Alexander: Who wants to be commissioner of baseball?

You may have seen the news: Rob Manfred, commissioner of baseball – and, to many of us, steward of a sport he doesn’t really seem to care for or care that much about – is going to serve one more term. Come 2029, he’s outta here.

So when’s the parade?

In fairness, the results of Manfred’s commissionership are mixed. The adjustments to the rules a year ago that resulted in a quicker pace and a more entertaining game go into his credit column. The pitch clock and anti-shift rules transformed the game – though I’m still waiting for an umpire to make an illegal defense call – and I’ve got to believe it’s only time until the automatic ball-strike (ABS) system (i.e., bots calling pitches) replaces the way overmatched home-plate umpire.

Meanwhile, the replay system has increased the chances that calls (outside of ball-strike decisions) are correct, and thus decreased the chances that managers make spectacles of themselves in discussions with the umps. (If you miss those arguments, there are always Earl Weaver and Tom Lasorda clips on YouTube.)

But there are so many negatives in his nine years as commissioner. Where to start?

The lockout from December 2021 through March 2022, for example, didn’t accomplish what management wanted. It did halt offseason business, and it showed a new generation of players why the Players Association exists, why it’s the strongest in professional sports, and why the owners are not their friends. The agreement that came out of that lockout runs through 2026, so Manfred – who originally came onto MLB’s radar as a labor lawyer in 1987 – will have one more opportunity to play Deal or No Deal before exiting the stage after the 2028 season.

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And the inaction concerning the Houston Astros’ 2017 cheating scandal remains a blot on Manfred’s résumé. He suspended manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, but key players went unpunished, having been granted immunity. More egregiously, owner Jim Crane was allowed to act like he wasn’t responsible for whatever happened on his watch.

Oh, and Manfred’s reference to the World Series trophy as a “piece of metal,” ostensibly to explain why the championship couldn’t be vacated, will live in infamy long after Manfred’s apology. The best response was from Justin Turner: “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.”

More recently, there is Manfred’s status – inactive, basically – during the A’s squirrel derby of an attempt to move to Las Vegas. And there is the ongoing circus surrounding one of the most basic of this game’s talismans, the uniform.

Under Manfred’s watch, the game has basically sold its soul to Nike, so we have insipid “City Connect” uniforms and generic, boring All-Star Game outfits in place of the kaleidoscope of jerseys and team colors that helped make the Midsummer Classic special. And now Nike has outsourced its manufacture of game uniforms to Fanatics, and the players’ reactions to the stuff that greeted them when they arrived at spring training this year ranged from “Yuck” to “Are you freaking kidding me?”

And that was before everyone realized that the uniform pants are darned near see-through. We’ve asked for transparency, but this is ridiculous.

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Is Manfred the worst commissioner in North American professional sports? Probably not, as long as Don Garber runs Major League Soccer.

Garber sold his league’s soul to Apple TV+ for $250 million a season – $8.6 million a team this year, going down to $8.33 million next year when San Diego enters the league. Some might hail him as a visionary for anticipating how sports TV might be upended, but I believe he was merely chasing the money at the expense of exposing his sport to larger numbers of fans. He then jammed the Leagues Cup tournament with Liga MX into the middle of the schedule, a pure cash grab that disregarded players’ health and safety. Then he threatened to take his league’s teams out of the historic U.S. Open Cup because of schedule overload, and whose fault was that?

If I had to rate the commissioners, it would be in this order: Adam Silver, NBA; Roger Goodell, NFL; Cathy Engelbert, WNBA; Gary Bettman, NHL, Manfred and Garber.

But all have had their “ugh” moments, and maybe we’ve been looking at commissioners and their jobs all wrong through the years. They work at the pleasure of the owners, so if you’re looking for decisions based on the best interest of the sport … well, like it or not, the best interest is whatever the owners (i.e., the commissioners’ bosses) say it is.

That helps explain why Crane didn’t get suspended in the Astros’ scandal. The last baseball commissioner with the guts to take on an owner was Fay Vincent, who banned George Steinbrenner in 1990 for “life,” a suspension that was rescinded in 1993. Vincent himself was gone in September of 1992, forced to resign by a cabal of owners who didn’t appreciate that their desire to pick a fight with the union was not shared by their commissioner.

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His replacement was Brewers owner Bud Selig, who presided over the first season in 89 years without a World Series when a strike ended the season in June 1994.  Eventually Selig figured out how to get along with the Players Association and its executive director, Don Fehr, enough to avoid additional work stoppages – and launch the World Baseball Classic.

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And while he never was a dynamic commissioner, at least you couldn’t say Selig didn’t like baseball. He even liked baseball writers enough to visit them in the press box once in a while. Do we actually know how often Manfred shows up at a ballpark?

We can hope, fervently, that the next commissioner will actually be a baseball person. It doesn’t necessarily have to be someone like the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, who revered the game with a poet’s soul, but whoever it is should at least enjoy watching the product and not be hesitant to show it, OK?

And since we have five years to figure this out, I want your input. If you were commissioner, what would your top three priorities be? Best responses will be printed in an upcoming column.

jalexander@scng.com 

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