Sports

The Lords of Baseball Think You’re Stupid

The MLB lockout displays a breathtaking level of cynicism.

Manfred speaking with bug-eyes
Commissioner Rob Manfred at the Waldorf Astoria on Feb. 10, in Orlando. Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Major League Baseball’s first lie is the one it tells about itself. It is the only major American league that refers to itself not as a governing body but as the whole of its sport. Rob Manfred’s official job title is commissioner of baseball. The league office often refers to itself as Baseball, rather than as the major leagues. Even the NFL does not claim its entire game, despite its primacy in a sport that does not have thriving international leagues like baseball’s. Yet there it is, right on the letterhead of the open letter Manfred released on Dec. 2, the same day he initiated a lockout of major league players: A note from the Commissioner of Baseball.

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It’s not a semantic point. Everything about MLB’s messaging underlines that it is Manfred and 30 team owners who represent baseball and protect it from the malign influence of the men who actually play the game. “I first want to thank you for your continued support of the great game of baseball,” Manfred’s letter opened up. Everything in the paragraphs that followed, and more or less everything Manfred has said in the three months since, boils down to framing the lockout in a specific way: It is not a disagreement between players and the owners who sign their checks, but between players and baseball. If you’re a fan of baseball, the players are against you. How’d we get here? Well, Manfred has no idea. “I am so disappointed about the situation in which our game finds itself today,” he wrote. He called it “a difficult day for baseball”—meaning for MLB and club owners—and he was clear about why a “defensive lockout” was necessary: “Simply put, we believe that an offseason lockout is the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season. We hope that the lockout will jumpstart the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time.”

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Apparently, it won’t. Manfred announced on Tuesday that he had canceled teams’ first two series of the season, as the league and MLB Players Association remain apart on a new collective bargaining agreement to govern labor relations. The players have the stronger case on the economic issues that still separate the sides, and the owners should move to close the deal. But management and labor fight all the time, and MLB owners are not novel there. What is special about this lockout is the breathtaking cynicism the owners and Manfred, their frontman, have shown at every turn toward both the players and the public—the way they’ve warped reality to create a narrative about their own role that falls apart at the touch. Sports will see work stoppages again, but never will a commissioner and his bosses craft a public message that is so obviously built around a belief that you, their paying customer, are a dumbass.

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The lockout is Manfred and the owners’ concoction. It is right there in the word: The league locked out its players when the last Basic Agreement expired. MLB did not have to do that, players were not poised to walk out on strike, and the 2022 season could’ve gone ahead while the parties worked on a new one. The “defensive lockout” wasn’t one. But Manfred, whether he believed himself or not, was playing with fire. He said it would be “disastrous” if the league needed to cancel games, which it had never done in a lockout. And when it happened, on Tuesday, he told reporters that fans were “at the very top of our consideration list.” In yet another open letter, Manfred reiterated that MLB would not lift the lockout, pointing out that players went on strike in a CBA-less 1994 season. “We cannot risk such an outcome again for our fans and our sport,” he wrote. See? He’s doing this for you.

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Manfred is an arsonist who wants you to think he is a firefighter. Even if you take him at his word that the lockout was necessary (you should not), his actions since imposing it have been farcical. Manfred’s side did not issue a collective bargaining proposal to the MLB Players Association for 43 whole days after the Commissioner of Baseball said in his first letter that the lockout was meant to “jumpstart” things. The stalling was plain to see as it was happening.

