Rob Manfred and the art of magical thinking

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KANSAS CITY — No Major League Baseball “Jewel Event,” as they like to call the World Series, All-Star Game and the Winter Meetings, is complete without the Commissioner showing up and taking questions from the assembled media about the State of the Game. Today is no different, and just as the Royals took the field for their off-day batting practice and infield drills, Manfred got up on his dais to do just that.

He’s a very different character than Bud Selig was. Actually, less of a character. We lived with Bud for so long, overestimating him, underestimating him, mocking him, praising him and most of all turning him into some sort of caricature that, over time, he ceased to be an actual person. There was BudSpeak to which we all became immune and eventually that worked to his benefit, allowing him to get away with a lot of stuff non-caricatures would never be able to. When a man says black is white for so many years — and when he’s actually kinda cute in a weird Midwestern way as he does it — you end up cutting him the sort of slack that shrewd, powerful and situationally manipulative people like Bud Selig actually is tend not to get. “Oh, the owners are going broke, Bud? The Steroid Era is over? Moving all of the baseball games to pay-TV serves the fans better? You may have a point, there, you old salt. Gotta hear both sides!”

Rob Manfred hasn’t earned that kind of a pass yet. He’s still a man. A lawyer, no less. He doesn’t have weird hair, ill-fitting suits and the sort of ruthless rise to power which, by the benefit of time passing and people with memories dying, has been transformed into a “journey.” As a result, when Manfred shovels B.S. we don’t roll our eyes and chuckle like we did with weird old Uncle Bud. We actually smell it and don’t much care for it.

Not that everything he said today was bull. He offered some news, saying that there will be a presentation to owners at the next owners meetings (in November) about fan safety and extended safety netting down the lines. The league is being sued over foul ball injuries at the moment and there have been a number of serious injuries at ballparks. Maybe now we get more netting, maybe we don’t, but either way it seems like we’re close to one of those tipping points in which baseball finally, after a long time discussing something, actually acts in a way which makes a load of sense. It often takes a lot of time for baseball to do the right thing, but they usually move in the right direction.

One area where baseball is moving backwards, however, is in minority representation in front offices and manager jobs. There have been several high-profile GM and manager hires of late, and almost all of the jobs have gone to white men with good connections. Manfred was asked about that today and this is what he said:

“You’re going to have peaks and valleys . . . We are focused on the need to promote diversity . . .  we have had a year where our numbers are down in terms of the diversity that we have in some of our key positions . . . it’s incumbent upon us to come up with additional programs and ways to make sure that our numbers look better over the long haul.”

“Peaks and valleys?” When were the “peaks,” exactly?

OK, we’ll leave that for another day and get down to brass tacks: Right now here’s what baseball has in place:

  • The so-called “Selig Rule” which directs teams to “consider” minority candidates for manager and other positions; and
  • The August retention of search firm Korn Ferry to “provide a number of support services for qualified candidates to assist in their interview preparations for key baseball operations positions [with] special emphasis to the preparation of minority and female candidates.”

Against that are a bunch of Ivy League-educated wunderkind baseball operations types who, as executives have done since time immemorial, have hired guys who look and think they do. As far as efficacious measures go, I’ll take centuries worth of cultural inertia in that battle.

To be fair, Manfred doesn’t hire for these positions himself and, to continue to be fair, there is no reason to believe that the people who make such hires are motivated by some sort of overtly racist or sexist thinking. Indeed, I highly doubt, in this day and age, any of them are racist or sexist in the most obvious or overt ways. But that’s the thing about institutional racism: it doesn’t require such animus by any one person. Any given system may have sloughed off its formalized color barriers and men’s club ways decades ago, but it still may nonetheless have internalized and memorialized racism and sexism as a result of a thousand putatively innocuous decisions which work against women and people of color in the most pernicious of ways.

For example, clubs pay front office people jack crap for the first several years of their careers. They don’t do this because they’re overtly racist or sexist. They do it because they’re cheap and because they can get away with it. A result of that separate and apart from some savings on the bottom line: a huge percentage of the people who were able to stick around long enough to get the sort of seniority that puts them in line for an interview are the ones who were well-off to begin and could afford to make bubkis for several years. Do front offices really favor white, Ivy League educated men? I don’t know. But trust funds sure as hell do. Executive search firms on retainer are nice, but the rich kids’ club being favored by major league front offices is one of the many things Manfred and the owners who employ him need to be thinking about as they think about how to bring new voices and new faces into baseball’s leadership ranks.

The stuff on diversity in front offices and the top of dugout steps is a tough subject, to be sure, so Manfred can be forgiven for some euphemism, I suppose. On other matters, however, he’s just full of it.

Matters like daily fantasy sports, which have come under considerable scrutiny lately. Manfred was asked about that scrutiny because Major League Baseball has a considerable equity stake in daily fantasy company DraftKings and it and most of its clubs are involved in multi-year marketing and advertising partnerships (Disclosure: NBC Sports Ventures has a considerable equity investment in Draft Kings’ competitor, FanDuel). Manfred’s comment amounted to a declaration that he does not believe playing daily fantasy constitutes gambling. Indeed, it was more than a belief. He said, “I know I’m right.”

Whether an investment and partnership is wise for a sports league (or a sports network for that matter) is not something I’m very well qualified to discuss. It may be a good and profitable one, I have no idea. But whether daily fantasy is gambling seems pretty cut and dry, and I land on that the same place this law professor does:

“Everybody knows that daily fantasy sports is gambling; the contestants are wagering something for a chance to win money,” said Marc Edelman, an associate law professor and sports-law expert at Baruch College in New York.

“The question is whether this is illegal gambling, and the definition of illegal gambling varies by state,” Edelman said.

And the states — and to some extent the feds — are looking into that. Nevada has just banned it until it can be regulated by their gaming commission. Which likely won’t end up mattering for the players or, after some regulatory bumps, the companies. And may not matter much for most of these companies’ investors. There is all sorts of legal gambling around or, as daily fantasy may be adjudged, games of skill which look a lot like gambling but are held not to be for regulatory purposes.

But Major League Baseball is different because Major League Baseball has much stricter rules on gambling than states and the feds do and legal gambling is just as much a problem for baseball as illegal gambling is. At least historically speaking. All of which is to say that Manfred can’t, as he did this afternoon, hide behind legal definitions and his personal beliefs when it comes to the league’s involvement with daily fantasy. Or at least he shouldn’t, what with Pete Rose sitting over there all banned and everything.

Maybe Bud Selig got away with soft-peddling and legalisms and general shrugging when it comes to the big issues facing the game more easily than Manfred does. Maybe Manfred gets away with it too, actually, because the game is generally healthy, people are generally happy and the gosh darn World Series starts tomorrow, so who can be bothered to focus on the negative things.

But until Manfred takes on some cuddly, responsibility-deflecting persona like Uncle Bud did, denying the bleedin’ obvious and referencing committees and consultants and the like doesn’t wear well on him. It doesn’t wear well on anyone.