Baseball is a great game, and the news on the field continues to be good. Top talent performs at the highest level and great players challenge the records of old.
But the news off the field is bleak. Service time manipulation and rumors of electronic cheating scandals have been scandals for years, and now the news has come from Major League Baseball’s leadership that they want to reduce the number of minor league teams across the country. It all speaks to a lack of leadership and, more specifically, the lack of a real commissioner of baseball.
Astute readers will note, perhaps, that baseball already has a commissioner, Rob Manfred, who has held that office since 2015. They are correct. But Manfred is not what baseball’s commissioner was intended to be. He is, like his predecessor Bud Selig, the commissioner of the owners.
Baseball needs a chairman who represents owners, players, and fans. They need someone who will truly act in the best interests of the game, not the best interest of the owners. Baseball needs a real commissioner again.
No Men Out
The Houston Astros’ cheating scandal is the most talked about problem in baseball this off-season, and for good reason. An MLB investigation found that the Astros used baseball’s new technology for pitch tracking to steal signs in the 2017 season. They won the World Series that year, which makes the incident even more egregious. Not since the Black Sox scandal of 1919—when players on the Chicago White Sox were paid by gamblers to throw the World Series—has a world championship been so tainted.
Rumors of the cheating circulated for years before MLB finally imposed punishment. Houston’s manager and general manager were each suspended for a year. The team was fined $5 million and lost its first and second round picks for the next two drafts. Brandon Taubman, the former assistant general manager the Astros had already fired for unrelated reasons, was placed on baseball’s “ineligible list”—that is, banned for life.
The punishment sounds harsh, but in light of the circumstances, it’s fair to say that the Astros got off easy. The one man banned for life was already out of baseball and had left in such an ignominious fashion that no team was likely to hire him anyway. The last time a team stole a World Series, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned nine men from the game, one of whom—Joe Gedeon—wasn’t even on the White Sox.
Landis was appointed baseball’s first commissioner largely because of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. The level of corruption around the sport had gotten out of control, and the owners knew no one would pay to watch a crooked game. Landis was baseball’s hanging judge because he had to be, and it restored the game to its status as America’s national pastime.
Modern fans might say that Landis was too harsh, especially in the case of banned players like Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver, who played well in the Series but were banned merely for knowing about the scam and not reporting it. But erring on the side of harshness 100 years ago saved the game that we still love today. His successors were from the same mold, right up until the owners forced out Commissioner Fay Vincent in 1992.
Where Landis was firm, Manfred is lenient. Management deserved their penalties, but players were involved, too. Why are there no consequence at that level? And why was no owner suspended when past owners like George Steinbrenner and William D. Cox were suspended for far less? Why is the only banned person one who was already out of the game?
The answer is money. The owners want the situation cleaned up, just as they did in 1920. But they don’t want to take any responsibility and they don’t want to lose anything related to their most valuable asset: the players who work for them. Landis was charged with acting in the best interests of baseball; Manfred was hired to act in the best interest of 30 team owners.
Major League Problems
Other problems in the game reflect this narrow view of the commissioner’s office. The other big news from that arena this off-season has been MLB’s attempt to eliminate 42 minor league affiliates. Some of these teams have deep roots in their areas. The Chattanooga Lookouts, for example, were founded in 1885—long before most major league teams started playing. Although independent leagues do exist, cutting these teams off from the pipeline of talent controlled by the major leagues would be a death sentence to many of them.
Again, this is a commissioner’s office that is acting in the best interest of 30 major league owners, not all of baseball. Players certainly would not benefit by the loss of more than 1,000 jobs, even ones that are as low-paying as the minor leagues are. And the fans clearly lose out.
Television brings us major-league baseball wherever we live, but to experience the live sport requires proximity. These small-market teams inspire young fans’ love of the game and bring real professional baseball to a wide swathe of the country. Manfred’s plan wipes all of that away to save a few bucks for the already wealthy owners.
Even if they don’t get cut from teams’ rosters because of contraction, minor league players have had it tough lately, and the commissioner has done nothing to fix the problem. Fans of the game will long have noted the curious practice of teams waiting until June to bring up talented minor league players, even though all the world can see that these men are major-league ready on Opening Day.
Why? Because the owners have discovered that the wording of the collective bargaining agreement gives them another year of control over young players if they delay their call-ups by a couple of months.
The service time manipulation is legal, in the sense that it follows the contract to the letter. But the players lose out for no good baseball-related reason, and the fans are deprived of seeing a good player play the game. Dan McLaughlin discussed this last year at National Review, and one of the closing lines of his article is telling: “Neither side is likely to put the game’s best interests over its own.” That’s true, but there once was a person who was supposed to act in the game’s best interests: the commissioner.
More Is More
Manfred’s solution to all of the problems of baseball has been to have less baseball. Fewer minor league teams and less playing time for top prospects are in line with his extra innings proposals of a few years ago, in which he promised to shorten the game to keep up with our busy modern lives.
MLB should consider this: anyone still watching a baseball game in the 15th inning loves baseball. They may have busy lives, but they are making time to watch your sport. They are your biggest fans. They want more baseball, not less of it.
The same goes for fans of minor league baseball. The Billings Mustangs will never come close to bringing in the revenue of the New York Yankees or even the Tampa Bay Rays, but for fans in Montana they are one of the few options for seeing pro baseball without driving hundreds of miles. The people who attend those games are serious fans. Is it in baseball’s best interest to alienate them?
Baseball remains a popular sport, and it is spreading to more countries around the world. Manfred’s job should be to preserve the game that so many people love and to make it more available to those who want it. To his credit, he has done that in one area: advocating expansion to 32 major league teams. But if the cost of two more major league teams is the destruction of 42 minor league ones, the continued mistreatment of minor league players, and constant tinkering with rules that were long ago perfected, is it worth it?
Fix What’s Broken, Leave the Rest
The plague of electronic sign stealing was ignored for too long, just as the epidemic of steroid use was ignored by Manfred’s predecessor. The fans want baseball, but they want clean baseball. And there are solutions to the cheating. Restricting access to cameras seems bound to happen, and it should, but why not go a step farther and allow technology to correct the problem that technology created?
Baseball has adopted some bad ideas from football, like instant replay and constant tinkering with increasingly technical rules. But football has a few good ideas, too. One is allowing the quarterback to wear an earpiece so he can communicate directly with the coach. Baseball could do the same, which would work for coaches who call pitches from the bench.
For those who, like most, allow catchers to call the game, some sort of vibrating wristbands could be devised. News broke on Thursday that some Astros players were doing this exact thing to relay the signs they stole. Why not fight fire with fire?
To do that, baseball needs a commissioner who is not merely the servant of the 30 major league team owners. A commissioner should be a fair dealer among the competing interests of baseball, preserving the game for future generations, upholding its standards, and making adjustments where necessary. It is not impossible to find such a person; baseball had commissioners like this from 1920 to 1992. They would do well to find another one before it’s too late.