Major League Baseball Chief Operating Officer Rob Manfred has been elected to succeed the outgoing Commissioner Bud Selig. The final vote was officially unanimous, but news reports throughout the day suggest that was merely symbolic and that there was a hardcore group of owners, eight in total, who were against him. According to the New York Daily News, five American League teams, the Red Sox, Blue Jays, White Sox, Angels, and A's, and three National League teams, the Nationals, Reds, and Diamondbacks, preferred Red Sox partner Tom Werner as the next commissioner. Ultimately one of the anti-Manfred eight changed their vote, at which point the other seven threw in the towel and voted for the winner for the sake of unanimity. It doesn't mean they're for him, nor does it mean they will cooperate with him or even cease working to convert other owners to their point of view and eventually install a man more to their liking.
Baseball owners have always been a fractious group. The National Commission that loosely ran the game before the advent of the commissioner system, and every commissioner after Judge Landis, had to manage coalitions to make the game work. Often they failed. Leaving aside Bart Giamatti, who died in office, Ford Frick, who retired when no one could honestly say whether or not having him in the office was any different than not having him in the office, and the visibly wilting Mr. Selig, everyone else was pushed out the door.
Robin Williams & a baseball film he never made
"Thank you very much. You're on your own. Good night." -- Robin Williams, 1978.
Nearly 100 years ago, the Yankees acquired sidearming pitcher/malcontent Carl Mays from the Boston Red Sox after he had walked off the mound in the middle of a game and said he would never pitch for the team again. American League founder and president Ban Johnson wanted him suspended indefinitely and forced to return to the Red Sox. The Yankees went to court and got an injunction against Johnson that allowed Mays to join the club. For a time, it seemed as if the AL would split in two over this issue. Johnson commanded the support of "The Loyal Five," while the three "Insurrectos," the Yankees and both Sox, were ready to jump out of the circuit and were feeling about for a fourth club so they could hook up with the National League to form a 12-team league. It doesn't sound like very much has changed in the ensuing century or so, even if the original actors have long since gone to dust.
One aspect of the dysfunctional drama played out on Thursday -- in which a clear minority tried to thwart the will of the majority for reasons that were never clearly enunciated, at least to the public -- is that of a collection of wealthy men, all of whom are used to getting their way, failed to compromise. If I say this is a microcosm of the way the whole danged country works right now, you'll likely feel hit over the head with the analogy, but if this be obvious let us make the most of it: Of 30 rich men who only have grown more wealthy as huge television contracts have swept Scrooge McDuck levels of dough into the game, seven felt that they could stand to make more. Depending on the source, they wanted to shield their own RSN money from the rest of the owners, or felt that the players still get too large a chunk of the game's revenues. Everyone is making more than anyone could have rationally dreamed of even 25 years ago, but no, as Tom Lehrer -- just a couple letters off! -- sang in his "Smut," "MORE, MORE, I'M STILL NOT SATISFIED!"
Hey, just because most of us didn't enjoy the 1994-1995 baseball labor wars as much as we would have enjoyed a good World Series doesn't mean they don't have a point. You would have to see the books to know for certain. Still, the kind of brinksmanship that Major League Baseball practiced then -- wait, sorry; "brinksmanship" implies you go up to the brink, not over it, which they did -- is much more dangerous now than it was then. Yes, fans came back, but it took awhile -- it required Cal Ripken, Jr., not to mention Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, and we don't have sluggers right now. Even if we did, they'd be viewed as tainted. That's one of Bud Selig's gifts to us all, along with the aforementioned fall and spring of discontent.
More to the point, 20 years ago there were fewer alternatives to baseball. The Internet had taken hold but was a mere Luxembourg of a country compared to the universe-sized behemoth it is now. Today there are 900 more channels on television, every movie ever made is at your fingertips anytime you want one, more or less. Even something that most of us would never think of watching is just foisted on us by the cable companies as a way of passing on the rights fees -- Orbie, the Graphic Videos of Human Eyeball-Torture Network. The premium networks are probably about to pop an arresting original series co-created by David Milch, David Chase, and David Simon that demands you binge-watch it in 24 two-hour installments, "Bloody Eyeball is the New Orange Orphan" or something. There are seemingly dozens of distractions like that available now, 24 hours a day.
Supposedly the minority Wernerfraktion was concerned about the game's aging fanbase. So am I; I don't mind being a fan, but I do dislike the aging part and wish the new commissioner would do something to reverse that as his first act of office. Since that is, alas, unlikely, the Werner junta wanted their man to bring the youth of America flocking to the game. Good luck with getting the youth of America to do anything, but if the Wernerites want to see what will drive them away in huge, irrecoverable numbers, take the simple step of turning off Baseball again.
Still, it would have been good to hear the plan, because it seems nigh impossible to acquire kids without the sport reconsidering its marketing in a major way, if it's possible at all. The owners have never wanted to spend money on common sense things like advertising when they have to pay for it - i.e. not during games (I love seeing ads during baseball games telling me how great baseball is. I know. If I didn't like it, I wouldn't be watching it) but during high-rated non-sports programs -- say, after the opening credits of "Bloody Eyeball is the New Orange Orphan" on Orbie.
One suspects that this concern was more of a mask for what we've already cited, the desire of the Wernerverschwörung to suck every last penny out of the game instead of the percentage they're currently getting. Again, there are sources that suggest this, along with Jerry Reinsdorf's history as a hawk in previous labor disputes (he's also the guy who made something of a farce out of his position by signing free-agent Albert Belle to a then-massive contract in November, 1996). We who love the game rather than profit directly from it can only hope that Manfred will not, like some political candidate who jockeys to the left or right to please primary voters, have to take a harder line with the players in future negotiations than he might otherwise have been inclined to do.
It's one thing to be elected commissioner of baseball. It's another thing to keep the job. It would take a very strong man indeed not to bend his beliefs to keep whichever of the original eight holdouts changed his vote in his camp. It's not just that absolute power corrupts absolutely; the pursuit and maintenance of it might be even more soul-twistingly pernicious.