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The MLB lockout is cementing Rob Manfred's legacy. Baseball may never look the same

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The most seismic moment of MLB’s lockout is approaching.

A week of intensive negotiations in Jupiter, Florida, has not produced an agreement, and the league’s deadline for fitting spring training in before the planned March 31 regular season openers is here. After sowing distrust, slow-playing talks and stonewalling player proposals, commissioner Rob Manfred could see the “disastrous” outcome of missing games become reality. The league reportedly opened Monday's crucial day of bargaining by expressing a willingness to miss a month of games.

Manfred’s record of avoiding labor-induced schedule disruptions — which he touted in a prickly answer to reporters in early February — is barreling toward its first blemish. His reputation as a symbol of the franchise owners’ combative, single-minded focus on money is cemented, a long-building earthquake that will reframe his tenure as commissioner and the very concept of a commissioner in the public imagination.

Gone is even the veneer of acting “in the best interests of baseball” that his predecessor, Bud Selig, largely managed to preserve even when making dubious decisions. In its stead stands Manfred, a tireless and transparent fighter for the billionaire team owners who hired him and their not-so-hard-earned right to pursue every single penny that a multibillion dollar business has to offer.

Rob The Revealer’s stint as commissioner has been an unmasking of an industry. So focused on the bottom line is Manfred’s league office that it has neglected to maintain its cover.

Less than a decade in, Manfred’s reign has unveiled a litany of unseemly truths about how professional sports run in the 2020s. One in particular has now shaken the sport irreparably — and may even backfire on the club owners whose interests he so stridently represents. That truth is the nature of what “competition” means and where it takes place in the baseball ecosystem.

Fans flock to a Red Sox-Yankees matchup to see a winner and a loser. They devour offseason speculation to see who secured Max Scherzer’s services and who didn’t. They hang on these details not as plot points in a fictional universe crafted for their entertainment, but as moves in an ongoing game of chess that they themselves have some small stake in.

What Manfred has taken so little care in hiding is the work he and the team owners have done to tilt that idea into a projection. Yes, the Braves prevailed over the Astros in the World Series. Freddie Freeman will get a ring; Alex Bregman will look back on October with regrets. But the concept of winners and losers is being eradicated at the ownership level. Actual competition — for players, for TV money, for real estate, for fans — is too dangerous, too risky when billions of dollars are on the table.

Actual competition must be confined to a series of rat races — interns mooching off their parents and dreaming of a general manager job, minor leaguers weathering paltry paychecks for a shot at the majors, early career pitchers clawing through hordes of their peers for innings, late-20s hitters trying to secure a salary in line with their contributions before front offices check the clock and pronounce them pumpkins. The winners are rewarded handsomely, to be sure, but only as a necessary cover cost to preserve an illusion of integrity.

Invested players and fans need to feel like the positive energy of a walk-off homer or the negative energy of a Game 7 defeat are reflected by the institutions that stitch their names across the jerseys, not just fuel for a money-printing hamster wheel.

But in Rob Manfred’s MLB, the white noise of earnest enthusiasm has faded. Up bubbled a sound that gnawed at players in frozen winters, that befuddled fans when Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor were traded. It became unavoidable during drawn out fights over whether to even play baseball during the pandemic. Now it’s all anyone paying attention can hear: That hamster wheel, rattling along, drowning out the crack of the bat, the pop of the glove and just about everything else.

Rob Manfred's leadership of MLB has seen owners' interests take center stage. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
Rob Manfred's leadership of MLB has seen franchise owners' interests take center stage. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Manfred's revelatory time as commissioner

Whether Manfred is an instigator of the league’s campaign to transform an airy, nostalgic sport into a multi-pronged private equity shadow empire — or simply a technocrat overwhelmed by the current landscape’s avalanche of cash and craven team owners — barely matters. He has unintentionally detailed ownership motivations that, for over a century, were largely papered over by records, rivalries and relaxed Sunday matinees.

There’s a way to view Manfred as good at his job. The 63-year-old labor lawyer was correct when he pointed out that he has been a big part of the league’s lack of work stoppages until this winter. He didn’t mention how he helped achieve that while winning club owners a bigger portion of the industry’s rapidly expanding revenue pie, but it’s true: The people he reports to undoubtedly approved of his time as the top negotiator.

There are also plenty of factors to disprove the notion that he’s some devious James Bond villain — despite the vague world domination vibes of his “One Baseball” initiative. Manfred did not invent anti-competitive behavior; MLB team owners famously colluded in the 1980s. He did not sow the seeds of corporate greed; his elevation to commissioner counts as a symptom, not a cause. And contrary to the Twitter trope, I’m sure Manfred indeed cares deeply about baseball.

The problem is commissioner is a vastly different job than top labor negotiator, and Manfred never seems to have made the switch.

Since taking the sport’s bully pulpit in 2015, Manfred has called the Commissioner’s Trophy awarded to the World Series champs “a piece of metal,” bragged about the league’s top payrolls going down in lockstep and tap-danced around the idea that maybe having a consistent baseball is important.

Under his watch, the league office accidentally revealed the existence of a wrestling-style belt for teams that managed to pay their players the least in arbitration.

And even on one topic he seemed to have some fan support for — speeding up the pace of play — he tried to lionize his own hand-wringing (I guess?) by relaying that NBA commissioner Adam Silver thought baseball’s slower pace would be great for making money in the betting sphere.

Over and over, Manfred’s public pronouncements have made it plain that he, and by extension team owners, view baseball as a financial instrument with a reality show attached to appease the masses.

What MLB stands for now

In its infancy, Manfred called this catastrophic labor showdown a “defensive lockout.” He intended that to be read as team owners defending the 2022 season and competitive balance, but as we’ve established, he has never been that great at misdirection. The lockout was initiated to defend owners’ interests as forcefully as possible from players understandably riled up by a decade of being squeezed more brazenly by bad-faith management tactics.

If that wasn’t apparent the moment he said it, the owners affirmed it by declining to even make an offer for weeks. They affirmed it again with a bait-and-switch that blew up what had been one area of progress in negotiations in Florida this past week. And they really drove it home by seeing a union proposal with real concessions and mocking it with an intentionally lousy offer.

Commissioners cover for the unsavory elements of team ownership and often for misdeeds far worse. On some occasions they act on behalf of the group to eject an owner from one of America’s most exclusive clubs. Mostly, they put on nice suits and do their public bidding.

With Manfred as the vessel, franchise owners have shown that MLB’s product taking the field is conditional upon doing so at the cost they wish to expend — not that they can expend, that they wish to expend. And they have detailed just how minute a difference they will prioritize over the game, all while expecting the public to sympathize.

That is why the 2020 season was 60 games. It’s why club owners asked to shorten the 2021 season without a legal leg to stand on. It’s why the minimal ground they would have to give up to the players — who actually draw fans (read: customers in Manfred-speak) in and tie them to the sport — has proven too much in these negotiations.

It’s helpful, in some ways, to know. Players are energized and fighting for a fairer deal. Fans have been forced to qualify their allegiances, and have recently banded together and canceled full-price MLB.TV subscriptions until a season is assured. Still, the owners’ disregard for the other people in their world, for the non-monetary investment thousands of players and millions of fans have placed in baseball, is jarring.

No matter when or how the lockout ends, this will be Manfred’s legacy. He is the commissioner who stripped away any cultural or historical touchstones you may have associated with the MLB logo and replaced them with a new, crystal clear message: We don’t expect you to like it. We just expect you to pay.