One of the most sacred business commandments is this: never over-promise and under-deliver. There is no quicker route to eroding customer faith in your services than promising the moon and two weeks later, offering a moon pie. In business relationships as in personal ones, people need to know that you say what you mean and mean what you say. Your word must be your bond, or people will simply shop elsewhere.
Perhaps Rob Manfred never took a business class; maybe he just doesn’t care about keeping customers, especially as he’s purveyor of the only store in town. There is an attitude among the upper levels of MLB—executives, management—that, as the gatekeepers of a game loved by so many and with such a deep history, they can do whatever they want. Baseball is, despite what the antitrust exemption might have us believe, a monopoly, and the keys to the kingdom are held by a group of rich and powerful men who are currently locking the rest of us out.
On Wednesday, prior to the MLB Draft’s second day, Rob Manfred went on ESPN and MLB Network and guaranteed there would be a 2020 season. In fact, here’s the whole quote, exactly as it came out of the Commissioner’s mouth:
“We’re going to play baseball in 2020. 100 percent.”
Most of the time, over-promising is done with weasel-words, little escape hatches to be used to later extricate oneself from the promise. This is not that, unless the phrase “100 percent” was intended as a response to an off-air question from Tom Verducci (“do you like my tie?” or perhaps “how much do you actively hate the sport of which you are the commissioner?” or “how much good faith has this situation cost MLB among baseball fans?”).
For what it’s worth, Manfred was within his rights to say there could 100% be baseball under the March 26th agreement, which could force players to play a 50-game season. Manfred’s later comment—“one way or another, we’re playing Major League Baseball”—acknowledged the March 26th agreement as justification. However, today in a conversation with ESPN’s Mike Greenberg, the Commissioner reversed course and told baseball fans they should have read the fine print:
“The owners are 100 percent committed to getting baseball back on the field,” Manfred said. “Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that I’m 100 percent certain that’s gonna happen.”
This nifty bit of phrasing not only flip-flops on Manfred’s earlier statement, but casually shifts the blame for the situation entirely onto the players. That comes after a terse back-and-forth exchange among the MLBPA and MLB over the weekend which has gotten progressively uglier. The owners’ counter to the most recently-submitted offer from the players was perceived as so fundamentally unchanged from their previous offer, the MLBPA essentially decided to take their ball and go home, telling the owners to tell them where and when to show up for the 54-game season agreed to in March—the same agreement where the players agreed to pro-rated salaries before the owners began asking for steeper and steeper salary cuts.
Now, as is often noted, this is in essence Manfred’s job, and it’s something he’s had immense success with for decades. He is prized by MLB’s owners for those same characteristics that have made him such a dominant negotiator against the players for decades. Ownership-labor negotiations are by nature contentious, and prone to vitriol and negativity, but for the first time since MLB owners were found guilty of repeatedly engaging in collusion in the 1980s, MLB may have overplayed their hand. This about-face from Manfred and ownership is particularly dubious, as it came in concert with a demand that MLBPA forfeit the right to take the league and its owners to court with a grievance.
Source: In a letter today, MLB told the MLBPA there would be no 2020 season unless the players waived any legal claims against the league.— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) June 15, 2020
Jeff Passan’s article further explains, after insisting their right to institute a season as they saw fit, MLB is now seeking to backtrack their called bluff, demanding MLBPA absolve them of any potential legal challenge that suggests the league didn’t offer the “good faith effort” to put on a mutually agreed upon season as stipulated in the March 26th agreement between the league and the union.
The chance that there will be no season increased substantially Monday when the commissioner’s office told the players’ association it will not proceed with a schedule unless the union waives its right to claim management violated a March agreement between the feuding sides, a source told ESPN, confirming a report by the Los Angeles Times.
The calling of MLB’s bluff, echoed by many players league-wide, has a secondary incentive for the union. If Manfred implements a season on his terms, as is his right via the March agreement, he must prove it comes only after the aforementioned good faith effort from ownership. While the exact definition of that ambiguous phrasing is of course in the eye of the adjudicator, the union would no doubt play this season, but file a grievance against MLB for failing to uphold the agreement, opening up MLB to either admitting they didn’t try and offering significant financial recompense to the union, and/or fight the union in court, thus opening their true financial details up to the court, and, by extension, the union’s lawyers.
Several players voiced their displeasure today, including this thread on suspicion of the about-face as an attempted stalling tactic. Adding to the feelings of bad blood between the two sides, this little nugget from Jon Heyman:
There are a couple owners who are fine with calling off the season, and maybe the latest from players today will spur 1 or 2 more to feel that way, but it would take 8 owners to scuttle a season. And most important, commissioner Manfred is on record saying there will be baseball.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) June 14, 2020
More and more, it seems to become clear that very few owners actually care for the game, even as they attempt to emotionally blackmail fans by expressing the deep honor of owning a baseball team while at the same time crying poor, as St. Louis Cardinals Bill DeWitt did when he bemoaned the lack of profits in owning a baseball team, a statement for which he was quickly backhanded by the Internet:
Yeah you’re right Mr. Dewitt, definitely doing so poor on the financial front. Being an owner of a #MLB baseball franchise isn’t that profitable at all #STLCards @Cardinals @Jack9Flaherty @dgoold https://t.co/KqIl8ZlNvu pic.twitter.com/VSNyWPwvrP— Trevor (@t_mac_duce4) June 9, 2020
A non-Scott Boras agent also had a pithy remark to the dubious claims of financial hardship from the league’s billionaires:
Giancarlo Stanton and DJ LeMahieu’s agent. https://t.co/0GN09ErJim— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) June 15, 2020
The MLBPA fired back at Manfred’s comments with a statement of their own, and if any bit of the gloves previously remained on, they’re now crumpled in a heap on the floor and have been set on fire:
Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Tony Clark today released the following statement: pic.twitter.com/ibyOqB93WC— MLBPA Communications (@MLBPA_News) June 15, 2020
What’s most disappointing is this moment could have been a great one for baseball. With a captive audience and as the only sport, fresh on the heels of the Draft, MLB could have worked to secure the more youthful demographic it has been steadily hemorrhaging over the past decade-plus. With miked-up players bringing drama and excitement to homes across America after a day of dreary Zoom-schooling, kids nationwide could have had the opportunity to learn about players whose style of play and splashy personalities would attract a new generation of fans, even as MLB otherwise does a poor job of marketing them—think Tim Anderson, Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuña, Amir Garrett, etc.
Instead, baseball is the laughing stock of the professional sports landscape currently; instead of the joy of the sport being celebrated, the avarice of ownership has been laid bare for all to see. As other sports prepare to come back and recapture the American imagination, which is hungrier for the distraction of sports than perhaps any other time in history, baseball sits on the sidelines, the two sides sniping at each other with an ugliness that portends a particularly brutal CBA negotiation next winter. It’s like the tortoise and the hare, if the hare had a GNP the same size as Aruba’s and spent all its time bemoaning how noble yet unprofitable footraces are, and also contracted other, more athletic hares to run the races for it. It’s a shameful and embarrassing moment for baseball. It’s also a poor reflection on Manfred’s bumpy run as Commissioner, whose legacy from this situation might be as the Worst Commissioner Ever—pretty impressive, as his competitors for that title are a couple of guys who mishandled the steroid era, one heavily involved in the collusion scandal of the 80s, and one who actively maintained the color line in baseball. Congrats, Manfred.