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Rob Manfred is overthrowing ownership

While owners are distracted by money, Manfred is consolidating control over the sport

MLB: Winter Meetings Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

In theory, there are two ways to be a commissioner of Major League Baseball. One is to act for the good of Major League Baseball, to protect and preserve the league and sport. Precious few commissioners have approached the job from this direction. On the other hand, the commissioner could work for the owners, preserving and maximizing their profits at the expense of all else. Until recently, it seemed that Rob Manfred was following this path, even if it led to the destruction of the sport itself.

But as it turns out, Manfred is taking a third approach, and one arguably even more dangerous. It started when Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo canceled the team’s Monday workout.

The Nationals canceled Monday’s workout because the club hadn’t received Friday’s intake testing results back, despite MLB promising 24-hour turnaround time. Major League Baseball issued a weak statement on the matter later in the afternoon, attributing the delays to the holiday weekend.

After canceling Monday’s workout, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said, “We will not sacrifice the health and safety of our players, staff, and their families. Without accurate and timely testing it is simply not safe for us to continue with Summer Camp. Major League Baseball needs to work quickly to resolve issues with their process and their lab. Otherwise, Summer Camp and the 2020 Season are at risk.”

That Rizzo was looking out for his players is a welcome change from the fraught negotiations of just weeks ago. However, Manfred didn’t see it that way.

MLB considered Rizzo’s statement to be some sort of insubordination. “The commissioner jumped on him for that,” one person familiar with the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Monday.

Now, it’s certainly true that Manfred, as commissioner, has plenary power over Major League Baseball to the extent allowed by the MLB Constitution and rules promulgated thereunder. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to genuflect before him, however. In fact, there is no way that Mike Rizzo can be insubordinate to Manfred. Why? Because Manfred doesn’t employ Rizzo.

In the context of employment law, the term “insubordination” means an employee’s failure/refusal to comply with the lawful instructions of his or her employer. Insubordination is a valid ground for an employer to impose disciplinary action against the insubordinate employee.

You see, Manfred is hired and employed by the thirty ownership groups. Rizzo is hired and employed by the Lerner family, one of those ownership groups. Whilst Manfred has authority under the MLB Constitution to discipline owners and team employees for misconduct, “insubordination” is not a type of misconduct listed. In fact, “insubordination” doesn’t appear anywhere in the MLB Constitution, because that would make no sense. The Major League Rules reference insubordination by a player, but notably omit any reference of insubordination towards the commissioner. A general manager or front office employee cannot be insubordinate towards a commissioner, by definition.

Now, Manfred has the theoretical authority to suspend Rizzo for a century for misconduct, but that misconduct cannot include insubordination unless Manfred is prepared to use the “best interests of the game” language most famously used to bar Pete Rose for gambling. Using that language in this instance would be tantamount to claiming that Manfred and Major League Baseball are one and the same, and that’s a leap the owners would accept at their own peril.

Perhaps more disturbing than Manfred’s baseless accusation of insubordination is the reason for it: that Rizzo was concerned about his players’ health and the slow pace of testing. Manfred found Rizzo’s concerns about player safety to be a negative, which tracks with the sort of commodification of human beings we see from the league. In other words, Manfred considered any criticism of his dehumanization of MLB players to be questioning his authority, which therefore means that Manfred believes he has authority to endanger players’ lives for profit in the first place.

Viewed through this lens, Manfred’s other major gaffe of the past week makes significantly more sense - and should be cause for major alarm amongst players and owners alike. Manfred, you see, flatly admitted that the MLB season in 2020 was never going to be more than 60 games irrespective of what the players offered.

I know some people have talked about longer seasons. The reality is we weren’t going to play more than 60 games no matter how the negotiations with the players went or any other factor. 60 games is the outside of the end goal given the realities of the times. I think this is the one thing that we come back to every single day. We’re trying to manage something that has proven to be unpredictable and unmanageable. I know it hasn’t looked particularly pretty in spots but having said that, if we can pull of this 60-game season, I think it was the best we were going to do for our fans given the course of the virus.

Viewing this through the light most favorable to Manfred, this perhaps means that he believed that the virus would make only sixty games possible. But in the context of what happened with Rizzo, this takes a darker turn. Essentially, Manfred is saying here that he believed that he had unilateral power to contravene an agreement between the players and the owners even if that agreement called for more than sixty games. Manfred does not believe that he is bound by collectively bargained agreements between players and ownership, and he believes that so strongly that he is willing to say so publicly.

Put together, what the last week demonstrates is a commissioner out of control. He does not believe he is beholden to ownership, for Rizzo is an employee of one of the wealthiest owners. He owes no loyalty to the sport or its players, whose lives he believes are less important than saving some money on weekend shipping. And he pays no heed to collective bargaining, which to him is an optional recommendation he is free to disregard. The reign of Rob Manfred is not about paying fealty to ownership any longer - it’s about consolidating his own power over ownership and bending the sport to his will. His single-minded fixation on maximizing profits is about placating owners during his takeover, for owners are far less likely to object to his power grab if they are still swimming in money.

Still, ownership should probably be terrified right now. After all, Manfred remains their agent, and they are therefore liable for his actions. At the same time, he has demonstrated he has no allegiance whatsoever to their authority, and instead is throwing cash at them to keep them happy. Rob Manfred is indeed killing baseball, only now he’s showing a willingness to do so by killing baseball players, all for the sake of his own power. It’s a prospect that is truly horrifying as we hurtle towards the 2021 CBA expiration.