Rob Manfred went on national TV on Monday and delivered the wrong message.
It is not just that he did such a public 180 by announcing he no longer is confident there will be a 2020 major league season five days after putting it at 100 percent that there would be one.
Yep, that was bad. Just like Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt going on the radio during Great Depression-like financial ruin in this country to declare the baseball “industry isn’t very profitable.” Just like MLB’s new significantly higher deal with Turner becoming public as MLB has cut jobs, cut the draft and is trying to cut player pay.
MLB is losing the game of optics.
But losing player hearts and minds has been worse for Manfred than any flip-flop at this late date of negotiations.
It is understood that Manfred represents the owners. He was hired and can be dismissed by them. His pay is decided by them. But I am going to give a quaint concept: The role of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball was created at one of the lowest points in the sport’s history — much like today — in the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal. To take the job, Kenesaw Mountain Landis requested sweeping powers to act “in the best interest of baseball.”
Re-read those words — best interest of baseball. Not the best interest of owners, though they probably think that is one and the same.
What Manfred needed to do on national TV was to make a direct appeal to the players that they are the most important element of major league baseball. There are no profits without them. No one comes out to watch an owner own. The players are the engine.
Manfred needed to convey that whether the union or the public believes it or not, the owners are enduring a negative economic impact that he must react to as the commissioner. But that should not mean stomping on players. That is so 1965.
Manfred needed to acknowledge the players are the reason people were excited for baseball to return. He must find a way to escape a narrative that for something to be good for management it has to be bad for players. Ultimately, what is good for the players is good for the game.
Instead, in restrictive offers and biting rhetoric, MLB has turned even moderate players into firebrands. MLB has not been used to this version of the union holding so firm on a position nor the impact that social media could have on players, not just bonding, but communicating their distrust and distaste to the public. There are a lot of familiar calls of greedy players, but more fans than ever are holding management to account.
Manfred would be battling from way behind with the players. The relationship has been deteriorating over the past few years in particular as he has overseen a sport in which the analytic wave has leveled off average pay and eliminated jobs for many veteran players while at the same time manipulating service time so shamelessly. That wouldn’t be tolerable if the sport were struggling. But before the pandemic the revenues were going up annually.
The commissioner — make that the commissioner of all baseball — should still try even at this late moment in the negotiations to let the players know he cares. That what grows the game is good for all and that the people best positioned to grow the game are the players. Despite all their hardline words these days, players want to play. It is what they love to do. Even an abbreviated year in a short career is better than no year. Manfred needs to give them a reason to get back to that posture. The players should be the best salesman in the game.
Manfred needs to offer a season not only with — at minimum — a way to get to full prorated pay, but with reassurances of a future in which the best players will be on rosters, stars will be promoted not debased and a partnership roadmap to grow the game’s appeal and esteem can be demonstrated.
Will all the players believe him? It probably won’t even be a majority, especially with the union in as much of a fighting stance as it has been in a quarter century. But the game has taken sizable hits during the pandemic and there has to be a starting point for a better tomorrow. Tearing each other down and hoping fans love your sports is as ludicrous as it sounds.
The partnership has to get better. The players have to believe they are more than part of baseball’s bottom line. One person must begin this rebuild of trust — that would be the commissioner of all of baseball.