Players don’t get paid in the offseason. They get paid during the season, and Manfred wanted them up against a wall. So the league waited, then moved inch by inch (and sometimes not at all) on the issues the union cared most about. Many of them centered around pay for young players, who get less than their peers in other sports while representing a higher share of the rosters. Manfred slapped an artificial deadline on the process he engineered, saying the sides needed a deal by Monday to preserve the full regular season. He moved it back to Tuesday, then pulled the trigger on cancellations when the union didn’t close the gap. Manfred then told the press that MLB hadn’t “used the phrase ‘last, best, and final offer’ with the union.” That is a legal term. It is management’s right to make a last offer for the players to take or leave. But the MLBPA’s lead negotiator was clear with reporters that MLB had used exactly those words. Someone is lying or at least severely stretching the truth. Maybe it’s the guy who invented both this entire situation and every conceivable justification for it. Either way, Manfred has his leverage, as a delayed season could cost players a lot of money. The thing he claimed to be committed to avoiding—using the threat of it as the foundation for his lockout—is happening.

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None of this has been a cunning display of Machiavellian proportions on either his or his bosses’ part. They have bumbled in front of both the players and the media. Colorado Rockies owner Dick Monfort, who chairs the owners’ labor committee, reportedly whined to the union across the table about the difficult costs of owning a team. (He then disappeared from negotiations for a bit.) Manfred got in front of microphones and said that buying and owning a team was less profitable than investing in the stock market. Manfred provided no evidence and didn’t engage with follow-up questions. But it’s a preposterous claim on the valuations, even before considering the regular cash flows ownership can generate. Manfred could only say it because he thought his target audience, the baseball-loving public, would buy it.

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Such obfuscation is part of the plan. Manfred and the owners did not show up to this self-created crisis without a strategy. The commissioner has spent almost his whole professional life as a management-side labor lawyer, helping companies fight unions. He has been in bureaucratic combat with the MLBPA since the 1980s, first as outside counsel and then as one of the league’s top lawyers. That experience is why the owners picked him to succeed Bud Selig in 2014. His career has built toward this moment of hardball with baseball’s best players.

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What does Manfred really like about his job, aside from the good pay? Is it baseball, the sport he purports to run in its totality? Or is it commissioning? And what exactly does the latter mean to him? Does he look at the game as a fan or a venture capitalist? Is he an effective enough commissioner that he can be either, depending on the room he’s in?

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There is a common school of thought that Manfred does not like baseball. This idea seems to bug him. “People routinely write about how I feel about the game,” he told the Athletic’s Evan Drellich in 2020. “They have no idea how I feel about the game. The fact that, you know, I don’t wear an ‘I love baseball’ tattoo on my forehead doesn’t mean that I don’t love the game. I actually do. I’ve devoted the vast majority of my career to it.”

Again, Manfred seems to either not grasp or not mind that the league office and owners—the parties to whom he has given his career—are not the same as “baseball.” But so much of his track record says that the sport’s well-being is not a concern to its commissioner. Does baseball’s ultimate prize mean a lot to him? Apparently not. He called the World Series trophy “a piece of metal” in explaining why he wouldn’t take it away from the cheating Houston Astros. (He apologized.) Does the sport’s primary access point to tons of communities matter to him? Apparently not; he spearheaded a plan to strip big league affiliations from 42 minor league teams, then framed it as a way to improve players’ working conditions, something MLB has not actually shown a care in the world about. Does Manfred see major league games as sacred? Does he dream of the crack of the bat? He is now the first commissioner in 27 years to preside over game cancellations in a work stoppage, and the first ever to force it via a lockout.

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I don’t know if Manfred ever dreamed of playing in a World Series. But I do know that to a career management-side labor attorney, a high-profile lockout like this one is the World Series. Manfred is playing for the same team he’s always played for, which happens to be the one that does not actually play the games. The owners gave him the ball, and he is staring down the union-busting equivalent of the bases loaded with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

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Excuse the analogy to a sport Manfred may or may not care for himself. The lockout is the moment for Manfred to reach for his best stuff—a fastball on the inside corner, or maybe a ballsy changeup. The commissioner decided that his best pitch was to convince fans that what is happening in front of their faces is not really happening. And if the man running Major League Baseball thinks that little of you, it raises a real question about why you should care about the sport he claims to run in the first place. It is a sincere question. The only reason it isn’t a threat is that the Commissioner of Baseball does not think you could tie your shoes to walk away from him.

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