Rob Manfred is the 10th commissioner of Major League Baseball, chosen Thursday after six rounds of voting and nearly blocked, thanks to the protests of Jerry Reinsdorf and his cadre of clowns, whose preferred candidate’s bona fides were producing a slew of laugh-track sitcoms in the 1970s and ’80s, running one franchise into the ground and serving as third banana in his current ownership group.
This was a frightening peek into the sausage factory of rich-guy politics, the peel-back of a curtain that ensconces much of baseball’s dysfunction from the public. Toward the end, as Reinsdorf, the Chicago White Sox owner, did his best to torpedo a Manfred candidacy that should have sailed through unopposed, the whole thing played out like a bad Tom Werner pilot. Old guy. Pushing 80. Angry. Confrontational. Wants to fight a war he lost long ago. Turns on his best friend. Reinsdorf was like Archie Bunker, Statler and Waldorf, and every Clint Eastwood character of the last decade, dusted with some rosin. Reinsdorf is so stuck in the past he should be preserved in amber.
And the scariest part is that despite the 30-0 vote that came once the Reinsdorf bloc realized it would lose, much larger and deeper issues remain as the 55-year-old Manfred takes the reins from the retiring Bud Selig.
The idea that Reinsdorf and Co. – which included Werner and the Red Sox ownership group, the Angels’ Arte Moreno and five other teams – could take baseball’s labor peace so for granted and overlook Manfred’s accomplishment in MLB’s top bargaining role speaks to what can only be referred to as Billionaire Myopia. The job of commissioner is not to broker TV deals. It is to make sure baseball is played. And nobody in the sport’s history has done a better job of that than Manfred.
Which bodes well for the battles he’ll face between now and the 2016 expiration of the sport’s collective bargaining agreement. Manfred, according to a number of sources on both sides of the negotiating table, “is a deal-maker.” All of them used that same phrase, and it was purposeful; beyond Reinsdorf, Manfred now must convince the other holdouts that his vision is appropriate, and that a united front among owners will keep the game on the field.
As an owner, Selig immersed himself in such politics for years before he found himself running the sport following a coup initiated by him and Reinsdorf. It takes skill to work back channels like Selig did, the sort of skill that Manfred showed in his talks with the MLB Players Association. The union, of course, is run by a group of similarly measured, pragmatic lawyers. Owners are an entirely different beast, an eclectic bunch, many narcissistic bordering on sociopathic, plenty happy to look out for themselves and only themselves, sport be damned.
Reinsdorf’s attempt at Coup 2.0 shows so many of those characteristics. That his worthiest candidate was Werner spoke to the sort of politicking skills that have eroded through the years. Reinsdorf saw his power waning with the emergence of Manfred, who never gave him the sort of respect he received from Selig because he saw Reinsdorf for what he is: a relic.
The idea that Manfred wasn’t tough enough on the MLBPA isn’t just laughable; it’s insulting, particularly in a week that saw the 20th anniversary of the 1994 strike. Since baseball returned in 1995, the NHL, NBA and NFL all have endured work stoppages while MLB turned into the paragon of labor peace. It is no surprise Jerry Reinsdorf wasn’t at the bargaining table for most of those sessions.
Already there is a sentiment inside the union that it gave up too much in the last negotiations and that new executive director Tony Clark will take a harder line. A new commissioner indebted to Reinsdorf – the same Reinsdorf who was with Selig at the heart of collusion cases against the players – would have been a declaration of war by owners.
Instead, we get Manfred, who despite Selig’s backing is far from a clone of his predecessor. As Selig pushed to ban Alex Rodriguez for life last year, Manfred advised strongly against it – and, eventually, persuaded Selig to strike with a long suspension that ended up at one season. Even if Manfred’s tactics in chasing Rodriguez and others in the Biogenesis case were questionable, they were not a black enough mark to pass him over for the others being considered.
Best of all is the clean slate he provides. He is not Selig, who oversaw the cancellation of the 1994 World Series and turned a blind eye to performance-enhancing drug use before rebranding himself as the steroid Sheriff Joe. Less famously, though perhaps more impactfully, Selig built baseball’s massive revenue growth on the back of publicly funded stadiums that fleece taxpayers and local television deals that drain the pockets of the average viewer.
And yet Selig helped grow baseball into a far healthier game than it’s ever been, with strong attendance, an impressive technology base and, best of all, labor peace. Give Selig this: He acknowledged his mistakes and tried to remedy them, and the fact that 2016 will mark the 22nd consecutive with baseball is a legacy of which he should be enormously proud.
Rob Manfred, first as a lawyer, then as a lieutenant, then as a consigliere, helped foster that, and it’s why his victory on Thursday was a victory for the sport. He’s got until Dec. 1, 2016, to whip the turncoats in line, to figure out how large- and small-market teams split revenue and make sure the fight is against the union and not one another. It won’t be easy, not with Reinsdorf and others who almost allowed their greed to interrupt a rightful coronation.
Manfred is a deal-maker, though, and he’ll start making them now, long before Selig steps down in January, because he must. Baseball’s got plenty of issues otherwise. The game is too slow. It doesn’t resonate with kids. Arm injuries are a continuous threat. He’ll confront these head-on with a staff that he hopes can do better than the one that allowed the issues to get to this point.
And perhaps he’ll pick up on the best attribute of his mentor, the one that we saw Thursday. Twice the vote for Manfred was deadlocked at 22-8 – one shy of election. The owners took a break. Selig spoke with Reinsdorf. Less than 30 minutes later, Manfred was commissioner.
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