MLB's bullying response to a Congressional statement defending small communities may be the worst, most callous, and most anti-baseball fan thing to come from the office of Commissioner Rob Manfred. And amid the many failings of his awful tenure as baseball commissioner, that's saying something.
Manfred's proposal to rip baseball from the hearts of communities
In a few weeks I'll be publishing an excoriating review of the many bad ideas and embarrassing proposals from Rob Manfred's tenure as MLB commissioner. While the league has failed to bat an eye amid multi-hundred-million-dollar player contracts that are in the stratosphere of un-relatability to the average fan struggling to afford a ticket, Manfred's proposal to rip baseball from the hearts of 42 communities so that the league can save an aggregate total of $22 million (according to the only estimate I have seen) may be his worst idea yet. Borne of the same management consulting gurus who crafted the Astros’ cheating scandal, the idea to eliminate 42 teams and communities from the minor leagues is a clueless and callous penny-pinching scheme designed to expedite baseball’s efficiency as a mechanical engine on behalf of the major league teams, with no recognition for the fact that the game is an entertainment enterprise whose long-term future depends on the sport being beloved in the hearts and minds of kids across America.
MLB’s idea to eliminate teams from the minor leagues is borne from the belief that MLB teams could operate themselves equally or more efficiently with fewer minor league players due to modern analytical tools that today can help them find major league talent from a smaller pool of prospects. While that may be true, it does little to justify eliminating minor league teams, which already are composed of mostly players with few prospects for major league success and whose whole point is to grow access to baseball, not merely to crank out MLB talent. Instead, the real rationale for the move is cost savings: MLB today pays approximately $100 million in non-signing bonus salaries to minor league support players across the 246 teams farmed out to the 30 major league teams. That amount is paltry compared to the big bucks major league teams are playing with, and represents a bargain to MLB that they can build a base of fans for their sport across a nationwide network of small cities for such a small price. For $100 million in support player salaries, baseball attracts over 40 million minor league fans to games each year. And yet rather than slicing, say, a single year off of Alex Bregman’s bloated MLB contract, MLB has instead brilliantly decided that penny pinching would be best achieved by crushing this minor league ecosystem and cruelly eliminating the ability for 42 small communities to access baseball. For a sport that's already facing blowback over how it has alienated kids, further alienating the public by spitting in the face of small town America is some way to grow the game. (Maybe that "pitch clock" will fix it, right? After all, it's those dozens and dozens of seconds lost to between-pitch monotony that's killing baseball, not proposals like this one, at least in the eyes of the Commissioner's office).
Congress' rebuke and Manfred's response
Manfred’s proposal to eliminate the 42 teams was so egregious and heartless and anti-Americana that it attracted the attention of the US Congress, which stepped in and issued a bipartisan statement repudiating the ridiculous proposal. It was an easy political win for politicians to back American communities against the same kind of corporate penny pinching that has been the subject of American corporate villain tales for generations. Manfred as Scrooge is a fair comparison, or as the boss in National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation” who tried to cut costs by eliminating Christmas bonuses and was ultimately given his comeuppance in the most satisfying of Christmas triumphs ever. In that case the good guy came out on top. In this case, it's yet to be determined.
Unlike the Grinch, instead of his heart growing three sizes when called out for his heartlessness against American communities, Manfred responded to the Congressional retort in standard playground bully form, with a letter from the deputy commissioner defending the indefensible proposal in the most forceful of terms, blasting both Congress and Minor League Baseball for daring to defend small towns. He blamed the Minor Leagues for wanting to negotiate, saying they had "done damange" by refusing to roll over to his demands, and urged them to cave and agree to rip baseball from numerous American communities. (After all, what are those communities but pawns to be used for money and facilities for MLB players until the towns are no longer needed).
It was vintage Manfred, blind to the PR disaster the obviously bad move represented, singularly focused on saving costs and building efficiencies while alienating fans in the most heartless way possible.
The future of the sport
What is baseball to its current leadership but a machine to be squeezed for cash, and what are small town fans other than suckers to be gifted and un-gifted baseball (regardless of how much they invest in as communities in public financing and human loyalty) at the magic wand of the Commissioner in New York? What are they for but to be bludgeoned and bullied until they, too, become so sick of the leadership that they give up on the game they love. Then, finally, the current leadership approach, which is predicated on the false belief that baseball is a flawed game destined for the ash heap of history unless a hero steps in and saves it through corporate efficiency, might finally become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
For years Manfred has discordantly trumpeted both a doomsday belief that baseball is failing at the ticket booth while gloating with pride about its record TV revenues. He’s bungled the opportunity to make game-saving improvements at nearly every turn, instead choosing short-term and gimmicky moves that are driving the fans away.
The approach mistakes the sport – a children’s game designed to entertain the masses – for a vital mechanical production line. In Manfred’s MLB, baseball is about corporate profits, lean perfection, speed, efficiency, and all of the attributes of a 1950s Utopian vision of the efficient city of tomorrow. The revolt against such thinking in urban planning should be a lesson to Manfred, but for now it is the tenor of his policies.
This approach – in which Marie Antoinette sits on a throne at the top of the league, fiddling away at breakneck speed spitting out bad ideas designed to overhaul the sport – has left the fans in the lurch, their key concerns unaddressed, the things they love needlessly being needled at, their wallets unapologetically fleeced, and, now literally, their own desire to defend the right of their communities to have access to live baseball being verbally assaulted from the league’s highest office.
Baseball could scarcely come up with a better strategy to drive away its own fans. As a result, Manfred has long lost the trust of the sport’s fans. Just google “Rob Manfred” and see the litany of articles the last few days calling for his ouster. Count this one into the mix.