If somehow we could blend the feral abandon of Yasiel Puig, the progressive thinking of Billy Beane, the kid exuberance of Mike Trout, the bullish command of Clayton Kershaw, the advanced metrics of the St. Louis Cardinals, the hot girlfriend of Justin Verlander, the marketing clout of Jay Z, the common sense of Tesla, the simple efficiency of Uber and whatever tethers us to our smartphones 24/7 — and then poured it all into a human mold — maybe we’d have the perfect commissioner for Major League Baseball.
Problem is, the outgoing commissioner never has sent even one e-mail. And the men who chose his successor don’t know Jay Z from Jay Johnstone while assuming Uber is an Irish rock group fronted by Sonny Bono.
After an unnecessary, two-day circus of bloated egos and embarrassing politics, the old men who ruined baseball have set out to ruin baseball for the next generation. Bud Selig, 80, won the war against his pal-turned-rival, 78-year-old Jerry Reinsdorf, and the result is that Selig’s right-hand man for years, Rob Manfred, is the next commissioner. “There were differences of opinion, but in the end we came together,” Selig said. “There is no doubt in my mind (Manfred) has the temperament, the training, the experience.’’
To do what, exactly? Keep driving baseball down a lonesome, irrelevant road where the average age of a World Series viewer last fall was 54.4 years, up from 49.4 five years earlier?
Once considered our national pastime, baseball has drifted into a secondary place in American sports, burned out by performance-enhancing-drug scandals enabled by complicit owners, dawdling games that need a 20-second pitch clock, and shrinking TV audiences that have grown old with the game itself. The men running the sport disagree, saying they have no better evidence of baseball’s well-being than the megamillions in their bank vaults. But the sport’s current economic prosperity is a matter of sheer luck: In the DVR age, television operators desperately need live content to counter the on-demand, skip-over-commercials crowd, and MLB delivers live programming 162 times a year in 30 markets. So the networks and cable shops pay outrageous amounts — none more staggering than Time Warner Cable’s $8.35 billion, 25-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers — because no one wants to DVR a sports event that only can be enjoyed live.
The windfall has given the owners a false sense of security as Selig retires. They think the game is fine when, in truth, young people aren’t watching and the coveted demographic groups are immersed in the NFL, college football and the NBA. Baseball has been blessed with exceptional young talent on the field, yet one of the biggest indictments of current leadership is a lack of national endorsement power for Trout (the most complete player in the game at 23), Kershaw (the best pitcher in the game at 25) and others. With Selig exiting after the season, the next commissioner should be an absolute departure from the status quo, young and fast and creative.
Instead, the old farts fought over which of the old farts’ desired candidates should carry on in the old farts’ tradition.
God help this game.
“I am tremendously honored by the confidence owners showed in me today,” Manfred said. “I have very big shoes to fill.”
Actually, the shoes are 5s. But Manfred wears the same size.
And the fact he inherits the job while knowing several owners wanted no part of him? “I think there’s a huge amount of consensus (among owners) about certain types of effort to move the game forward,” Manfred said. “The process provided a great opportunity for the candidates to talk about issues they saw in the game, and maybe more important, to get feedback from the clubs to see where they want to go.”
Good luck with that when you call Reinsdorf or Angels owner Arte Moreno. “While Rob may not have been my initial choice for commissioner, the conclusion of a very good process was to name Rob as the person best positioned to help baseball endure and grow even stronger for the next generation of fans,” said Reinsdorf, who doesn’t know a joystick from an Xbox.
Selig, always the consensus builder, preferred that his right-hand man succeed him just as Adam Silver followed mentor David Stern as NBA commissioner and Roger Goodell followed mentor Paul Tagliabue as NFL boss. Manfred’s best deed has been to help ensure 19 years of labor peace for a sport gutted by eight previous labor impasses. He also led the thug-ilke attack on Alex Rodriguez and the PED culture, albeit belatedly, after Congress embarrassed Selig into action in 2005. Those contributions were important, but Manfred is sorely lacking in the areas where baseball is sorely lacking — 21st-century marketing skills. For all the money Selig has made for the owners, the sport has fallen from No. 1 to No. 4 in the American popularity pecking order during his 22 years in office. We do not want Selig’s right-hand man replacing Selig. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Unfortunately, the options are no better. How fascinating to see Selig’s dear buddy, Reinsdorf, breaking apart from Buddy Boy in their old age and bucking Manfred. Reinsdorf, who seems to enjoy feuds more than enjoying life and recently lost his son in a mysterious episode, would prefer an antagonistic relationship with the players’ union and lobbied hard for Tom Werner, chairman of the Boston Red Sox. If the debate was Manfred vs. Werner, I’d actually favor Werner, too, given his background as a successful TV producer — even the kids will remember “That ‘70s Show’’ — and the chance he’d grow the game’s lagging, aging fan base. Reinsdorf, a money whore to the bitter end, was pushing Werner to break up what Selig has built — a revenue-sharing system in which major-market teams subsidize smaller-market teams, leading to more parity than ever and a chance at this late 2014 date for an Oakland vs. Milwaukee World Series.
So what we had was Selig trying to advance his legacy into the future, while Reinsdorf tried to build the antithesis of the Selig Era with visions of labor tension and weak franchises in small markets.
Neither way works.
Bud’s way won.
If nothing else, the chances for continuing labor peace are better with Manfred. This game cannot afford another impasse. “The biggest thing is always labor peace,” Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner said, per USA Today. “That’s never going to change. These things come around every few years and there’s a lot at stake.”
“The most important part of good labor relations is ongoing good communication between the bargaining parties,” Manfred said. “It’s not about making friends. It’s about making sure that the other side knows where you are coming from.”
Another Manfred positive: Anything with Reinsdorf’s stamp is doomed to disappoint and implode. This is the man who rejected the Camden Yards blueprints and built a drab ballpark on Chicago’s South Side. This is the man who inherited Michael Jordan but couldn’t wait to stop paying him megabucks so he could build his own NBA dynasty — cough, cough — with the Bulls. This is the man who has done little in three-plus decades of White Sox ownership, beyond a World Series title fueled by suspicious bulk in 2005. This is one of the great phonies and asses and cheapskates in sports, the man who inspired the 1994 strike that wiped out the World Series and almost killed baseball.
Jerry lost. But then, we all lose anyway.
Because a sport that needs an innovator just got the same-old, same-old. In 2033, I’m guessing the average age of a World Series viewer will be 74.4.