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By serving only the interests of billionaire owners, Rob Manfred is killing baseball

It’s time for a truly neutral Commissioner of Major League Baseball, which means Rob Manfred has to go

2020 Grape Fruit League Media Availability Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Last week, our excellent new Managing Editor, Kenny Kelly, wrote about the so-called “discipline” meted out by nominal commissioner and baseball assassin Rob Manfred.

It’s a bad look for MLB to have two of the last three World Champions found guilty of some form of cheating. It’s a worse look for those two teams to escape with a slap on the wrist. The Red Sox were repeat offenders having already been busted for using Apple watches to steal signs in 2017, and after cheating their way to a World Series title, the team will suffer a lesser consequence than if it had signed a free agent with a qualifying offer attached.

I say “assassin” because it’s now become clear that Rob Manfred has no interest whatsoever in trying to manage Major League Baseball.

According to the MLB Constitution, this is the Commissioner’s job:

The functions of the Commissioner shall include:

(a) To serve as Chief Executive Officer of Major League Baseball. The Commissioner shall also have executive responsibility for labor relations and shall serve as Chairman, or shall designate a Chairman, of such committees as the Commissioner shall name or the Major League Clubs shall from time to time determine by resolution.

(b) To investigate, either upon complaint or upon the Commissioner’s own initiative, any act, transaction or practice charged, alleged or suspected to be not in the best interests of the national game of Baseball, with authority to summon persons and to order the production of documents, and, in case of refusal to appear or produce, to impose such penalties as are hereinafter provided.

(c) To determine, after investigation, what preventive, remedial or punitive action is appropriate in the premises, and to take such action either against Major League Clubs or individuals, as the case may be.

(d) From time to time, to formulate and to announce the rules of procedure to be observed by the Commissioner and all other parties in connection with the discharge of the Commissioner’s duties. Such rules shall always recognize the right of any party in interest to appear before the Commissioner and to be heard.

(e) To appoint a President of each League to perform such functions as the Commissioner may direct.

(f) To make decisions, or to designate an officer of the Commissioner’s Office to make decisions, regarding on-field discipline, playing rule interpretations, game protests and any other matter within the responsibility of the League Presidents prior to 2000.

Of course, that’s never really been what Manfred has done anyway; having been hired by the 30 billionaire team ownership groups, he does their bidding. But their bidding, as implemented by his actions, create by effect - if not by direct intent - what the rules are that govern Major League Baseball. And with the investigation of the Red Sox and Astros, the plan to eliminate a quarter of the minor leagues, and the league’s demand that players accept a pay cut and assume the risk of exposure to a deadly disease, we now know exactly what the rules of the game are.

Rob Manfred is trying to kill baseball, because it’s more profitable for the owners that way.

Don’t believe me? Consider - according to the rules of the game, it is now a greater sin to sign Gerrit Cole than to use technology to steal signs. In the hierarchy of baseball morality, trying to win by getting better is punished more than trying to win by cheating. This idea dovetails nicely with the idea that players are fungible and interchangeable automatons, which of course makes it easy indeed to demand that they expose themselves to COVID-19 and take a pay cut to do it. In other words, Rob Manfred is talking about baseball players volunteering to die.

Owners have used all sorts of legal and financial sleight of hand to make the real business not baseball, but rather some sort of multimedia “experience,” ranging from sports gambling to whatever it is these newfangled publicly funded ballparks are. Multi-million dollar television contracts with media outlets often owned by the teams themselves create fun little money loops that allow teams to constantly appreciate in value even as the product on the field suffers. But that’s the point - baseball teams are nothing more than investment vehicles now. Trying to win is disincentivized because you can make more money losing and gambling.

That’s why Manfred is so obsessed with changing the rules of the on-field game as well. He’s not trying to make baseball better. He’s trying to make investing in a baseball team more profitable. The very real problem with that approach is that, as a financial proposition, if it’s more profitable to lose than everyone will do that. And presto! - we have two-thirds of the league tanking and making record profits.

It’s been clear for a while now that a Commissioner cannot serve two masters. Bud Selig served the owners, yes, but at least paid lip service to protecting the integrity of the game. That lip service under Manfred is long gone; the mask is off and the charade is over. Directly serving the owners, who are not the people that create baseball, makes Manfred not commissioner of baseball but instead nothing more than an investment portfolio manager. And that’s exactly what he acts like. He manages the investment of the 30 ownership groups, with little to no regard for the health of the industry that they’re investing in. After all, that’s not what the owners want of him. His job is to manage the sport, but his mandate is to maximize profits. Those two goals are fundamentally at odds.

Manfred can be the owners’ representative, but he cannot serve their interests and those of the sport, for they are no longer aligned. Perhaps they never were, but in an age of legalized sports gambling the divide has never been more stark. A commissioner cannot maintain the integrity of the sport whilst simultaneously licensing the sport to gambling outfits.

The only entity with the power to save Major League Baseball is the MLB Players’ Association. The Union, in a very real sense, is Major League Baseball, for the players are the game. The owners don’t even provide the stadia anymore; taxpayers do that. It’s the players who provide the thrills; the crack of the bat, the great catches, the blazing fastballs and eye-popping curves. It’s the players who are the heart and soul of the game.

To that end, it’s time that the Union recognized the fundamental conflict of interest that Manfred refuses to reconcile. The next collective bargaining agreement should and must dictate that the commissioner be chosen by both sides. The commissioner should be neutral - must be neutral - for if you believe that a commissioner not beholden to the owners would take the same tack as Manfred, I have a bridge to sell you. There is precedent in past CBAs, ranging from ostensibly neutral arbitrators to ostensibly neutral mediators chosen by both sides. The final arbiter of baseball should not be biased.

A truly neutral commissioner would have the authority to preside over collective bargaining sessions, address minor league pay and contraction, and caucus with each side separately for the good of the sport. A truly neutral commissioner could mete out discipline without fear of immediate reprisal. A truly neutral commissioner could preserve the game in a way that ensures long-term profitability without endangering players or fans.

Of course the league will balk at any proposal that so severely curtails their power. But at this point, the alternative is that Manfred continues to point a proverbial gun at baseball’s head and begins to pull the trigger. Rob Manfred’s vision of baseball is one where the investment value rules above all else; where the game is subordinate to ownership profits, where even players’ lives are less important than ensuring owners’ pocketbooks remain properly lined. It is a path which leads inexorably to the end of Major League Baseball. The owners don’t fear that eventuality, for their publicly funded stadia mean they lose nothing, and can simply move their money to a new investment. In the meantime, there will of course be talk of bailouts and taxpayer money and the need for players to take pay cuts. But the owners will lose little. It is the players, the fans, the people who actually care about the game, who will lose. But then, we’ve seen this movie before. We just don’t want to acknowledge that it’s happening to baseball right before our eyes.