BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
19 April 2021
ORLANDO, FL – How dare he.
How dare Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred pull the league’s 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta. How dare he take away one of baseball’s showcase events after the Georgia legislature passed laws that restrict voting access for that state’s citizens.
Just when I had convinced myself that Manfred was among the most ineffective commissioners in Major League Baseball history, he acts honorably and decisively in doing the right thing. How dare he.
“Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box,” Manfred said in a statement explaining his action. “... We proudly used our platform to encourage baseball fans and communities throughout our country to perform their civic duty and actively participate in the voting process. Fair access to voting continues to have our game’s unwavering support.”
Maybe the All-Star Game (scheduled for July 13) isn’t the A-list sports event it used to be, nor the “Midsummer Classic” it bills itself to be, but this was not a trivial decision. Relocating the ASG from Atlanta to Denver is a big deal, especially at this late date. One Georgia tourism official told CNN that the move will cost the state more than $100 million in revenue.
It was a decisive and surprising strike by Manfred. Decisive because he did not beforehand solicit the opinions – or approval -- of all of baseball’s team owners, many of them billionaires who lean toward the Republican side. Surprising, because the commissioner historically is seen as working for the owners.
As one might imagine, a lot of Georgians are not happy, particularly Republicans and people whose businesses stood to benefit from Atlanta hosting the game. There was pushback from outside of the Peach State as well. According to news reports, South Carolina Representative Jeff Duncan and Utah Senator Mike Lee, both Republicans, have filed legislation “to remove Major League Baseball’s federal antitrust exception.” And, former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent called the move a “serious mistake.” MLB and the players will be paid the same regardless where the game is played, Vincent noted. “(But) now (Manfred’s) put himself in the awkward position of having to defend Colorado’s voting laws.”
To be certain, plenty of people are questioning Manfred’s motives. He has plenty of detractors who wonder whether he even likes baseball, and if he’s more concerned with increasing league and teams’ profits than preserving the game. They see this move as further proof.
In truth, though, as soon as Georgia’s legislature passed the controversial laws, Manfred found himself in a no-win situation in the middle of a political firestorm: move the game and anger conservative fans, or keep it in Atlanta and infuriate liberal fans. Whatever Manfred’s decision, opinions were viewed through the prism of one’s prejudice: that the game was moved to protect the league’s bottom line and appease major corporate sponsors, or to save the league from the potential embarrassment of some high-profile stars refusing to play in Atlanta out of protest, or as an attack on conservative principles or states rights, or “caving to the fears and lies of liberal activists.”
Did He Get Call Right?
MLB does not exactly have a long and proud history of political and social activism, tending instead to protect its bottom line, as many businesses do. Because both Democrats and Republicans buy baseball tickets, enjoy food and beverages at games, and purchase MLB jerseys, caps and other merchandise, baseball has a vested interest in avoiding public support of controversial political and social positions, and not alienating fans in either party.
But, in this case, Manfred made the correct call, even though it likely will have little impact on changing Georgia’s new laws. No political party, no congressional body should be able to unilaterally deny or infringe upon a person’s constitutional right to vote. (Many political pundits insist the Republican-majority Georgia legislature’s new voting restrictions – which include reducing the number of ballot drop boxes and limiting periods to request mail-in ballots -- will have a disproportionate impact on Black voters, who tend to vote Democrat.)
There are people who say that sports should stay out of politics, as if observing some kind of separation of church and state, and that athletes should “just shut up and play.” Yes, sports (and baseball) are entertainment, but they do not exist in a vacuum. Some of sports’ most iconic moments have played out against a backdrop of politics and social issues: the United States’ men’s hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” victory over Russia during 1980 Winter Olympics; African-American track athletes Tommy Smith and John Carlos giving the Black Power Salute on the medal stand during the 1968 Summer Olympics; Jesse Owens’ performance during the 1936 Olympics in Germany; and quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem before an NFL preseason game in 2016.
As with the rest of us, athletes and teams should act on their responsibility to engage in the process, whatever their beliefs.
"The act of participating in our country's election process is our civic responsibility and instrumental to our country's foundation. We should promote increasing voter turnout as opposed to any measures that adversely impact the ability to cast a ballot,” according to a statement issued by Miami Marlins’ CEO and former New York Yankees’ great Derek Jeter.
In baseball parlance, moving the game will be seen as either a home run or a big swing-and-miss by Manfred.
‘The Cardboard Commissioner’
Plenty of people will use relocating the All-Star Game as another reason to question Manfred’s competency as baseball’s commissioner.
As a longtime deputy to predecessor Bud Selig, Manfred was considered instrumental in bringing about the decades of labor peace the sport has enjoyed since the late 1990s. And, under Manfred’s helm, league revenues continue to set records, and team valuations continue to skyrocket. (According to Sportico’s 2021 valuations, the average MLB team is now worth $2.2 billion.) In the eyes of Manfred’s bosses – team owners – that’s a big plus. Enough that in 2018 Manfred received by unanimous vote a contract extension through 2024. Clearly, doubts do not exist among MLB’s 30 owners.
Still, critics maintain that “The Cardboard Commissioner”, as Manfred has been called, in reference to the cardboard cutout fans many teams employed to fill seats last season, has had plenty of missteps since taking over for Selig on Jan. 15, 2015. Among them his questionable handling of two major events: the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal in 2017, and the pandemic-truncated 2020 season.
Manfred was widely condemned for his action – or inaction, depending on one’s view -- following a league investigation that found that Astros’ players used electronics to illegally steal pitchers’ signs during the 2017 season, including Houston’s World Series victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Astros’ players were offered immunity for cooperating in the investigation, were not punished, and were allowed to retain their World Series rings and title (Houston’s owner, general manager, and manager were disciplined instead).
