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Rob Manfred Doesn’t Lose

The MLB commissioner got the job because he’s a ruthless negotiator, and both veterans and minor leaguers are now paying the price

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Life is full of mysteries, and so is baseball. This week, as part of The Ringer’s 2017 MLB Preview, we’ll be taking a closer look at some of the most intriguing people and teams entering the season. Some excite us, some confound us, but they all leave us asking the same question: What’s Your Plan?

Rob Manfred is the trendy suburban kitchen of sports executives — he’s open to everything. Here’s a partial list of things the commissioner of MLB has been willing to discuss in his two-plus years on the job:

Even when Manfred’s contemplations take concrete form — such as divorcing the All-Star Game from home-field advantage in the World Series, or the much-maligned automatic intentional walk — they often seem like trial balloons or half measures, nothing like a coherent plan to do … anything, really. Manfred sometimes comes off like your least-confrontational friend, unwilling to shut down any idea that might have merit at some point in the future and reluctant to offend by saying “No.”

That would all be troubling if Manfred’s entire job were to make baseball better, but it isn’t.

Every commissioner, for good or ill, has a reputation. The NFL’s Roger Goodell, for instance, is a combination of buffoonish, bland, and deeply sinister that you seldom see outside of politics. Manfred’s predecessor, Bud Selig, never overcame — or really deserved to overcome — his start as a cranky Milwaukee businessman. Just by physical comparison with Selig, who by the end of his tenure became one big wrinkled frown, the often-smiling 58-year-old Manfred looks positively avuncular.

Despite all the discussion and equivocation, Manfred doesn’t appear to be doing all that much, for good or ill, within the sport. In two years, there hasn’t been a work stoppage, or expansion, or contraction, or even an embarrassing foul-up like the 2002 All-Star Game tie. Everything’s fine.

But Manfred didn’t get his job to revolutionize the sport, or even just to make the trains run on time. He’s not a marketing genius or an entertainment industry veteran or even a Baseball Man. Manfred is a lawyer, business expert, and ruthless negotiator.

Karl Marx wrote: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more the more labor it sucks.” And Manfred is king of the vampires.

For all the bad memories of Selig’s nearly two decades running MLB, one of his more useful legacies is demystifying the office of the commissioner. Since the position was created in 1920, the commissioner has been the apparent guardian of the game, protector of its norms, rules, and legacy. For 70 years, those guardians had been judges (Kenesaw Mountain Landis), politicians (Happy Chandler), sportswriters (Ford Frick), soldiers (William Eckert), and academics (Bart Giamatti).

Selig was the first owner promoted to the role, and through his role in the 1994 strike, he dropped the pretense that the commissioner is the impartial, benevolent leader of “Baseball” in general. The commissioner, always hired by the owners, represents the owners’ interests. He is the leader of management the same way the head of the MLBPA is the leader of labor, and it’s been that way since Marvin Miller turned the MLBPA into a substantial union in the 1970s — it just took 20 years for the perception to shift.

It is that role to which Manfred is ideally suited. As MLB’s executive vice president for labor relations and human resources, Manfred took charge of CBA negotiations in 2002, 2006, and 2011. From the strike until the turn of the century, players and owners split league revenue about 50–50, before the players’ share climbed to 56 percent in 2002, the year the first Manfred-negotiated CBA took effect. In 2015, when Manfred became commissioner, the players were taking home only 38 percent of league revenue. The baseball world was so scarred by the strike and the cancellation of the 1994 World Series that labor peace itself was seen as a victory, but a drop from a 50–50 split to 62–38 is more than a billion dollars a year diverted from the players — who unlike most unionized laborers are the product — to anonymous billionaires, many of whom inherited their wealth to start.

The new CBA negotiated this past offseason will affect the game in ways we can’t foresee yet, but one key union constituency is already being left behind: rank-and-file veterans. As post-Moneyball front offices have become more professionalized, teams are devoting more of their free-agent budgets to superstars while complementing them with younger (read: cheaper) supporting players. That leaves workaday veterans — average players whose experience would command higher salaries — either taking pay cuts or staying off the field. Younger, cheaper players do more work for less pay, while the middle class gets squeezed out, all so the super-rich can get a slightly larger share of the pie. The pattern, as Yahoo columnist Jeff Passan noted, is a grim parallel to American class economics at large.

And big league veterans are already starting to notice.

“I think the more we sit down and dig into it, we’ll find that we left a lot of people behind,” said Dodgers right-hander Brandon McCarthy. “Doug Fister’s sitting at home right now, and he can’t have a conversation in a clubhouse. Joe Blanton took two and a half weeks to find a deal that’s way too low for him.”

Fister, a 33-year-old who finished eighth in Cy Young voting in 2014, threw 180.1 innings for Houston last year with an 85 ERA+. He’s on the downside of his career, and an 85 ERA+ isn’t great, but anyone capable of throwing 180 passable innings a year should be able to find work. Blanton, a 36-year-old with 12 years of major league experience, is one of four relief pitchers to throw 150 innings over the past two years with a 150 ERA+ or better. He’ll make between $4 million and $5 million this year (his former teammate Kenley Jansen’s contract averages $16 million a year) and most of Blanton’s pay will be deferred.

“This year was a tough free-agent class for a lot of guys, and next year it’s going to be even worse, with that free-agent class,” said Brewers first baseman Eric Thames, who did a double-take when I told him Fister was still unsigned. “Front offices are leaning toward prospects now, they’re leaning toward young guys. It’s cool when you’re that prospect, but as you get older, guys still have a lot left in the tank and they don’t have a job. It sucks, but it’s where the game is right now.”

There’s also the systematic exploitation of minor leaguers and amateurs, who live outside the protection of the MLBPA, and from whom MLB has diverted countless millions of dollars in salary and bonuses through the draft, spending caps, and baseball’s disregard for minimum wage laws. Of course, these practices predate Manfred and will probably outlast him. To quote Edward R. Murrow, “He didn’t create this situation. … He merely exploited it, and rather successfully.”

The marginalization of youngsters and rank-and-file veterans to benefit the super-rich is the natural outgrowth of management acting rationally in a capitalist market. Labor costs drive down profits, and Manfred’s job is to protect profits, not wages.

“It’s a scary road for us to go down. Without building in some protections for that group, you’re going to find teams building too aggressively toward superstars and, just, kids,” McCarthy said. “If you get into that realm, you’re kind of endangering that group, and maybe your base — guys who have been in your union for eight to 10 years. … It’s not a great precedent.”

The union is supposed to intervene here, using the collective strength of the labor force that makes the game work to force management to both consider goals other than maximizing profit and install the “protections” McCarthy described.

Four CBAs in, Manfred has done nothing but absolutely shellack his opponents — not just current executive director Tony Clark, but Clark’s predecessor, Michael Weiner, and Weiner’s predecessor, Donald Fehr, who was Miller’s protégé and leader of the MLBPA through the 1994 strike. Just compare what Manfred has done to what his NHL counterpart, Gary Bettman, has done over the past 25 years: Bettman’s gone through three lockouts, instituted a salary cap, and made himself such a public punching bag that he gets routinely booed whenever he shows up in public. And he still only got the players down to 50–50.

Manfred is beating 50–50 by 10 figures a year, has never been part of a work stoppage in baseball, and still comes off like your goofy dad. He is the best labor negotiator the sports world has seen since Miller. He’s been open to anything — except losing.