The Manfred Mistake

Rob Manfred was the right man for the job he was hired to do, but not for the job he finds himself doing.

Rob Manfred was hired to do a job, one that the owners felt he was uniquely suited for: negotiate the best deal possible for the owners in the CBA talks following the 2016 season. Ask any player what they think about the current CBA that is ready to expire in 2021 and they will likely tell you that the league took advantage of them in that deal. In fact, most of the vitriol and anger directed towards Manfred today stems from the CBA that was agreed upon that ultimately benefited the owners more than the players. Revenues for baseball are up, but the players are convinced that their share of that revenue is not keeping pace. Most impartial observers would consider the 2016 CBA to be a huge win for owners, and make no mistake, Rob Manfred works for the owners.

In the intervening 3 seasons, however, Manfred has discovered this job is not just about negotiating CBA’s. Since he does work at the pleasure of the 30 MLB ownership groups, he also has to be concerned with making them as much money as possible, protecting the game from itself at times, and unfortunately, player discipline. He has taken criticism for exploring options to speed up the game, a seemingly feeble attempt to make it more marketable to a fanbase that has a dwindling attention span as well as a much larger variety of competition for their interest. He has come under fire repeatedly for his innovations as well as his failure to address concerns about safety and wellness of players and fans. It’s player discipline, however, that Manfred seems to struggle with the most. The very skill set that got him the job of Commissioner of Baseball is the same that works against him in player discipline.

Take, for instance, this most recent scandal for baseball revolving around the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox. Ever since 2016 when the current CBA was finalized, Manfred and his team have been laying the groundwork for the negotiation of the 2021 CBA. Every decision is debated internally with that in mind, and the impact of those decisions is weighed against their impact on the CBA talks. Proposals are made with no other motivation than leverage in negotiations. The union is opposed to roster limits? Ok, maybe we can talk about taking that off the table, but the MLBPA will have to relent on their request for early free agency. Want to talk about a salary floor? Sure, but that’s going to cost you in your revenue share. Everything is viewed through the lens of the CBA, and the sign stealing scandal is no different.

Punishment is collectively bargained. It’s basic labor law. You can’t punish union members without providing notice of what actions are punishable and by what method of punishment. Commissioner Manfred gave notice to team officials of actions that the league would take if illicit sign stealing methods were being used, but notice wasn’t given to the MLBPA. Manfred has stated that this was due to his office’s belief that electronic methods were controlled by the team, not the players, so they were the parties that would be put on notice. What he didn’t say, of course, is that in order to warn the players, he would have to detail exactly what would be punishable and how players would be punished. In doing so, he would have to enter into negotiations with the MLBPA over those punishments, but without some specific cause he would have zero leverage in those negotiations. So he tabled it, no doubt believing that this was all something that could be hammered out in the CBA talks. In fact, he probably felt the issue was settled after the punishments his office handed down to teams in 2017.

We know now that the issue was far worse than anyone could have believed initially. Faced with that knowledge, Manfred had to admit to himself and his staff that he was wrong. He should have acted back in 2017 more deliberately, pushing for a deal of any kind with the union for punishment instead of trying to wait for the time when he would have the most leverage. His experience in CBA negotiations led him to make a poor decision, and he found himself faced with a huge scandal and no idea of how far it went. Even worse, he couldn’t punish the individuals involved because of labor laws. In the end, he reverted to his comfort zone, and rather than risk punishing players for their roles and risk grievance hearings and, ultimately, poisoning the CBA negotiations, he traded his principles for leverage.

He provided immunity to players involved so that they would tell their story. This accomplished two things that were very important to Manfred and the league: he discovered the scope of the scandal, and he received the necessary leverage to force the MLBPA to deal with him on the punishments for future instances of sign stealing. With every angry interview, every explosive Tweet storm, and every barbed article, Manfred gains more and more leverage to get exactly the punishment schedule that he would have liked to use on Houston but couldn’t. In the end, future instances of sign stealing will be punished more harshly than they would have had Manfred tried to get an agreement after the 2017 season. While it appears that Houston and, possibly, Boston, will skate on their part in this scandal, having a more robust punishment option moving forward might be the best anyone can hope for.

Players across the league are lining up in front of any microphone they can find, begging for the chance to throw the Astros and Manfred under the bus. Anger towards the players is warranted, but the irony of the players’ frustration with Manfred must be noted. The very organization that represents their interests on CBA talks is the same organization that would have fought to the bitter end to protect those guilty players from any kind of punishment from the league. The same people complaining about Manfred not punishing the Astros players for their role in the scandal are the same who would have collectively argued that any punishment would have been in violation of the CBA. Make no mistake, the players, too, know that CBA talks are on the horizon, and they are doing their dead-level best to vilify the league office in advance of those talks. Their best leverage is the fan, and as a group we are all taking their bait. Reserve your anger for the guilty players, and let Manfred do his job. The one he was hired for.

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