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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: February 28, 2021 1:39 am PDT
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Cirque D’Manfred

Rob Manfred’s first day on the job as the Commissioner of Major League Baseball was six years ago, January 25, 2015.  On that date, he wrote a letter addressed to baseball fans outlining his goals and aspirations.

That letter in its entirety is available online (“Commissioner Rob Manfred’s Letter to Fans” under the date of January 25, 2015).

For the sake of brevity, this article looks at the main themes of that letter to see how the Commissioner has fared in the last six years.

First, however, it is worthy of mention that being the Commissioner of any professional sport is a challenging position. Essentially you serve four constituencies – sometimes with all four being at odds with each other.

First you have the clubs and their owners. Note here that the owners are essentially the Commissioner’s bosses. They hire him and can fire him, yet they are supposed to be subservient to his direction.

The second constituency is the players (and their omnipresent union).

Thirdly, there are the broadcast networks (they are the source of a lot of money…and money talks).

Lastly, and probably most importantly (and probably last in more ways than one) are the people who, in the ultimate, pay the freight — the fans.  Indeed being Commissioner can be a tough job but, one is paid millions of dollars per year to get the job done properly. In Rob Manfred’s case that salary has been reported to be $11 million per year – for years not hampered by Covid-19.

With six years now under his belt let’s review some of the main points from “Commissioner Rob Manfred’s Letter to Fans” of January 25, 2015.

“On the night of August 14, 2014 I left a Baltimore hotel after being elected Commissioner of Baseball…..It hit me that I’d just been entrusted to protect the integrity of our National Pastime and to set a course that allows this great game to continue to flourish….”

Integrity? Should one consider what took place with regard to the 2017 World Series?  The Houston Astros used improper means to relay pitch information to their hitters by banging on a trash can.

It was the reverse of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. The Black Sox were accused of throwing the Series… and losing. Contrarily the Astros won.  But. Same basic principle? Was the integrity of the game again at stake in 2017?

What was the bottom line as to how Manfred acted to “protect the integrity of our National Pastime” in the Astros 2017 scandal?

According to reports, one of the first things Manfred did was to fine the Houston Club $5 million (the maximum allowed by rule) and deprive the Astros of their first and second round draft choices in 2020 and 2021. He suspended the Astros General Manager and Field Manager for one year each (allegedly because they knew about the scheme yet did nothing to stop it).

A year later, the 2017 Astros bench coach was also suspended for a year and a player named in the MLB report of the incident resigned as the manager of another club. All laudable actions by the Commissioner.

With the Black Sox, then-Commissioner Kennesaw Landis banned eight members of the team for life, despite their being found innocent by a court. This is the high degree of integrity baseball has strived for in order for the sport to remain pure in the eyes of its fans.  Admittedly it would have been difficult for Manfred to ban players for life in the Astros’ case given the current presence of the Players’ Association and other “legalities”.  But what about some penalty for those players who actually used the illegal information in the World Series games themselves?

According to reports, players were given immunity in order for the Commissioner’s Office to better acquire information on other players who were part of the scheme.  Ultimately, no players were disciplined. Was that because the Commissioner would have to have dealt with the Players’ Association?  If that was the case, is there a concerning pattern here in Manfred’s regard with respect to the integrity of the game?

In the second paragraph on page 95 of the Mitchell Report (compiled in 2007 and dealing with steroid matters in Major League Baseball), it details how Manfred (then serving as head of MLB’s Labor Relations) declined to allow MLB’s security chief to interview players in 2000 when MLB’s security people felt they had strong evidence of a player steroid operation.

In the report Manfred related that for players to be interviewed he would have to acquire permission from the Players Association and “that could be tough sledding”.  In “protecting the integrity of the game” back in 2000, did Manfred even try to acquire such permission?  Moreover, with regard to the Astros World Series scandal did Manfred even try to go to the Players Association to try to interview those directly involved (or was it immunity for players right out of the box)?  Is this an indication of adopting the “path of least resistance” in difficult matters?

Interestingly, here is a delicious irony appreciating Manfred’s taking away the Astros draft choices in 2020 and 2021. Although Manfred fined the Astros $5 million as mentioned, that amount might have been largely offset (if not surpassed) by the amount the Astros saved in not having to pay signing bonuses had they had those draft selections.

