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MLB’s owners had their annual preseason meetings last week, and The Athletic’s Evan Drellich covered quite a bit of what commissioner Rob Manfred had to say after them. Lots of it is important to consider for different reasons, but this one stuck out first:
“In times of uncertainty, it’s hard to talk about additional change. Having said that, look, I got five (years as commissioner) left, this year and four more. Those teams, even if I push the issue, they won’t be playing by the time I’m done.”
Drellich points out that the wording sure makes it sound like Manfred will retire from the commissioner’s role at the age of 70, when his current (and third) term comes to an end. Which is a reason to celebrate, sure, in the sense that Manfred has caused more than a few headaches during his near-decade as MLB commissioner. As I wrote last summer for Baseball Prospectus, however, a new commissioner wouldn’t mean a better one:
Predictably, the same kind of calls rang out on social media that always do when Manfred feels like he needs to take things personally and lash out, which is basically whenever he feels his authority has been challenged (which is often): “this guy should be replaced as commissioner,” “isn’t there anyone better for the job,” etc. I am here to tell you that no, there is not someone better, and there is little point in replacing him. If you believe there is room for a better commissioner in MLB, then you might not understand what, exactly, the commissioner’s role is. So let’s get into that.
Rob Manfred works for the owners. He’s not secretly in the pocket of the owners, this isn’t some cloak and dagger affair: his job is as their representative. He has some measure of power over them, thanks to his ability to justify decisions believed to be in “the best interests of Baseball,” but that power mostly exists to keep them from—to be real direct about it—fucking things up for the rest of the owners.
Using “the best interests of Baseball” above rather than “baseball” like the actual clause says was intentional: Manfred has the power to make sure the business of MLB continues to run as it should, to ensure that the owners stand as united as their 30 egos allow when it comes time to go toe-to-toe with the players at the bargaining table. That’s not real power, though, so much as the owners hiring a guy they trust to make sure they don’t cross the lines they shouldn’t cross. Which is actually the origin of the commissioner’s office: Kenesaw Mountain Landis was brought in as the first commissioner because MLB needed to be cleaned up and have its image fixed following the 1919 Black Sox scandal.
Which is a long way of saying, “don’t get too excited.” Manfred, due to how quickly he unravels in public when challenged, due to his general unlikability, due to… well, due to a lot of factors, is perfect as a commissioner, in the sense that his behavior and lack of subtlety helps shine a light on just what the role really is, and how MLB is so often the bad guy in their interactions with practically any other entity. If someone better at the politics of this takes over for him, that’ll be a detriment to the task of pointing out what’s actually going on. Bud Selig came off like an incompetent, bumbling weirdo much of the time, but it should be clear that he was more like Phil Hartman’s portrayal of Ronald Reagan on Saturday Night Live: a little odd and easy to poke fun at sometimes but overall seemingly harmless in public, and an evil mastermind behind closed doors. Seriously, read Jon Pessah’s The Game if you haven’t, because it paints the picture.
Manfred has continued Selig’s planning — that’s why Selig hand picked him as the successor in the first place, because he knew he could trust him to do so — and it’s not hard to imagine that there will be another successor just as invested in the owners getting what they want the next time one is needed. Whether they can play the political game more deftly is unknown at this stage, of course, but it’s not difficult to imagine that this will be a concern, given Manfred’s failure to write a single convincing letter in response to Congress’ questions to him, or his penchant for getting visibly upset and starting feuds with entire cities when he’s annoyed. He’s helping make the owners more and more money all of the time, but if they find someone who can do that without being universally reviled? The owners would probably love that, too.
It’s not so long for Manfred yet, even if he does plan to retire, but just remember that, as much as it’ll be nice to not have to hear from him or see him any longer, someone else we should dislike and distrust just as much will step in to replace him. Keep that energy going, you know?
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