since the advent of free agency?
3) Two teams above all need new ballparks and the sooner the better. The sting here is that they're two of the best-operated franchises in the game in recent years. Manfred's been bought a little time since the Athletics — never mind how the unchecked foolishness of the Giants invoking territorial rights keeps the A's from moving slightly south — signed a 10-year lease to stay in a toilet known as O.co Coliseum. But the Rays have the dilemma of a viable park in a location so terrible that even their die-hards are hard pressed to go to games. What would Manfred propose to resolve both teams' stadium issues and with the least encumbrance upon local taxpayers?
(Corcoran nods to an intriguing prospect that might enable the A's to think about a complete O.co Coliseum overhaul: the Oakland Raiders, with whom they share the stadium, leaving Oakland again, this time for keeps, with Los Angeles and San Antonio considered strong prospects at this writing. Already there's talk that San Antonio is preparing to welcome the Raiders with open arms, never mind that the NBA's Spurs would oppose it, and that any Raiders overtures toward San Antonio are really intended to strong-arm Los Angeles into sweetening the proverbial welcome pot. The A's in theory could stand to make out big if the Raiders bolt town again, assuming Manfred can convince them to go for the overhaul. Such overhauls aren't unheard of, as anyone following the Angels can tell you.)
4) The Mess (er, Mets) have a problem other than on the field. Actually, the one problem has an impact upon the other: the swollen debt of the Wilpons just might compel them, dearly though they'd rather sacrifice their next generation to avoid it, to sell the Mets. The Mets' debt has kept the Mets' brass from much earnest franchise rebuilding and could, theoretically, have an impact on the Mets' current reported surplus of bright young pitching, on the parent club and in the system. Should a sale prove inevitable at last, how will Manfred shepherd a sale involving a team in the nation's largest baseball market with so prohibitive a debt load, and where will he reach to find buyers able to resolve the Mets' debt without keeping the team moribund for another term?
5) There are legitimate questions as to whether baseball government's actions in the Biogenesis investigation crossed ethical lines. Manfred may have worked closely with Selig and the players' union in helping the game shrink the presence of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances — after Selig, for long enough, turned and abetted blind eyes to their presence — but he was also involved in some of the dubious investigation moves. What will Commissioner Manfred do to ensure that the A/A-PED presence continues to shrink without entering territory that could create ethical and even legal headaches for baseball government to be? And what would he do, considering increasing sounds that the union itself wants to get a lot tougher on A/A-PED users — suggestions of contract forfeiture included — to join Clark in turning those sounds into viable, acceptable further policy?
6) Does Manfred have any thoughts about removing the foolishness of tying World Series home field advantage to the All-Star Game's outcome? Would he be willing to entertain ideas about neutralising the foolishness of the All-Star Game turning into a kind of lifetime achievement award rather than an exhibition of the game's best on the season at hand?
7) Does Manfred have any thoughts regarding the restoration of the World Series' true primacy? Interleague play prior to strong-arming the Astros into the American League had already compromised it. So had the seven-game League Championship Series. It isn't very likely that the owners would consider changing or removing the wild card system, which has often helped keep better teams out of the postseason. (No, the damn fools learned nothing much from the postseason hash that followed the 1981 strike.)
And there are no indications yet known that any owners would consider eliminating in-season interleague play, even if current whisperings about baseball returning to Montreal prove true. (You could return Montreal to the National League and move the Nationals — never mind possible Orioles screaming — to the American League, where Washington once had an ages-long presence.)
So, would Manfred consider proposing a best-of-three division series and returning the League Championship Series to a best-of-five, keeping the World Series a best-of-seven and, while he's at it, returning to alternating home-field advantage years that worked rather admirably for long enough, all things considered?
8) Baseball is rollicking through unprecedented prosperity with television abetting it mightily. Does Manfred have any thoughts about convincing television that it's not exactly good, either for television or for baseball, that postseason games and the All-Star Game don't begin until too many young fans aren't awake to see the games? Does he have any thoughts about something such as beginning the All-Star Game and the postseason games at, say, 6 or 7 p.m. Eastern time, the better to enable fans in the midwest and the west to watch and root? (And how about eroding at last the insane television blackout rules while we're at it?) The dollars are flowing but the ratings are flooring.
9) Once upon a time, baseball was reasonably expert at marketing its brightest stars. Today, so it seems, assorted football and basketball personalities are more identifiable to the general population than a lot of baseball's best who don't wear Yankee pinstripes. (And, strangely, some who do.) What would Manfred do to redress the matter so that, say, Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Yasiel Puig, David Ortiz, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Altuve, Sonny Gray, Johnny Cueto, George Springer, Miguel Cabrera, Matt Harvey (when he returns), Yoenis Cespedes, Paul Goldschmidt (likewise), Bryce Harper, Felix Hernandez, and Masahiro Tanaka, are faces of the game above and beyond the game itself? Isn't it long past time for baseball to quit hesitating to amplify its best?
10) Selig said nothing when Joe Torre, player turned Hall of Fame manager turned baseball government executive vice president, tried to slap down the Dodgers' playful practice of blowing bubbles in the dugout whenever one of their own hits one out. (Or, when one of their own pitches a no-hitter, as Kershaw and Josh Beckett did.) It might rankle Torre (who once managed the Dodgers) but it sure as hell charms Dodger fans, and the opposition didn't seem to mind much. And aren't the fans worth something, even if they've helped make hash of the All-Star Game? Would Manfred be willing to slap his subordinates silly over such foolishness as Torre trying to strong-arm the Dodgers into turning off the bubble machine? (For the record: The Dodgers thus far have resisted Torre's scoldings on the matter. Thus far.) "This game's supposed to be fun!" Crash Davis admonished his fictitious Durham Bulls. Manfred would do well to remind one and all of that even in the thick of a pennant race.
11) While we're at it, will Manfred be willing to step in swiftly and surely to punish such effrontery as the Diamondbacks' declared bent on decapitation from the mound? (Randall Delgado at this writing has yet to be punished for drilling McCutchen in the ninth, a day after Ernesto Frieri pitched up and in to Goldschmidt and, quite unintentionally, broke Goldschmidt's hand.) Will he enforce the written (as opposed to the unwritten) rule that pitchers have twelve seconds to deliver a pitch after receiving a ball back from the catcher during an at-bat? Will he propose any kind of crackdown on players stepping out of the batter's box during an at-bat? And how about telling the teams and their stadium operators to quit showing commercials in parks between innings, the better to help convince television it'd be a nice idea to help move the games along by cutting back on the between-innings or pitching-change commercial spots? (It's a jaw-dropper of the most dubious kind to go to a game and see commercials ringing around the park while the teams change sides.)
Very well, a lot of what I'm asking kind of ties into the vision thing. When all was said and done, and for all his flaws, Selig was brilliant at the consensus thing when he set his mind to it, and Manfred was on the inside of that. Manfred will have time enough to think about such things before he takes his new job officially come January.
He's seen up close and personal the best and the worst of both his new employers and their employees who turn the turnstiles in the first place. (One bears in mind George F. Will's sage observation that nobody has ever bought a ticket to a professional sporting event to see the teams' owners.) Would he allow the recesses of his mind to make room for a vision thing next to the nuts-and-bolts thing?