March 27, 2017

Rob Manfred, Studied Contrast to Selig and “Smartest Man in Baseball”

September 29, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

The sitting Baseball Commissioner, Rob Manfred, was the guest of Marvin Kalb at the National Press Club last night for the live airing of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) program, “The Kalb Report.” It was a fascinating fifty-five minutes of back-and-forth between the two men, and a lively Q&A followed. It was difficult not to compare Manfred to Bud Selig who had appeared at a DC forum just four nights earlier. From the very beginning, there was no missing the stylistic differences between the two men, some of which may be attributable to the televised format of the Kalb Report. But either way, the contrast between new Commissioner Rob Manfred and his predecessor could have important ramifications for the game of baseball.

The camera that recorded and broadcast the discussion gave the presentation an immediacy–the same issue discussed later by Manfred and Kalb when talking about the differences between the NFL and MLB. The program was made for the shorter attention span more than the relaxed discussion with Selig. But I believe it only served to accentuate the differences rather than define them. Kalb kept the questions coming in rapid succession. It was a crisp exchange and hard to dispute that Manfred came across as more informative and fact based than Selig’s rambling peroration. Selig presented as the former president of the country club who has stepped down to spend more time on the links. Manfred presented as the talented Chief Administrative Officer for a multi-billion dollar industry.

Manfred graduated from Harvard Law where he studied labor law, with an emphasis on the management perspective. He clerked for Federal Judge Joseph Tauro in Massachusetts and all of the gray matter implicit in his impressive CV has been brought to bear as the hired gun for the owners in working first on drug testing protocols and then earning additional stripes in the negotiations that produced the 2002 Collective Bargaining Agreement and follow up CBAs in 2006 and 2011.

There can be no argument as to which side of the ball Manfred lines up. In an early question he was quick to dismiss any responsibility the owners had for the decision not to hold the 1994 World Series. “The players went out on strike,” Manfred opined and they were the ones on whose backs blame rests. Marvin Miller and Don Fehr would have used words like “Lockout” to describe the actions of the owners and there in lies the rub. The various prisms from which we view history are always personal, but for Manfred there is no wiggle room, no equivocation. Labor bad; management good!! End of question.

Rob Manfred talked about his independence from ownership, saying Peter Ueberroth is his “model” commissioner and the one he would pattern himself after as much as he can. It was interesting how little tip of the cap there was to Selig, but the more interesting issue is how different the cloth from which Manfred seems cut relative to Ueberroth and how much sharper an instrument he will be for the owners to employ against the players as well. But that difference is why Manfred got the job and ownership believes no doubt that they have found their equal to Tony Clark, the current head of the MLBPA, someone who can go toe-to-toe with the likes of Don Fehr and be a contender, instead of the bums they have been in the past.

That said, Manfred was refreshing in his candor, especially after listening to Selig. When asked about the generational challenge facing baseball, the same one directed at Selig, Manfred responded that MLB is using technology to draw in the young people who spend their days in front of their cell phone screens. “MLB At Bat” is the cell phone app that is used by the younger generation much the way the morning after box score was used 50 years ago by a different generation of kids buying into baseball drama and the statistical array that describes it. “The average user for MLB At Bat is 33 years old,” Manfred stated emphatically.

The use of new technologies was highlighted by Selig as well, but the scope of it was not, nor was his answer as convincing. “$300 million dollars in profits from MLB.com were shared among the teams after the 2014 season,” said Manfred and while the figure is public knowledge, it is the kind of specificity that marked Manfred’s presentation. Major League Baseball is an industry leader in the development and deployment of computer technologies, and while that happened on during Selig’s watch and accrues to his credit, Manfred clearly believes in it heart and soul.

Drug testing is where Manfred cut his teeth and again, Major League Baseball is the industry leader and THAT accrues to Manfred since it was why he was originally hired by MLB, Inc. He had good answers on that as well. Does he believe in “asterisks” for Barry Bonds? No, in a word. But it is the players who are were at fault here and in fighting the use of tobacco products in the dugout. Players bad!! Owners good!! This repeated mantra by Manfred is worrying.

There was the same question about the NFL and baseball that had been directed at Selig, only now we got a more expansive and meaningful answer. Baseball, as an “entertainment product,” the chief executive stated, is more driven by the “in-park” experience than football. Local revenues derived from 81 home games define baseball far more than Football. TV is the sine qua non of football’s popularity as well as its revenues. Manfred asserted that baseball’s “in-park” experience is more family oriented than anything football can offer. Few would argue convincingly that the drunken banality of the “in-stadium” NFL experience is fit for children or any significant subset of literate adults.

Although Manfred took an adversarial tone towards labor in some of his questions, he clearly is a fan of the game and as such is enthralled by the players. He opined that the most hidden feature of the game is the humanity of the individual players, something obscured by their celebrity status and pay. He admitted to rooting FOR some of them, especially those whom he has come to know across the collective bargaining table. And in that statement lies the greatest hope for continued labor peace in baseball. Manfred recognizes his opponents as human beings and he appreciates them as such. Remembering the contentious atmosphere of labor negotiations in the 1980’s and 90’s it is hard no forget the tone taken at that time by Selig and Reinsdorf who viewed the players as little more than overpaid employees who badly needed to be reigned in.

Manfred implied that in this “entertainment product” called baseball, there is money enough to go around. Indeed, when Kalb asked if there was “too much” money in baseball, if the price of a hot dog had gotten too high for the average family, Manfred replied that there is never too much entertainment.  He discussed the Yankees as the most expensive ticket in baseball and stated that it is still possible to get a $5 ticket to admission even to Yankee Stadium.

On the question of expansion, Manfred clearly believes that Mexico is the proper focus when the time comes. Cuba and Japan have their own problems. Opening China to baseball is a great idea but there is no existing baseball culture to support it. Asked where he saw another team to balance one in Mexico. Canada was the one word response I thought I heard him say. Selig said little more than that the owners were unlikely to support it any time soon because of economic considerations.

In the warm up to the event, as audience members talked among themselves, the Bryce Harper-Jonathan Papelbon imbroglio was discussed and generally agreed that the Commissioner would not discuss it. Similarly, we believed that the litigation between the Orioles and the Nationals concerning television rights would be given a short dismissal as something under legal review and upon which the Commissioner could not comment. Wrong! When an audience member brought up the subject in one of the first questions after the formal presentation, Manfred was on it faster than DC parking enforcement.

Manfred said that the legal suit called into question the actions of the Commissioner’s Office and agreements that baseball had made with the Nationals. He was confident that baseball would win out, although he never mentioned Peter Angelos by name. He diplomatically concluded that whatever agreement was reached would be for the benefit of both franchises. But once again the underlying assumption of his answer was the adversarial stance of a lawyer against the other side. Baseball is fighting the Orioles and on the side are the Nationals in this context. Manfred’s preference for the Nationals’ position was bulldog clear.

When asked about his successor last Thursday night, Bud Selig repeatedly said, “Manfred is smart; he’s going to do okay.” By the end of last night’s forum, there was little room to doubt that supposition. Baseball is being led by a very capable man with a uniquely quick mind. When Marvin Kalb early in the night said to Manfred that he had some amount of pity for him as a man caught between two very powerful and very rich adversaries, the Commissioner responded saying he could not imagine a job that would make him happier. Some have argued that Craig Breslow, with a Yale degree in molecular biophysics is the “Smartest Man in Baseball.” Anyone who thinks the smartest man in baseball is anyone other than Rob Manfred, should think again.

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