Baseball fans don’t get a commissioner and neither do baseball players, unfortunately. The system is set up such that the person entrusted with presiding over the well-being of the sport is — oops, how did that happen? — a shill for one of the parties, namely the 30 owners who need support the least but get all of it anyway.
Was it always like this? As a young adult my view of A. Bartlett Giamatti was that he wanted the best for baseball itself, meaning for the fans, the players, the owners, the game. Or maybe it just takes more than 5 months to show your true colors; sadly, Giamatti died unexpectedly of a heart attack less than half a year into his tenure as baseball’s seventh commissioner.
So maybe my perceptions are faulty and it has always been this way. Certainly Bud Selig was just a slightly less attractive preview of The Rob Manfred Experience and I was too young to form a reliable memory of Bowie Kuhn. (Hmm...looking at his wiki page, seems he was quite the mixed bag.)
But let’s not talk about how it has been or how it is; let’s talk about how it is supposed to be. The commissioner should be like a judge, split right down the middle just as a good judge is on the side only of justice and “the people”.
MLBPA balked (with the bases empty because there’s no season) at the idea of a federal mediator, but a move from someone whose job is to side with your opponent to someone whose job is to get two sides to agree could hardly have been a step back. Heck, a trust fall from the edge of a cliff could hardly be worse than the status quo: Manfred is the equivalent of a judge who is hired by the defense team to preside over a jury that is not allowed into the building.
What a legitimate commissioner should be doing is to pressure both sides to negotiate in the best interest of the game and its fans. That looks more like forcing sides to talk in January than it does facilitating a stalling tactic and sending out propaganda press releases trying to make one side look bad. It looks like forcing both sides to come to an agreement on a given point or take it to an impartial arbitrator to determine a fair compromise. Ultimately, it looks like making the game popular and accessible by emphasizing playing games and giving fans easy access to watch and listen. And maybe, just maybe, trying to increase interest in the game in smaller towns across America by supporting, instead of exploiting or downright cutting minor leagues.
Who is looking out for baseball itself? Or for the fans who create the very revenue stream owners and players fight over? The answer is, of course, a resounding “no one,” but that should be the commissioner in any functional system.
30 billionaires have enough power without also owning the game’s supposed ambassador and caretaker. Sometimes baseball is a sad, sad thing to love.