“Really? “modernize without interfering with history and tradition”? Isn’t that a bit paradoxical? Is that what has (indeed) been done?”

“— and to set a course that allows this great game to continue to flourish—”

“Flourish”? Perhaps so, in terms of dollars flowing to the club ownerships through broadcast contracts and other revenue sources (like a sporting goods company paying a large amount of money in order to have their logo on MLB uniforms?).

However, what about the “backbone” of baseball – the fans?  It has been reported that Major League Baseball suffers from 7 straight years of declining in-stadium attendance.  The MLB response to that decline is that more people watch on “devices”. But doesn’t that in-stadium decline effect ticket, parking and concession revenues?  Moreover, if so many people are watching on devices then why were TV ratings so poor for the 2020 World Series even with the involvement of a major market like Los Angeles and, so poor with fans “locked down” and craving sports entertainment?

More telling is that a couple of years ago it was rumored that there was a program called “the Commissioner’s Program” whereby MLB would buy discounted tickets from the member clubs and then return those tickets to the clubs for distribution (allegedly for charities and such). When those tickets were used, the clubs would then report usage as paid attendance in order to bolster attendance numbers.  The only thing is, many of those tickets, even though available to fans on a gratis basis, went unused.

So:  flourishing?  Maybe in terms of signing business contracts for large amounts of money but in terms of actual fan support??  You decide.

“THE MISSION BEFORE US IS CLEAR: TO HONOR THE GAME’S HISTORY…”

In February of last year, was the Commissioner honoring the game’s history when he referred to the World Championship trophy as “a hunk of metal”? To his credit he did apologize; but was that apology just a politically correct thing to do?  It stymies the imagination that someone would even THINK such a thing… let alone verbalize it.

What about MLB’s recent abundance of rules installed in knee-jerk fashion? Should those be considered as honoring the history and the basic traditions of the game? It is realized that many of these efforts are meant to increase enjoyment of the game and to modernize it for the improvement of fans’ enjoyment.  But here is more irony. Some of the rules intended to speed up the pace of play actually slow it down and take away from the entertainment value of the game (see Instant Replay).

Consider the intentional walk rule…. now automatic.  It has been written that this change saves 30 seconds each time an intentional walk is issued.  Obviously, that means if a game contains 10 intentional walks it might shorten the game by 5 minutes.  When is the last time one has seen a game where even one intentional walk was issued, let alone ten? While the Commissioner is on record as maintaining that every little bit helps in terms of speeding up the game, here is a most-telling quote from an article written by Bill Francis and attributed to former Red Sox manager Pinky Higgins:

“AN INTENTIONAL WALK ALWAYS COMES AT A CRUCIAL TIME , AND THE PITCHER SHOULD BE MADE TO THROW THE BALL. ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN AND SOMETIMES DOES.”

Pinly Higgins

Pinky Higgins

To Pinky Higgins’ point; ever hear of Joe Sparma?  Sparma was an outstanding athlete (a former standout quarterback at Ohio State among other accomplishments) but he had control problems when asked to intentionally walk anyone. He was as likely to throw the ball halfway up the backstop screen as he was to get the ball to the catcher. Men on base were almost guaranteed to advance (if not score). Are there other Joe Sparma’s still at the Major League level? We’ll never find out as long as this rule is in effect. This is a rule that robs fans of the excitement of (perhaps) a man on third scoring because a pitcher threw the ball toward the press box trying to intentionally walk someone.

Here’s another one.  The man on second base to start an extra inning.  First question if this one is employed. How many games go into extra innings?  If fans desire to stay (remember, doubleheaders are no longer fashionable) why not let them get their money’s worth?  Does MLB really need to copy the NFL and its overtime rules?

The three-batter minimum?  A good one… as far as speeding up the game, the average game time in 2020 increased by two minutes. As for the strategy that used to stimulate discussion (sometimes for several days) among fans about pitching changes… essentially gone.  But look at it this way.  The three-batter minimum gives analysts more time to charge their laptops before analyzing the next pitching change albeit three hitters away.

Here is some startling information in case it is not realized by the Commissioner. Presently a Major League game barely has even the connotation of action (consider reports that a ball is put into play once every 3.7 minutes on average).