That decision was widely panned as being far too lenient. It was like U.S. Treasury agents telling legendary bank robber Willie Sutton, show us how you pulled off all those jobs and we’ll let you go free.
Dodgers’ utility player Enrique Hernandez expressed the feelings of many players and fans when he tweeted after the MLB investigation’s findings were released, “(The Astros) cheated. They got away with it. They got a ring out of it.”
Manfred then stuck his foot in his mouth while defending his leniency, calling the World Series trophy “a piece of metal.” That statement drew swift and strong rebuke from the players.
Then there is Manfred’s role in the weirdest season in MLB history. Obviously, he had nothing to do with the pandemic, but he did play a key part in how the league navigated its way through last year’s truncated, 60-game minefield.
One must applaud Manfred for baseball successfully completing the 2020 World Series, which few people thought possible when the regular season began in late July. But, there were times – three moments in particular -- when his actions and decisions raised plenty of eyebrows.
Compromise or Dictate?
One, the negotiations to begin the season after the virus shut down spring training in late March. Those talks between owners and players over the number of games to be played and player compensation were ugly and filled with public name-calling on both sides. In a contentious showdown that called for a strong hand to bring about an equitable solution for both sides, baseball instead got a 60-game regular season dictated by Manfred, and an often-repeated quote from frustrated players’ union head Tony Clark, “Just tell us when and where (to begin play).”
A more diplomatic Manfred could have compromised by choosing a number closer to the 100 games that the players reportedly wanted. Instead, he decreed the 60 that team owners overwhelmingly favored in order to reach the sport’s holy grail: the postseason.
Two, the season-opening series involving the Marlins and the Phillies. After a handful of Miami players tested positive for the virus after the second game in Philadelphia, Marlins players voted to play the Sunday finale anyway. Soon after, the Marlins would go into quarantine that would result in 10 games being rescheduled and 18 players testing positive.
Manfred should have stepped in and stopped that Sunday game, which potentially exposed Phillies’ players to the virus as well. Letting players, not the league, decide if a game is to be played is like allowing inmates to run the asylum.
Three, Manfred’s eight-game suspension of Dodgers’ pitcher Joe Kelly for throwing at – but not hitting – three Astros’ players who reportedly were implicated in the 2017 cheating scandal. In a 60-game season, eight games amounts to about 22 percent of the schedule. (Although the suspension was later reduced to five games, it still was out of proportion to the season’s shorter length.)
The reasoning behind the lengthy suspension was to protect Houston batters from “vigilante justice” imposed by opposing pitchers. Still, a pitcher is suspended for almost a quarter of the season for throwing at three players on a team that cheated to win a World Series. Yet, none of the players on that club that cheated is suspended for any games? Curious.
Looking at those instances collectively, it’s fair to wonder about Manfred’s leadership. Good, effective, decisive leaders are able to build a consensus, get both sides to accept an equitable compromise, and make fair and solid – if not always popular – moves. Perhaps he does so behind the scenes, but it’s been difficult to see those qualities from Manfred, who’s in his seventh year on the job.
Now would be a good time for him to summon those skills, because it’s that kind of leadership that Manfred will need as he faces his next big test: shepherding – perhaps strong-arming might be more accurate – the owners and players union to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement prior to the 2022 season.
It will be a stern challenge, given the acrimony and deep distrust that exists between the two sides. As contentious as the 2020 showdown between owners and players was, it’s thought by many in baseball to be a teaser for the testy talks expected over the new CBA. There are a number of substantive issues to be resolved, and a player lockout or strike that could postpone or even cancel the season already is being talked about as a real possibility. The game’s first lockout/strike since 1994 would deal a serious blow to baseball, which already is dealing with years of declining attendance.
Defining Moments for Manfred
Those negotiations for the new Collective Bargaining Agreement may join the Astros’ cheating scandal and the 2020 season as defining moments in Manfred’s tenure. If he can pull off a new deal amid such a toxic environment, it might vault him to the top of the rankings of the 10 commissioners in MLB history. Failure could drop him near the bottom.
Manfred would do well to match the success of his former boss, Selig. For certain, Selig experienced some notable lowlights of his own during his 22 years in office (1992-2014): such as the Steroid Era; the player strike that wiped out part of the 1994 season and the entire postseason; the “This Time It Counts” All-Star Game in 2004, which gave the winning league home-field advantage during the World Series; and the 2002 All-Star Game that ended in an embarrassing tie because both managers had run out of pitchers (particularly mortifying to Selig because the game was played in Milwaukee, his hometown).
On the other hand, there were plenty of positives for baseball’s ninth commissioner: creation of interleague play, the World Baseball Classic (which is hugely popular outside of the U.S.), the MLB Network, testing and punishments for PED violations, Jackie Robinson Day, wild-card playoff teams, and instant replay; construction of 20 new stadiums; two decades of labor peace; and huge increases in league revenues (from $1.2 billion in ’92 to $9 billion in 2015).
Selig was called “Bud Lite” because many people considered him weak. But, Major League Baseball grew significantly during his tenure. Much of that can be attributed to his ability to bring differing viewpoints to the table and reach an equitable agreement. It’s a trait that Manfred surely could use as a difficult negotiation for a new CBA looms on the horizon.
Manfred needs to show a bold, firm and fair hand during those talks, just as he displayed in moving the All-Star Game out of Atlanta. Manfred doesn’t have to love baseball; he just has to make sure it continues to grow during his tenure.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.