Rob Manfred has completely and utterly stepped in it with respect to the Astros and the sign-stealing scandal. Everyone is mad, the highest profile players in the game are taking their turns raking him, the league, and the Astros over the coals, and the very integrity of the game, once given as bedrock, is now a legitimate topic of debate.
But if you’ve been following this game as long and as closely as I have, you realize something: every time Rob Manfred steps in it, a story comes out a day or two later about how his mistakes or his incompetence were totally understandable. Even excusable! These stories always follow a classic 1-2-3 progression:
- Hey, we could’ve done better, but [insert defense of what he did with little pushback from the writer];
- Maybe you are mad at us, but the union and media didn’t see the problem either! Maybe they’re to blame, did you ever think of that?; and
- Lots of passive voice comments that will be reported on as if they constituted an apology or the acceptance of responsibility but, in reality are not.
If you like stories of that ilk, look no further than Ken Rosenthal’s piece at The Athletic this morning.
The story contains a lot of “hindsight is 20/20” and references to “unintended consequences” which Manfred did not foresee. A lot of space for Manfred to explain his side but not a lot of pushback about how, while most of us may be justified in being blindsided by all of this, Rob Manfred is not most of us. He is the Commissioner of Baseball. Someone who, no, is not expected to be clairvoyant, but who is and should be held to a higher standard than others when it comes to both the prevention of and the punishment of cheating in the game.
Indeed, I almost threw my laptop across the room when I read this passage:
In fairness, Manfred was not alone in failing to see the future clearly. As far back as 2015, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) expressed concerns to MLB about the rise of technology in the sport. The union, however, did not directly focus on the threat to the game’s integrity.
This is absolutely enraging.
Protecting the integrity of the game is literally the reason the job of Commissioner of Baseball was created. It is on the Commissioner, above all else, to deal with threats to the game’s integrity. While one can reasonably debate whether the Commissioner should have done this or he should have done that, it is risible to suggest that it is not his responsibility and his responsibility alone to protect the game’s integrity.
Does the union have a role in it? Sure. If new rules or initiatives or punishments spin out of the Commissioner’s acts to protect the game’s integrity, the MLBPA is entitled to be at the table and agree to or reject proposals in a negotiated setting. But that’s not what Rosenthal is getting at here. He is not citing something Manfred tried to do but the union opposed. He is excusing Manfred’s failure to anticipate and failure to act on the most critical part of his job by saying that the union — who does not have that as its primary job — didn’t do it either.
Indeed, it’s even worse than that because, as was the case with Kennesaw Mountain Landis and the Black Sox and Bud Selig and PEDs, the players are, almost necessarily, the ones who are posing a threat to the game’s integrity! They are the ones consorting with gamblers. They are the ones injecting themselves with steroids. They are the ones banging on trash cans to signal the next pitch. Not all of them, of course not, but enough to where the players union — a body that, by definition, requires agreement and solidarity to do anything — has an inherent conflict of interest when it comes to matters of the game’s integrity. Some want to cheat. Other don’t. To expect that conflicted group to take the lead on these sorts of matters is like expecting two toddlers fighting over a toy truck in the playroom to take the lead on resolving their differences. It’s adult in the room’s job to keep that from happening and to prevent and/or punish misbehavior. When it comes to integrity in the game of baseball, the Commissioner is, by definition, the adult in the room.
All that aside, Manfred cannot with a straight face claim that his inaction and ineptitude in all of this was the fault of the union, because if he has shown anything in his career he has shown that he can pretty much make the union do what he wants. When it’s a simple matter of setting the broad agenda, whatever he decides to say at a press conference becomes the agenda for the next several years (see: pace of play and random rules tweaks). When it’s down to the brass tacks of actually implementing the changes he’d like to see — be they rules or stuff relating to the financial side of the game or almost anything else — he has been more successful at jawboning the union into doing his and the owners’ will than any man in the game’s history. For him to now passively — via the prose of Ken Rosenthal and some rhetorical shoulder-shrugging — claim that combatting cheating in the game was the responsibility of anyone else besides him is preposterous.
We live in a time in which responsibility is a four-letter word. We live in a time in which blame-shifting is the order of the day. We live in time in which the buck stops nowhere. Rob Manfred, unfortunately, is showing himself to be very much a man for these times.