Much of that 3-minute gap is spent watching pitchers trying to remember what to throw (even given signs relayed from the dugout to the catcher and then from the catcher to the pitcher), hitters trying to remember what they saw on video tape during their last visit to the clubhouse, and, even though batters are required to stay in the box (except in certain situations like a foul ball) players appear hesitant to even approach the batter’s box until they have heard “their song”. Ultimately, the players control the pace-of-play.

The fact that players control the pace was certainly evidenced in the 1992 inaugural season of the Arizona Fall League where the average time of game was 2 hours and 22 minutes (granted there were no TV commercials, but teams still had to change sides and pitchers still had to warm up). The secret to such a fast pace-of-play and time-of-game?  Simply the realization on the part of the players (thanks to some educational meetings) that a quicker pace was a key to “muscle memory” and thus a key to improved performance – especially for pitchers.  Think that factor has ever occurred to those at MLB?

But, fair is fair.  Manfred did move the Negro League players into elevated status, thus honoring baseball’s history.

“BASEBALL IS A GAME FIRMLY ROOTED IN CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES, AND ITS VITALITY AND GROWTH RELY HEAVILY ON GIVING YOUNG PEOPLE FROM ALL BACKGROUNDS THE OPPORTUNITY TO PLAY AND WATCH BASEBALL”.  THIS NOTION THAT BASEBALL IS THE GAME OF CHILDREN IS CENTRAL TO MY CORE GOALS AS COMMISSIONER”.

Hmmmm!  Does that statement fall in line with the elimination of 42 minor league clubs (spearheaded by the Office of the Commissioner) which eliminated hundreds of playing jobs for those with dreams of making the Major Leagues? And, also eliminated the employment of umpires, minor league field staff, stadium workers and affected hotels, restaurants, and bus companies in smaller communities across the country?

This elimination of minor league clubs (with more eliminations  to come?) was done in the interest of “efficiency”. Efficiency for what? So fewer people (especially children) in smaller cities cannot view the game in person and develop their own heroes first-hand?  And to stymie their desire to play the game themselves?

While we are at it,  what benefit was realized by Major League Baseball in destroying 26% of its own (traditional) version of “research and development?  There was a story (which may or may not be true) that, by eliminating 42 minor league clubs the savings for the 30 Major League clubs would total $50 million.

But here is the interesting thing about that $50 million figure that MLB might possibly be saving.  If that is anywhere near accurate, that $50 million divided by 30 Major League clubs that would be a savings of  $1.666 million per club – or about 26% of the average salary of ONE Major League Player on that club.  So; with the current MLB administration boasting that it has annual revenues in the range of $11 billion per year and individual franchise values of $1-2 billion, apparently MLB is focused on destroying baseball in 42 cities at a per club savings of (but) 26% of the salary of one of its “average” players?

To be safe, let’s assume the savings would be $100 million. At that rate, each MLB club would save approximately $2,380,000?  So. All of those jobs and goodwill flushed for about half of the average salary of one Major League player per club?  Is this a well-thought out way to grow the national popularity of the game?

Question: how many of the Commissioner’s people who are presently working to destroy Minor League Baseball have ever:

  1. Been to some of the cities and/or parks of clubs eliminated?
  2. Worked for or operated a minor league club?
  3. Been involved first-hand with player development?

But we are told it will all be more efficient. Really? Is scouting and development really that precise?

Traditionally (here we go with tradition again), player development has been viewed as a pyramid where aspiring players would enter at the base of the pyramid and try to advance at to the top. By the latest MLB actions, are they trying to turn that pyramid into an oblong?  Perhaps more “efficient” but certainly a less stable structure.

“MY TOP PRIORITY  IS TO BRING MORE PEOPLE INTO OUR GAME—AT ALL LEVELS AND FROM ALL COMMUNITIES. SPECIFICALLY, I PLAN TO MAKE THE GAME MORE ACCESSIBLE TO THOSE IN UNDERSERVED AREAS, ESPECIALLY IN THE URBAN AREAS WHERE FIELD AND INFRASTRUCTURE ARE HARDER TO FIND.”

A most admirable statement.  But see the section above.

How does one bring people into the game “at all levels” and “from all communities” when one has taken that very thing away from them “at all levels and from all communities”?  As for urban areas, does it evidence a certain lack of baseball knowledge at the highest levels when one stands idly by and watches scores of (life-long) scouts put out to pasture?

