Where’s Baseball’s Mr. Blackwell?

Rob Manfred has announced he will retire as baseball commissioner when his contract expires in 2029. Before anyone thanked him for the gift a day after pitchers and catchers reported officially for spring training, enough remembered that it means he has nearly six full seasons yet ahead to commit more mischief than he's committed already.

He's the classic instance of the tinkerer who develops one sound idea in the middle of developing twenty more about which "sound" is inoperative. Perhaps more than most commissioners, Commissioner Pepperwinkle's been one to whom there's rarely an issue he can't make worse.

"Politics," Groucho Marx once observed, "is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and misapplying the wrong solutions." Baseball under Manfred's stewardship has been the same art on another level.

Manfred sought and imposed assorted changes aimed mostly at appeasing that part of its audience to whom the ballpark and its intended presentation shouldn't interfere with its online life. So long as it continued to make money for the owners, there has seemed precious little he couldn't entertain, the game itself be damned.

Baseball still has issues enough to resolve or relieve without Commissioner Pepperwinkle and his minions trying and failing at fashion consultation. The players were greeted for 2024 with new uniforms about which the word "abomination" seems an understatement so far as many if not most are concerned.

Officially, the new jerseys are known as the Nike Vapor Premier, the athletic gear maker promoting the new product manufactured by Fanatics. The good news is that they're made to withstand the peaks of the summertime heat, and that exhausts the good news. Nike's claim that the new jerseys are "softer, lighter, stretchier," in the words of Athletic writer Stephen J. Nesbitt, seem to enough players code for poor fitting, cheap looking, and inconsistently made.

"It looks like a replica," says an Angels outfielder, Tyler Ward, to Nesbitt. "It feels kind of like papery. It could be great when you're out there sweating, it may be breathable. But I haven't had that opportunity yet to try that out. But from the looks of it, it doesn't look like a $450 jersey."

It also doesn't look like anyone will be able to recognize its wearers. The name on the uniform front may be the most important thing, but the names on the back look to be about half or less the size they usually were. "Look at the last names, bro," urged another Angel, relief pitcher Carlos Estévez, to another Athletic writer, Tyler Kepner. "I'm six-foot-six. This is going to look tiny on me."

"Hey, maybe the players-many with Nike sponsorship deals-will change their minds once they play a few games," Kepner observes. "Maybe, in time, the jerseys won't look like the replica you buy when you're trying to save money but still want to kinda look authentic. But the underlying concept persists. Baseball, guided by Nike, is trying to force-feed all these stylistic changes instead of just letting them happen organically."

If Shohei Ohtani wasn't already baseball's most famous and familiar player, you might have a hard time recognizing him in his new field threads.

Trying to force-feed changes not limited to the stylistic alone has been a Manfred trademark, one he took up only too happily from his predecessor and former boss Bud Selig. You remember Selig, the man who believed baseball needed regular-season interleague play and wild card postseason entrants in the first place, beliefs Manfred has pushed to extremes that have turned baseball's postseason into just another playoff system and rendered the All-Star Game entirely meaningless.

Remember: Manfred was the man who assumed office swearing baseball uniforms needed no advertising on them. He swore it long enough to cave in and allow it, a few years later. At least, as Kepner notes, he was honest about it when talking about it two years ago: "It's a revenue source that is significant enough that it's really impossible for a sport to ignore over the long haul. I think that's the truth."

Some think he's full of what's spread around the infield and outfield grass to keep it healthy. That works for the field but not for the game. "[J]ust because you can make money by selling something," Kepner continues, "doesn't mean you should." True that. Ask anyone who thinks as I do that such abominations as City Connect and All-Star Game uniforms make baseball look like anything but the thinking person's sport.

Baseball never seems to have a Mr. Blackwell around when it needs him.

Speaking of the All-Star Game's threads, Manfred did just that when getting candid about the advertising patches on the sleeves: "I never thought that a baseball team wearing different jerseys in a game was a particularly appealing look for us. I understand that people can have different views on that topic, but it is part of a larger program designed to market the game in a non-traditional way."

It's one thing to acknowledge there've been several baseball "traditions" that needed to go the way of large stones for bases. But did Manfred ever stop to think there was particular pride in ballplayers chosen as all-stars representing, you know, their teams and their home fans? (The super cynics among us might follow that by asking, "Did Manfred ever stop to think, period?")

Manfred has also spoken up about himself and the owners for whom he truly works pondering a defined free agency signing period. That seems not to be a terrible thing in and of itself, when you observe how many valuable free agents are still without teams as spring training settles in. On the surface, a defined signing period looks sound as a nut. On the surface. Beneath the surface? Be very afraid.

Baseball ownerships historically have found ways to make the sound unsound and to sneak around what were thought to be impeccable guidelines. They've been pulled over as scofflaws often enough by officers of Murphy's Law. And Commissioner Pepperwinkle may yet have more cringe-creating in him before the intended retirement enough people think can't arrive soon enough.

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