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Rob Manfred is a terrible commissioner, and that’s by design

No one except MLB owners thinks Rob Manfred is good at his job, but that’s all that matters.

2019 World Series Game 7 - Washington Nationals v. Houston Astros
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred pictured with a piece of metal.
Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Rob Manfred has been Commissioner of Baseball for more than half a decade. It would be unfair to say that his time shepherding the sport has been forgettable, mostly because it’s been so luridly unpleasant. While obscene amounts of money pour into the game, fattening owners’ already-grotesque wallets, MLB players have watched teams balk at spending, preferring to trade away their stars than hit a soft luxury tax threshold. Ticket prices continue to rise. Token gestures notwithstanding, Minor League Baseball is on the brink of catastrophe. And then, of course, there’s the Houston Astros investigation, which seemed fairly fishy at the outset and now looks almost totally botched.

Folks seem pretty fed up with the whole thing. Oakland Athletics pitcher Jake Diekman, for instance, just casually suggested that MLB needs a new commissioner. And here is Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Justin Turner laying into Manfred for a messy press conference in which the commissioner suggested the World Series trophy was “just a piece of metal.”

I don’t know if the commissioner has ever won anything in his life. Maybe he hasn’t. But the reason every guy’s in this room, the reason every guy is working out all offseason, and showing up to camp early and putting in all the time and effort is specifically for that trophy, which, by the way, is called the Commissioner’s Trophy.

So for him to devalue it the way he did yesterday just tells me how out of touch he is with the players in this game. At this point the only thing devaluing that trophy is that it says ‘commissioner’ on it.

Enabling league-wide cost-cutting and then letting mass cheating go essentially un-punished is not a good way to get players on one’s side. Presiding over an economic environment that encourages a frightening number of teams to intentionally get worse is hardly going to appeal to fans. And, of course, MLB’s current relationship with the minor leagues is almost existentially bad. Messing around with pitch clocks and limiting mound visits is nice, I suppose, but there’s a famous saying about deck chair arrangement which comes to mind here.

With relations between players and owners strained to a near breaking point, a major scandal whistle-blown on his watch, and attendance falling year by year, it’s tempting to suggest that Manfred’s time as commissioner has been a complete and unmitigated failure. But to do so would be to misunderstand his job.

In an ideal world, a commissioner would be a disinterested guardian of the sport. Everything they do would be for the good of the game, from rule changes to punishments. This is not an ideal world.

The commissioner is elected by MLB’s owners, who are hardly disinterested parties. Sports franchises are big business, and that unpleasant fact has been more and more obvious as teams change posture from trying to win (or, at least, pretending) to trying to maximize profits. If you’re appointed to your job by a small cabal of extremely wealthy people, your job can probably be assumed to involve keeping them happy and not much else.

Manfred, who was elected on the third ballot following the end of Bud Selig’s tenure, is indeed keeping his bosses happy. In 2018, MLB owners voted to extend his contract as commissioner through 2024, as glowing a performance review as a joyless baseball puppet might hope for. Given that owners are positioning themselves as opposed to the players and indifferent to fans, this is not encouraging. Manfred is a bad commissioner because the office of the Commissioner of Baseball is set up to create bad commissioners.

The owners are gambling that fans won’t care when, for instance, the Boston Red Sox kick out their best player for the sin of being expensive, or when the commissioner’s office tries to turn a blind eye to a championship-winning team being credibly accused of cheating. For Manfred and his bosses, the expectation is that dopes spring eternal.

How long are we going to put up with it?