February 28, 2017
Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
Everything old is new again. Spring training games (real, live, quasi-competitive baseball games) are being played. Ulnar collateral ligaments are tearing. People are gushing over famous players with eye-popping new physiques, gleefully ignoring the fact that lacking muscle was never the thing holding those players back from transcendence. Most reliably, though, rules changes are being implemented (and, just as often, floated as an empty threat), story-starved columnists are gorging themselves on access to Rob Manfred, and the commissioner is using his platform to lay the groundwork for another thrashing of the MLB Players Association in a CBA negotiation years from now.
Manfred’s hobby horse, for the second time in three years, is pace of play. This time, he’s rebranded the problem (a word I’m using too generously, but we’ll come back to that) as “pace of action,” claiming the problem isn’t so much about the length of games as about the lack of contact and the time between interesting ball-in-play events. That helps him get around the question of why he largely clammed up about this issue last year, in the wake of a mildly successful memo in early 2015 that asked batters to remain in the box between pitches and that shortened games by perhaps a few minutes, for perhaps a few months.
At the core of Manfred’s argument, however, the song remains the same. Manfred says that he and the owners have focus-group data and demographic research indicating that if the league wants to secure the attention of younger fans and families, games need to move faster. More needs to happen. That, in Manfred’s telling, is why the removal of actual pitches from the process of intentional walks is just the tip of the iceberg. That, he says, is why the players need to cooperate right now and buy into the effort to shorten and speed along games, and why if they don’t he’ll act unilaterally to achieve those goals. He’s ready to rebuild the strike zone, if that’s what it takes.
Firstly, please know that this is not new terrain on which to pick a fight. As far back as the 1960s, there were straight-faced pace-of-play hawks, and those who worried that the advent of television and the AFL/NFL merger might be the permanent undoing of baseball. There was panic that the game lacked offense and that it was too awash in strikeouts. The olds who ran the game then wrung their hands over whether the young would ever warm to such a slow and strategic game.
It was nonsense then and it’s nonsense now. Whether the owners’ research is real and legitimate or some blank paper they’ll wave around in a manila envelope whenever they need it, it’s not true that professional baseball is being hurt by the pace at which it proceeds. The industry’s profits are booming. They’re at an all-time high. The Marlins (the Marlins!) appear to be worth at least $1.5 billion.
There’s a persistent and pernicious lie about MLB owners, as a group, one that poisons and distorts rational observers’ perceptions of those owners’ actions. In a nutshell, that lie says that the owners only care about money and that they’ll do anything to maximize their bottom lines, even at the expense of the average fan and their experience. It’s not hard to see where one might get such an idea, but it isn’t true. The owners (and, in the 25 years since Bud Selig deposed Fay Vincent, the league office itself) have a long track record of putting money second.
Power is what comes first. You might choose "leverage" and I’d allow it, or "control," which I’d almost prefer. By whatever name you call it, the thing the owners have always guarded the most closely is true ownership of MLB—not just the teams and the ballparks and the profits, but the way the game is played, the cities in which it’s played, the place of baseball in American society, and (especially, perhaps) the relationship between players and management.
When the Black Sox scandal blew up in the early 1920s, the owners scrambled to put the most respectable and unassailable leader possible at the top of their chain of command. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ appointment to the commissioner position was enough to muffle some calls for the industry of professional sports to be more tightly regulated. His decisive action with regard to the players who could be placed firmly within the walls of the scandal gave the appearance of toughness, a resolute rejection of gambling within baseball itself. Yet, Landis ignored some other reports of fixed games and actively swept others under the rug.
Even almost 100 years ago, the game’s top decision-makers knew how to satisfy the public, how to convince them that a negative story was simultaneously being taken seriously (and any perpetrators severely punished), and yet posed no serious threat to the integrity or admirability of the game. Decades later, when steroids presented an even more insidious problem for those charged with maintaining the game’s image, they fell back into the same pattern.
Relatedly, owners and league officials have developed a knack for making dramatic moves to get out of sticky situations, and even gaining public-relations yardage in the process. Branch Rickey and the Dodgers began the process of integrating the game on the very eve of what was to be a wave of public, outsider pressure to do that exact thing. Aborted or blocked franchise moves led to lawsuits (and the threat of them) twice during the expansion era, twice leading the league to simply expand—forestalling challenges to the league’s long-standing antitrust exemption, and also showering owners with infusions of cash from the expansion fees they charged overeager new member cities.
Another round of expansion came about largely to pay the penalties owners were ordered to pay to players after they were found to be in collusion in the late 1980s. All those expansion teams created (mostly temporary, structural) competitive imbalance, which the owners used aggressively to manipulate the media and apply pressure to players throughout the 1990s.
Very often, when a problem crops up in MLB it can be traced originally back to the owners. They’re so good at what they do, though, that they often make that thing the players’ problem just as the public becomes aware of it, and then they use that problem (of their own creation) as leverage against the players. It’s what happened with gambling, and with integration, and with PEDs. Now, it’s happening with pace-of-play arguments. Long ago, MLB voluntarily made itself a servant to the every whim of its network and cable TV partners. Commercial breaks have roughly doubled in length over the last 25 years and there are (marginally) more of them.
Fewer games are played during the day. Fewer doubleheaders are played. Fewer ballparks feature any truly reasonable ticket prices that might allow young (or, heaven forbid, poor) families to make semi-regular trips to the park. If it’s even true that the game is struggling to bring in new, school-aged fans (a point I’m unwilling to concede just because of that manila envelope), these are the reasons why. It’s not about the longer time taken between pitches, or the lower likelihood of contact on swings. It’s about squeezing the last dollar out of things at every possible turn, a series of choices the owners have made without consulting the players at all.
Yet here Manfred is, taking his tour of spring camps to remind everyone just how uncooperative the players are being. They won’t speed up, to accommodate 15 extra minutes of commercials per game. They won’t throw 89, instead of 98, so that a hitter can swing a little less hard and maybe hit an opposite-field single for a change. The players aren’t listening. The players are out of touch. The league sure doesn’t want to do anything without the players as partners, but they might not have a choice if things don’t change. It’s a transparent, cheap, slimy power play. It’s so quintessentially Bud Selig that it’s hard to believe anyone else could pull it off.
Manfred has been one of Selig’s top hit men since the start of the millennium, though. He’s been in charge of pistol whipping the players since about the time Selig decided to push ahead with his plans to contract the Twins, even in the wake of September 11, 2001. For years, it was Manfred’s job not only to make sure that Selig won, but that the players understood it was Selig’s game to win.
The owners think baseball itself belongs to them, and that no one else can steer the ship onward as well as they can. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to make sure no one jostles them for the helm. This spring, that means preaching and concern trolling about pace of action. I guess the good news is that it could be worse. (In fact, in many previous springs, it has been.)