I spent over six hours viewing, reviewing and re-reviewing Rob Manfred’s interview with ESPN’s Karl Ravech. He’s not just bad for baseball; he’s bad for business. Thoughts on Manfred, baseball and stewardship, all unrelated.
There was a six-minute-ish video on YouTube that I watched Sunday after lunch and thought to myself, That wasn’t a very good interview for Manfred. Good thing it was short.
Then I realized it was edited down from roughly 46 minutes and knew what I had to do. I went through the interview, line by line, analyzing the lines of questioning and the answers and posted my reactions to them here. First, it looked like he was strung out or hungover (as it turns out, he appears to have a cold). After that, it didn’t really make a difference.
[Rob Manfred] is a 1980 graduate of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) at Cornell University. In 1983, he received his law degree magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he was an articles editor of the Harvard Law Review. Manfred was a part of the Labor and Employment Law Section of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, LLP, and became a partner in the firm in 1992. — MLB.com
Don’t be impressed by the names on the resumé. If torching a third of my waking hours Sunday watching Ravech parry Manfred on matters related to the Astros and Red Sox, the state of Major League Baseball and the loss of public trust in it, had a single big takeaway, it is that prestigious schools and advanced degrees are less the province of education and more the first rungs of a social ladder toward an inherited prominence.
Parchment is nothing more than fancy paper.
For all Rob Manfred’s bona fides, credentials and experience, he has demonstrated a complete incompetence with regard to not just the Houston Astros, but the state of the game. His mismanagement of Baseball goes from the construction of the ball to teams openly ignoring league directives to threatening to contract minor league baseball clubs throughout the country. And that’s all we’ve uncovered within the last year.
This guy studied employment and labor law, practiced it, ran point on MLB’s labor relations under Bud Selig. And now it’s clear that the only reason he looked good–and even then, there were doubts–was because MLBPA president Tony Clark looked so inept for so long. The tables have turned.
(And before we let Clark off the hook, he himself is presiding over a fractured union that has only recently realized that trading cash for amenities for years was a losing proposition.)
Let’s be abundantly clear: the smartest people in Major League Baseball’s room are so insulated from reality, so drunk on their own sense of self-satisfaction that they’ve managed to allow the game to drift toward the brink.
As it were, it looks as though Rob Manfred was born on third and thought he hit a triple.
We should be celebrating the return of Spring Training baseball, fringe players with goofy numbers, the intimate roar of a smaller Arizona or Florida crowd. Instead, we’re still talking about two corrupt ball clubs and are bracing for the other shoe to drop, whatever that might entail. Really, what would shock us at this point?
Baseball didn’t get this way in a vacuum or even overnight. It takes considerably inadequate leadership for a considerably long time for us to find the game where it is. This might not even be Manfred’s problem, but there can be no doubt he has done as little as possible to pivot away from disaster. Instead, he seems to compulsively lean into it.
And for what has Manfred’s Major League Baseball sold out their integrity? Love of the game? The weight of responsibility as stewardship of an American institution? A sense of the greater good?
Nah. Straight cash, homey.
The Braves were hammered for international signing violations, but they were probably the example setter warning other teams to straighten out their act. Bronx to Bushville had credible knowledge from multiple sources that MLB was going to penalize the Dodgers for widespread malfeasance in their organization from Braves-like allegations to then-members of the front office reportedly engaging in covering up assault. We haven’t even broached the topic of the Astros, but if you were paying attention to Manfred and Ravech last weekend, you know that neither club gave a damn about what Major League Baseball had to say about keeping the game within fair territory.
All four of these clubs are postseason regulars. It’s one thing to break eggs to make an omelet; it’s quite another to be a paper tiger soaked in au jus in the tiger exhibit. Manfred isn’t a commissioner, but the owners’ vassal ruler. This much has been established: he’s no Ken Landis. And we haven’t covered the troubles with umpiring, replay, pitch clocks, Minor League Baseball…
In this gilded age of professional sports, do we get the leadership we deserve? Roger Goodell. Adam Silver. Gary Bettman. (Vince McMahon.) Manfred. Only Silver seems competent enough to not run the NBA into the ground, and the trade-off for that was ceding essentially all control of marketing and branding to the players. Goodell presides over a tarnished shield, you probably forgot there was such thing as an Enn H Ell. McMahon is a huckster’s opportunist.
Manfred doesn’t have Silver’s savvy with players or Goodell’s dominant position in the societal conscience. He’s more like Bettman, and with Bettman’s apparent penchant for never meeting a work stoppage he didn’t like. Like Bettman, Manfred presides over a now-regional game, diminished by nothing more than mutual greed and self-interest.
Remember the ’90s, when the NHL was threatening to lap the NBA? Between labor strife, over-expansion and the loss of major television relationships (ESPN, then FOX), you now get the Stanley Cup Final, Game 1 on NBC, Game 3 on Nat Geo, and Game 6 on CNBC Europe. The NHL is a distant fourth in the public eye, seemingly satisfied with its niche status.
Goodell went to the tiny, elite Washington & Jefferson College. Silver went to Duke for his undergrad, and Chicago Law for his J.D. Bettman? Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell; law school at NYU.
What are they teaching the eager young business minds at Cornell? Are they sought after by professional sports leagues for their uncanny ability to be stooges? Is there a course in advanced studies in driving leagues into the ground? Was Andy Bernard not a caricature, but a reflection?
These people might have places of privilege, but they’re people: prone to tone-deafness and fealty to those who hold sway. If anything, these are remarkably and terrifyingly average people handed the keys to multi-billion dollar industries. Should we be surprised that they routinely make the same stupid decisions your boss with the SNHU degree he got seven months ago does?
What makes a leader seldom has anything to do with lineage, connections or academic experience. Leadership is learned, often by trial, misadventure and failure. Anything less isn’t leadership, anything more is totalitarian. And sometimes, we get the best of both ends of the spectrum. Other times, we end up with petty tyrants, incapable of leading their own coattails and prone to flights of caprice.
Who ends up the victim of such spasms? Often, it’s you and me. Just look around Major League Baseball. Crap, just look at the headlines. We’re heading into a time when there is no purpose but profits, no aim but avarice. The wealth of nations, Adam Smith noted, wasn’t found in its ledgers but in its people. And what people value most comes out in speech and action.
Baseball doesn’t care about the players, perception or repercussions. They don’t care about you and they don’t care about the game that gives them a national platform. They care about their holdings and their own sense of self. Yes, it’s unsustainable, but do you think most MLB owners care when they’re swimming in money like Scrooge McDuck and transforming their venues into money-printing town centers with bleachers and light standards? When their figurehead can permit himself to call their championship trophy a piece of metal and laugh off all the derision justly lobbed their way?
Spring Training games began yesterday and we still can’t get the stink of the offseason out of the room. That alone is failure on Major League Baseball’s part. In short, these people neither earned nor deserve your respect. Not until they, word and deed, finally put the public and the game at the fore. And, given a Damascus road experience or a revocation of antitrust exemption, which do you think will happen first?
Baseball is just a game. And parchment is nothing more than fancy paper.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.