Back in October, as the World Series caused attention to be paid anew to the Indians racist logo, Chief Wahoo, Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke about the topic at the Hank Aaron Award ceremony. His words, while carefully stated and diplomatic, were nonetheless clear.
Manfred acknowledged that Wahoo is offensive. He acknowledged that “all of us at Major League Baseball understand why.” Importantly, he said that it is not a “both sides have merit” situation. Indeed, he specifically said that the mere fact that some people do not find Wahoo to be offensive did not validate their opinion, even if they’re free to hold it. This jibes with what I have heard privately from Major League Baseball officials. The league hates Wahoo, is embarrassed by it and wants it gone, even if it has limited authority to make it happen.
But the league can persuade and, to that end, Manfred said this:
“I’ve talked to Mr. [Indians owner and CEO Paul] Dolan about this issue. We’ve agreed away from the World Series at an appropriate time we will have a conversation about this.”
There has been no public evidence or reporting of a conversation between Manfred and Dolan about Chief Wahoo. It’s possible that they discussed the matter at an owners meeting or at the Winter Meetings, but none of that has come to light as of yet. What we do know is that, tomorrow, Major League Baseball is going to award Cleveland with the single biggest thing MLB can unilaterally award a club’s ownership with: an All-Star Game, and all of the financial, marketing and public relations benefits that confers on a team and its ownership.
I am sensitive to the realities of club-league relations and I appreciate that the internal management and marketing of a club is not something with which Major League Baseball has any interest in inserting itself. I do not for one moment think that Major League Baseball can simply order the Indians to change their ways and get rid of Chief Wahoo or that, even if it could, it would be a good idea for it to set that sort of precedent.
But it’s one thing to order the Indians to do this. It’s another thing altogether to award a club with baseball’s shiniest jewel with some conditions that are in the best interests of the league. Or, as happened with the Orioles recently, to punish a team by taking away an All-Star Game if it does something which displeases the league. Which is to say that if the award of the 2019 All-Star Game to Cleveland was not conditioned on a phase-out of Chief Wahoo, Manfred’s words back on October on this matter were empty, as is his claim that he understands the concerns of those who want to see Wahoo gone.
Knowing that Major League Baseball does not like to publicize anything controversial, I will give the league the benefit of the doubt here. I will assume that, no, they are not going to issue a press release about the abolition of Chief Wahoo and they’re certainly not going to do it in a manner which overshadows the All-Star announcement. If and when Wahoo is kicked to the curb it will no doubt be portrayed as the Indians doing it themselves, at least publicly, and it will be spun as a positive thing, not a punitive thing.
That said: we will eagerly watch tomorrow’s press conference for a suggestion that Manfred actually used the enormous leverage he had over the Indians in this instance. We will watch the Indians’ uniforms and merchandise going forward to see if Manfred failed to use that maximal leverage over Paul Dolan to do something he claimed last October to be in the league’s interest. We will watch to see if Major League Baseball truly cares about one of its clubs waving a racist banner or if, instead, it merely pretends to care about that when, like last October, everyone is watching.