The most important day in baseball’s attempt to salvage its season arrives Saturday. Major League Baseball plans to make a proposal it hopes will defibrillate negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement. And anyone yearning to hear the crack of the bat and inhale the aromas of a ballpark on March 31 had better hope MLB makes a significant move. Because Opening Day might depend on it.
The person in charge of the league’s side of negotiations, commissioner Rob Manfred, spoke Thursday for the first time since he locked out players on Dec. 2. Seventy days into the MLB lockout — already the second-longest work stoppage in the game’s history — he attempted to project optimism, offering assurances that he still believes baseball will complete a regular schedule (missing games, he said, would be a “disastrous outcome” for the sport).
Amid that pacifism, Manfred still managed to illustrate why players are so aggrieved. During his 22-minute press conference, he argued that putting money in the stock market is more profitable than owning a baseball team, mangled facts regarding a vital part of negotiations (through a spokesperson Manfred said he misspoke), and said that “I’m the same person today as I was in 1998,” not exactly the sort of thing that speaks well of someone shepherding a sport in 2022.
Let’s start with Manfred dating himself to the era of dial-up Internet. The context is important: After answering a question about public criticisms of him — “I don’t [pay] a lot of attention to social media, to be honest with you,” he said — Manfred cut off the next question to point to his résumé as a negotiator: “In the history of baseball, the only person who has made a labor agreement without a dispute, and I did four of ’em, was me. Somehow during those four negotiations players and union representatives figured out a way to trust me enough to make a deal. I’m the same person today as I was in 1998 when I took that labor job.”
The most charitable read is that Manfred was saying, however inelegantly, that he has done deals before and that any change in the process is less on him than the MLB Players Association’s new leadership, namely Bruce Meyer, the players’ lead negotiator. And yet even then, the fact that baseball is where it is, staring down the postponement of spring training and potential loss of regular-season games, and Manfred is essentially blaming the other side — in response to an earlier question about why negotiations took so long to resume after Dec. 2, he replied “phones work two ways” — doesn’t exactly speak to the conviviality of a dealmaker.
A literal reading of Manfred’s words reveal a commissioner whose mindset resides in the previous century. And MLB’s position on just how valuable its teams really are seems to support that notion. Because when Manfred was asked a simple question — “Would you say that owning a baseball team is a good investment?” — he answered thusly.