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 current commissioner never has sent an e-mail. And the men charged with choosing his successor don’t know Jay Z from Jay Johnstone while assuming Uber is a rock group from Dublin fronted by Sonny Bono.
Once considered our national pastime, baseball has drifted into a secondary place in American sports, burned out by performance-enhancing-drugs scandals enabled by complicit owners, slow games that need a 20-second pitch clock and shrinking TV audiences that have grown old with the game itself (average age of a World Series viewer last fall: 54.4, up from 49.4 five years earlier). 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 Bud Selig retires at age 80. 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) and others. With Selig exiting after the season, the next commissioner must be an absolute departure from the status quo, young and fast and creative.
Instead, the old farts are fighting over which of the old farts’ desired candidates should carry on in the old farts’ tradition.
God help the game.
Selig, always the consensus builder, would prefer 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. His name is Rob Manfred, and his 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 Bud Selig’s right-hand man replacing Bud Selig. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Unfortunately, the options are no better. How fascinating to see Selig’s dear buddy, Jerry 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 is lobbying hard for Tom Werner, chairman of the Boston Red Sox. If the debate is 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, is 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 have is Selig trying to advance his legacy into the future, while Reinsdorf tries to build the antithesis of the Selig Era with visions of labor tension and weak franchises in small markets.
Neither way works.
“It’s fascinating because you have one side where the owners say, `Don’t rock the boat. And that side is Selig and Manfred. They’re the boat,’’ Fay Vincent, the middleman commissioner forced out by Selig and Reinsdorf in 1992, told USA TODAY. “The other side is saying, `It’s time for change. We need to make improvements.’ And that’s the Werner side. We haven’t seen anything like this, really, since Selig took over.”
A third candidate, Tim Brosnan, also has served Selig as the architect of MLB’s lucrative broadcast business — the latest national TV deals are worth $12.4 billion. But just because he knows how to squeeze money out of ESPN, Fox and Turner doesn’t mean he knows how to coax 18-to-34s into watching those telecasts. Some have said Werner and Brosnan will become a Reinsdorf-led tag team and become commissioner and deputy commissioner.
Now hear this: 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.
And he’s going to help determine the next commissioner?
The same old farts who’ve damaged the game are preparing to damage the game for the next generation, too. Know what’s even worse than that?
Very few people seem to care.