This is no longer about the greater good of the nation, or the admittedly pie-eyed notion that baseball could ever really have been a salve for the deep fissures and fractures that plague us in these dreadful days of worry and uncertainty. That was a nice notion, a throwback to a time when baseball was a pastime.
And not passed its time.
That is what baseball is now, a pitiable wreck, an irredeemable embarrassment. We wanted so much more from the game but, then, we always want more, we always expect more, we always hope for more, and we always get kicked in the teeth when there are real stakes on the table. Why we expected more this time around is on us, and maybe illustrates just how badly we wanted stolen whispers of normalcy. We thought baseball could give us that. Fool me once, shame on you.
Fool me nine times since 1972?
Shame on us.
Of course, no one bears a greater burden of the shame than Rob Manfred, baseball’s loudest carnival barker, who speaks now with a tongue so forked it is all but impossible to keep track of his spinning and his shucking and his utter contempt for the people — you, me, us — for whom he would tell you he is a safeguard. Nonsense. He does the bidding for the owners, for the 30-man cabal of billionaires who cry poverty even as television networks line up to refortify their coffers with still more billions. That’s fine; technically he is their servant and they are his collective master. So enough with the notion that he shepherds the game. Enough with the hoary old chestnut that a commissioner exists to protect “the good of the game.”
Not this commissioner. Manfred has proven time and again that he views the sport with all the reverence of a highway pit stop, and the fans with all the respect due a litter box. That’s who he is. That’s what the job is to him. From here on, never forget that.
This isn’t to grant a pass to Tony Clark, the fundamentally overmatched head of the players union, who ought to have the moral high ground here and yet has allowed a quorum of chatty agents and angry players to sully his message. Every day he is on the job is a sad reminder that Marvin Miller — due to be enshrined in Cooperstown this year before COVID-19 altered everyone’s summer schedule — isn’t walking through that door. Miller may still annoy hard-line, old-time fans who yearn for the game’s simpler days (also known as days when the owners could do whatever and however they pleased) but he would’ve had his way with a lightweight like Manfred. He would’ve gotten his message across and he would have beaten the owners, again, without them feeling as if they’d been mugged on the street. That was Miller. That’s not Clark. That’s never been Clark.
But, then it is also not Clark’s duty to safeguard and shepherd the game, only to be steadfast to the union and its rank and file, to honor decades of hard-line leadership that has allowed baseball players their various freedoms and riches. His is a specific constituency.
Manfred? It’s his stated mission to grow the game, to make it more appealing to a wider audience, to keep it healthy, and yet in his time and on his watch the game’s reputation has continued to sink and its interest to a younger generation has practically vanished. He specialized in half-measures during the Astros mess. His various and sundry “fixes” — most still in the proposal stage — have done little to attract new fans but have done much to try at all costs to alienate existing ones.
But his performance during this alleged “negotiation” has been especially galling. He has allowed his people to leak inflammatory letters in a half-baked attempt to secure the side of the angels. For someone who came to the job so deeply schooled in baseball’s labor history, he has shown an appalling lack of understanding just how seriously the union takes its mission. He has shown a profound ineptitude in rallying owners to understand that they are in a business that prints money every year, that is being asked to take a haircut this one year which will hurt but be plenty offset by the fact that many of them have already gotten close to 1,000 percent returns on their original investments.
But his worst calamity has come in the last week. Then, he guaranteed a season with 100 percent certainty. Now he says he’s not so sure. He is worried that if he enacts a season — which is his right — the players will file a grievance. That’s his issue now? Did it just occur to him? At best that’s malpractice. At worst it’s sheer incompetence. The job started out too big for him and the last few weeks it has fit him more and more like David Byrne’s old white sports jacket.
Meanwhile, his sport burns, its future withers on the vine, fans who endured the last work stoppage 25 years ago are prepared to see two or three years of no baseball, and good luck ever getting the old-timers back, let alone the millennials. Many will blame greedy players and, sure, that is their right, and the players are no virginal victims here.
But the real victim is baseball itself, which entrusted its future in the hands of Rob Manfred who was supposed to be a master of future thinking and has, instead become a magician: Look closely and watch as a whole sport disappears.