Rob Manfred will be re-elected as commissioner (and that’s okay)

Rob Manfred is good at the things the owner wants him to be good at and bad at the things I want a commissioner to be bad at.

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Per The Athletic, current MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is expected to be re-elected for a third term at some point this week. While I understand the grumbling and gnashing of teeth and all that over the imminent re-election of a man who has to be constantly given column space to assure us that no, he actually does like baseball, the reality of things is that this is good news. No, really!

Let’s rewind to a column of mine from June at Baseball Prospectus, headlined, “A Different Commissioner Wouldn’t Mean a Better One,” to see what I mean:

Manfred might rub both players and fans the wrong way, as he’s openly antagonistic, petty, mean, and a rather unconvincing liar, but (most of) that has little to do with his role. The commissioner’s job is the same whether they’re publicly aggressive, timid as a mouse, or are easily mocked because they’re caught on camera picking their nose like Selig. The rest is noise that is meant to obscure the truth of things, which is that things won’t be “better” with another commissioner. The role requires a certain level of awfulness at its base, and no one who would do anything in the best interests of baseball will ever hold the role—now, in the best interests of Baseball, at least there’s some truth in that.

Manfred might be antagonistic, but he’s a buffer between the owners and everyone else. If you hate Manfred, then your hate is focused where it’s supposed to be; the antagonistic nature of the man is paying dividends for the owners, who get to hide behind him. And that will be the case with his successor, and the one after that, and so on, because this is the job, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise.

Manfred does his job, and that’s all the owners care about. The minors unionized on his watch, and the Players Association started to claw back some clawed back gains in the last round of collective bargaining after defending themselves during negotiations for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but on the other side, MLB’s revenues resumed their annual record trajectory in 2022, and with the regional sports network issues cropping up, switching to a different commissioner who would have to learn the ins and outs of everything that’s going on isn’t ideal.

Every possible commissioner would be like Manfred, from a results perspective, or else they wouldn’t get to be commissioner any longer. Maybe you would get a commissioner who more clearly loves baseball, like his predecessor, Bud Selig, or one who is a better, more convincing liar, also like Selig. You don’t want another Selig in the commissioner’s office: his Aw Shucks persona helped him get away with quite a bit, to the point that sometimes you still have to remind people that the 1994 strike happened solely because Selig was trying to crush the union once and for all. The canceling of the World Series wasn’t done because it had to be, so much as because Selig felt it would prove to be a wildly unpopular decision the players would be blamed for.

Which brings me to my expansion on that idea of a different commissioner not being a better one, which published in this space shortly after:

None of this is a defense of Manfred, of course. The guy is a terror. But so was his predecessor; people just cut Selig a bit more slack then because he at least genuinely seemed like he enjoyed the sport of baseball, and because his persona was more buffoon who stumbled around and crashed into things than a robot designed to murder the things you love. Selig, though, was like Phil Hartman playing Ronald Reagan on Saturday Night Live: the second the cameras went away, the man was a focused, cold-blooded killer. And also he helped drug use become rampant in the community, then blamed the users for it. Huh, I can get more mileage out of that one than I initially thought.

Anyway, whoever succeeds Manfred might be a better liar or come off better in public, but the job will be the same: you’ll just swallow the lie a little easier this time around. It’s important to remember that, the next time you want Manfred to hit the road. I have no affinity for him, either, but at least he’s continuing to expose that the commissioner’s role isn’t to act as a steward of the game, even if the league tells you that’s the idea.

I don’t want Manfred around anymore than the rest of you, but the reality of the situation is that the job he’s doing is the job of the commissioner’s office, and we’re better off with a guy the union and the public has no use for who can’t convincingly lie to save himself or the sports league he’s the “steward” of, than we would be with some silver-tongued charmer. So, congrats on the eventual re-election, Manfred, having you around makes my job a lot easier.

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