Wrong Manfred for the job: MLB has no leader when it has never needed one more

Gordon Wittenmyer
NBC Sports Chicago

Having run out of feet in which to shoot itself, Major League Baseball is moving on to vital organs.

Commissioner Rob Manfred's sudden reversal from last week's "100 percent" assurance of baseball this year to Monday's threat to cancel the whole season is a tactic so tone-deaf as to inspire calls for the return of the commissioner who once canceled the World Series over a labor dispute.

"Can we bring Bud Selig back?" Cubs outfielder Steven Souza Jr. tweeted.

"What a JOKE," tweeted Cubs catcher Willson Contreras.

To be clear, Manfred takes marching orders from MLB owners, so the response Monday to the public stalemate declared over the weekend originates with the billionaire boys club that includes Cardinals owner Bill "the industry isn't very profitable" DeWitt Jr. and Cubs chairman Tom "the scale of losses across the league is biblical" Ricketts.

RELATED: Hey, Ricketts family: You People can make a difference - if you choose

But this is one of those rare times the messenger is as big a problem as the message, in this case a commissioner who has demonstrated as little regard for the game (calling the World Series trophy "a piece of metal") as he has leadership ability.

Manfred made a career in baseball as its chief labor negotiator before replacing Selig five years ago, and he still can't seem to get out of his own way when it comes to acting like a commissioner - a leader - and not a labor lawyer.

As MLB threatened to impose a radically shortened season in the face of the union's unwillingness to bend on cuts deeper than straight prorated salaries, Manfred boasted ahead of Wednesday's draft coverage that "unequivocally, we are going to play Major League Baseball this year."

Then after rejecting baseball's latest, similar proposal for deeper salary cuts, union chief Tony Clark called further dialogue "futile" and directed MLB to "tell us when and where" to show up and play."

By the time Manfred appeared on ESPN Monday to join the commissioners of other major league sports on each league's startup plans, he was the only one without a plan, the only one without a good reason for not having at least an agreement in place after 2 1/2 months, the only one without a clue in the most crisis-ravaged moment for this country in many Americans' lifetimes.

And as he clung to the myopic corporate-profit-minded, business-of-labor-negotiations position of MLB - the union might, after all, file a grievance if he imposes a 50-something-game season - he wasn't even willing to feign confidence that a season will be played.

"I'm not confident," he said. "I think there's real risk, and as long as there's no dialogue, that real risk is going to continue."

Seriously. That's what he said. 

The NBA's Adam Silver talked about the pandemic, the recession, "or worse," and "enormous social unrest" as challenges to respect; said players won't be penalized for choosing not to play under the circumstances; and talked about how the plan "will entail enormous sacrifice on behalf of those players and for everyone involved."

Meanwhile, Manfred pointed fingers at the players and said the owners - who picked this fight during a decade of tanking, high-profile service-time manipulation and salary suppression - "are 100 percent committed" to a 2020 season.

"Unfortunately, I can't tell you that I'm 100 percent certain that's going to happen."

As Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis tweeted Monday: "Dear Adam Silver … you up? - MLB players."

RELATED: Cubs' Jason Kipnis bluntly assesses MLB talks: 'The sides are too far apart'

Baseball's labor scraps typically have been the ugliest in U.S. sports, and they've never looked uglier than now.

"We have the only legal monopoly in the country and we're f--ing it up," one owner said.

That was Braves owner Ted Turner 45 years ago. And look whose grades all start with 'f' now.

Somehow, inexplicably, Manfred and the boys have reached new lows in the sport's labor relations.

Did we mention the pandemic? The highest unemployment numbers since the Great Depression? Nearly a month of protests across the country over the killing by police of George Floyd - and countless unarmed Black men (and women) before that?

Did we mention that players are taking the health risks that owners are not?

This. Isn't. That. Difficult.

1. Pay the damn players for the games they play. Half the season, half the salaries; one-third the season, one-third the salaries.

2. Play as many damn games as you can.

3. Take a damn victory lap. Because you've finally done what looked impossible and gained the high ground in this debacle.

Grievance? Deal with it. If you bargained in good faith you might even win it.

Losses? Deal with them. You didn't offer to spread any extra wealth around to the players or fans during the industry's record-setting good times (in fact, it was mostly the opposite).

Owners have had a ride on the easy-money revenue train in this sport for decades. This is a significant downturn, but part of the risk of owning the (massively lucrative) business. The better it's handled (see: NBA), the better positioned the league will be to recover more quickly.

In fact, Manfred's latest verbal misfire Monday came two days after reports surfaced of baseball's new $1 billion TV rights deal with Ted Turner's old network.

You can almost hear Turner's words from all those years ago rising to drown out Manfred's voice whenever he talked Monday - the lasting power of those words exceeded only by this generation's ability to keep them relevant.

As a press box wag once wisely said when talking about a few of the owners, these guys need to "sack up and act like billionaires."

Because Manfred and the owners look like they're on the verge of f---ing things up like Turner never dreamed in his worst nightmares, at a time many American sports fans already had found other things to watch besides strikeouts, walks and 3 1/2-hour ballgames.

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Wrong Manfred for the job: MLB has no leader when it has never needed one more originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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