Around the Horn

Keep digging that hole

A little more than a week ago, I wrote that the Commissioner's office and the MLBPA needed to stop digging as they fell further and further into the hole they were creating for themselves with the general public. They didn't take my advice, of course, and today we have Commissioner Rob Manfred essentially threatening to pull the plug on a 2020 season that wasn't likely to happen anyway because of made-up offenses committed by the players' union.

Every column I've written on this subject has made basically the same points: Commissioner Manfred and those in his office have been abominably stupid in dealing with this unprecedented non-season, and getting bogged down in how much owners can not pay players in a truncated season isn't even relevant if health and safety concerns can't be addressed. I'll add one here: This self-inflicted, entirely unnecessary, tone-deaf and foolish gaping wound inflicted on the sport has laid bare the dishonesty practiced by collective club ownership and the need for a commissioner that is a guardian of the game, someone whose charge is to oversee and protect the interests of all parties involved, owners, players, and fans. That is something we do not have and have not had since 1992.

Last Wednesday, Manfred said this: "We’re going to play baseball in 2020. 100 percent." Today, Manfred went on ESPN and said this: “The owners are 100 percent committed to getting baseball back on the field. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that I’m 100 percent certain that’s going to happen.”

Today's statement is a lie. Ownership is not 100% committed to getting baseball back on the field. If they were, they would not have behaved as they have these past several weeks. They would not have been obstinate in withholding their financial information while insisting they needed to pay players less than they're expected to. They would not now be inventing offenses by the union to justify further delays in going forward. And if this behavior is completely Manfred's and not representative of the owners, then they would relieve Manfred of his duties.

Today Manfred also said, “Unfortunately, over the weekend, while [MLBPA executive director] Tony Clark was declaring his desire to get back to work, the union’s top lawyer was out telling reporters, players, and eventually getting back to owners that as soon as we issued a schedule—as they requested—they intended to file a grievance claiming they were entitled to an additional billion dollars. Obviously, that sort of bad-faith tactic makes it extremely difficult to move forward in these circumstances.” This is itself a tactic, to try to spin public perception against the union. The most generous descriptor one could apply would be to say it's disingenuous.

There has been no overt threat of a grievance against the league, but Manfred's office has insisted that the union waive its right to file one before any 2020 season can begin. To me, this suggests that Manfred knows his side would be in trouble if there was an official grievance; it suggests that he does not actually want to follow the agreement he committed to with the union in March. If they weren't planning to violate the agreement, why worry about a grievance being filed? Further, the mention of "an additional billion dollars" is given with no context. How did he arrive at that figure? Is that an amount he wants us to believe the union insisted on being paid regardless of circumstance? Is that the figure resulting from the collective pro-rated salary players would get in their proposed schedule length of 114 games versus the expected-to-be-imposed 40-60-game schedule? How does the revenue for twice as many games factor into that equation? I suspect it's nothing more than a number used to gin up a reaction from the public.

If a grievance was to be filed, it would have to be on the basis of the league failing to live up to this bit in the March agreement: The league will form a season schedule “using best efforts to play as many games as possible, while taking into account player safety and health, rescheduling needs, competitive considerations, stadium availability, and the economic feasibility of various alternatives.” The commissioner's office, on the other hand, wants the public to believe that the agreement mandates renegotiated salaries for players should games be played without fans in attendance, but the text actually says this: "The Office of the Commissioner and Players Association will discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators." There's a hell of a lot of room in that phrasing for things other than salary cuts; it could, in fact, be interpreted to have no relation to altering contracts at all, and it can convincingly be argued that Manfred's side has not discussed "economic feasibility" in good faith as they refuse to open their books and are uninterested in non-salary-related ideas to reach "feasibility." The commissioner's office knows it hasn't a legal leg to stand on here so they're choosing to fight in the court of public opinion.

Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem continues to use the phrase "waive its rights" in reference to the commissioner's office, another disingenuous spin maneuver intended to give the impression that the union is asking the owners to give up some kind of protections as a prerequisite for a season—another cynical attempt to paint the union in a bad light while carrying in actuality no meaning whatsoever. Halem wrote Bruce Meyer, the MLBPA's head lawyer, "If the Association desires to continue to negotiate over an agreement in which the Office of the Commissioner would waive its rights . . . and commence a season despite (among other things) regular fan access to ballparks, you should let us know. If the Association is prepared to allow us to construct and issue a 2020 schedule and announce a spring training report date, and waive any claims that by doing so we have violated the March Agreement, you should let us know." Halem leaves no room for any other solution. Accept our bullshit argument that the union is demanding we give up "rights" to only hold games in front of paying customers and negotiate, um, something, or actually waive your legal rights to hold us to our earlier agreement.

Manfred is also now claiming the union has been an obstacle to implementing health and safety measures around COVID-19. This too is dishonest, belied by Manfred's own statement not long ago that the two sides were "very, very close" to agreement on those matters, not to mention the league's very cavalier attitude about the pandemic in general. It was revealed today that several players, coaches, and other staff have been infected with COVID-19, though the lack of specifics in that news an the timing of its release fuels the suspicion among players that this is just another tactic to spin public perception.

A commissioner that actually represented the interests of all parties would not have permitted this. A commissioner that valued the health and future of the game would have dealt with this is such a vastly different manner that these arguments wouldn't have even come up.

An actual commissioner of baseball, a steward of the sport, a guardian of our alleged national pastime, would have (a) recognized the facts regarding the pandemic, recognized that we have zero national leadership on that subject and that the likelihood of things being under enough control to get even a partial season in was low; (b) had a contingency ready for the unlikely event that games could be played in a different sort of environment and situation, a plan that reduced travel and isolated the players and staff to a degree commensurate with a controlled-pandemic circumstance; and (c) brokered any financial issues between owners and the MLBPA as a mediator, one that had all relevant records of club revenues and profits and projections for a COVID-scenario revenue stream as well as expectations of future earnings post-COVID to factor into any negotiations; with an understanding that (d) taking a modest loss in 2020 could be offset by a boost in attention and PR as a sport that served to help a troubled nation in difficult times, as opposed to what we got, a PR disaster that has the potential to alienate fans (and lead to future financial downturns) much like the 1994-95 strike did. All while (a) is there making the rest very probably moot.

Instead we have Rob Manfred.



  • Posted by Matt on June 15, 2020 (18 months ago)

    I think the idea of a commissioner who acts in the best interest of all parties is good in theory. The problem is, you get commissioners who take that so seriously that they do incredibly stuid and harmful things -- like Bowie Kuhn setting a limit on how much a player can be sold for, which eventually drove all the non-billionaires out of ownership and created a gap between big-market and small-market teams that exists to this day. The last commissioner who was supposedly acting in the best interests of all parties was Fay Vincent. In addition to not being a visionary (he mocked ESPN, saying without baseball it would be stuck showing billiards and tractor pulls), he also abused his power. When Buck Showalter and Gene Michael testified that Steve Howe shouldn't be banned for life, Vincent tried to get Showalter and Michael banned. Vincent also told league president Bill White to prepare a case to fight the demands of the umpires' union. At the last minute, Vincent gave in to all of the umpires' demands, then went on TV and bragged about how he resolved the conflict (the one he created). I think overall, you have some great points. You'd be a helluva lot better commissioner than Manfred. But if we go back to having a circa-1992 commissioner, let's do better this time.

  • Posted by Tim Harrison on June 16, 2020 (18 months ago)

    As I recall—and it was a long time ago and I've not done any research, so I could easily be wrong—Vincent acknowledged he overstepped and backed off on the Steve Howe testimony thing after getting pushback and having to consider that it was all tied up with his personal beef with Steinbrenner. But regardless, every commissioner with the exception of Bart Giamatti, who didn't serve long enough to rack up much of a record but had a fine tenure as National League president, was problematic in some way, and Kuhn would be in the running for worst ever if not for Manfred, he had a vindictive streak. All about the punishments, Kuhn seemed to be. Anyway, I already detailed what I think the commissioner's job should be redefined to be in a prior screed about the awfulness of Manfred, and I wholeheartedly agree, let's do better.

  • Posted by Matt on June 16, 2020 (18 months ago)

    I read that screed. That was very good. Especially the part about a certain percentage of tickets go to low-income fans. I've never seen anyone else propose that, but it's a fantastic idea.

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