Many of these scouts were the “baseball messengers” who took the game into the inner cities and urged youngsters to keep their grades up and to show up for their games on Saturday and Sunday. Now, and well-intended though it might be, only a comparative few urban youngsters are chosen to participate in special camps, or showcases.

“ANOTHER PRIORITY FOR ME IS TO CONTINUE TO MODERNIZE THE GAME WITHOUT INTERFERING WITH ITS HISTORY AND TRADITIONS.  LAST SEASON’S EXPANDED INSTANT REPLAY IMPROVED THE GAMES QUALITY AND ADDRESSED CONCERNS SHARED BY FANS AND PLAYERS. WE MADE A DRAMATIC CHANGE WITHOUT ALTERING THE GAMES FUNDEMENTALS.  I LOOK FORWARD TO TAPPING INTO THE POWER OF TECHNOLOGY TO CONSIDER ADDITIONAL ENHANCEMENTS THAT WILL CONTINUE TO HEIGHTEN THE EXCITEMENT OF THE GAME, IMPROVE THE PACE OF PLAY AND ATTRACT MORE YOUNG PEOPLE TO THE GAME.”

Really?  “modernize without interfering with history and tradition”?  Isn’t that a bit paradoxical?  Is that what has (indeed) been done?

Since Manfred’s letter mentions “Instant Replay” let’s consider that within the context of what he says about “improving the game’s quality”, “(making) a dramatic change without altering the games fundamentals” and “additional enhancements that will continue to heighten the excitement of the game, (and) improve the pace of play”.  There are certainly those who are of the opinion that “Instant Replay” flies in the face of all of that.

First, with regard to fundamentals: What fundamentals was the Commissioner talking about?  What about how umpires work? Or are they not considered part of the game? Did the intentional walk rule take wild pitch capability out of the game? Would those be “fundamentals”?

With regard to ‘Instant Replay”:  That has been shown to be anything but instant and has turned out to be one of the greatest time-wasters in the course of a game.  Do people find the excitement of the game heightened when, for example, a player slides into second base and immediately begins clapping his hands to his ears if he is called out?  Then, as all action ceases, the manager has to consider whether or not to challenge the call. If he does challenge; is it the epitome of suspense to watch the umpires come in to put on the headphones? And, when the ultimate decision on a play is rendered; was the final decision made by someone not even in the ballpark but rather hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away?

Interestingly, is the Commissioner aware that an increasing number of ejections come from people disputing replay decisions?

Allowing that umpires do miss calls (just as players strike out, miss ground balls, throw wild pitches, and so forth) has it ever occurred to the Commissioner’s Office that, in terms of all calls made (not just replay reviewed calls) umpires accuracy is generally in the range of over 98% correct? Apparently not.

So now fans can look forward to more (such) technology?  Two points in that regard.

As things presently stand at the Major League level, a little league parent is said to have mentioned to a friend his son would be playing the following Spring and that, accordingly he would need to provide his son with a bat, ball, glove, shoes….and a replay unit.

Much has been said recently about the use of “robot umpires” to call balls and strikes.  First, be careful what you wish for. And will there be more ejections as a result?

Lastly, technology provides baseball with a solid dose of hypocrisy. Consider the individual who advocated for robot umpires. When challenged that such would deprive the game of the “human element” the individual responded that “we have the technology so we should use it”.

When that person was asked if he was saying he supported the use of pitching machines and the use of a robot batter (reported to have been invented in Japan) he responded, “Oh no!  That would take the human element out of the game”.

There are those who wonder if the above three points have ever occurred to Commissioner Manfred.

In conclusion, it is only fair that Manfred’s positive accomplishments in the past six years be listed as well.

But hold on.  Unfortunately, we’ll have to get back to you on that one.

Mike Port spent over 40 years in professional baseball. He began as a player, becoming a minor league GM as the result of an injury. He advanced to the Major League level where he served the San Diego Padres in the positions of Director of Promotions and Director of Player Development. Mike then worked as the Angels' Director of Player Personnel, Chief Administrative Officer, and eventually their General Manager. Port was the founding President of the Arizona Fall League, then joined the Boston Red Sox as Assistant General Manager, Vice President of Baseball Operations and (interim) General Manager. He left the Red Sox to become Major League Baseball's Vice President of Umpiring. He was the only guy signed by Hall of Famer Duke Snider (then a Padres Scout) to ever make it to the Big Leagues, just not as a player.

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