In 2017, the Atlanta Braves were caught illegally channeling funds to international players so they could keep the appearance of staying under the MLB international spending cap. The prospects would be signed with low bonuses on paper and their actual signing money would go through the player’s agent, thus allowing the Braves to report a lower salary and sign more players.
It took the MLB two months to get to the bottom of it, and the end result was that Atlanta lost thirteen of their international prospects, substantial international spending power, and draft picks for the 2018 season. Most significantly, John Coppolella, the Braves general manager at the time, was banned from baseball for life and his assistant Gordon Blakeley was banned for a year. It was one of the harshest punishments for a violation of this kind handed down by Commissioner Rob Manfred to date. He wanted to send a serious message: Cheating will not be tolerated.
Before his appointment to Commissioner, Manfred was already steeped in baseball affairs. Manfred had worked as a lawyer in baseball since the late 80’s, but he took on a special role as outside council for the owners during the 1994-95 player’s strike and has remained close with the owners ever since. He helped negotiate the MLB’s first steroid testing program with the Players Association and has negotiated at least three times with them in bargaining agreements on behalf of the MLB. He also led the investigation of the Biogenesis PEDs scandal that involved Alex Rodriguez, Bartolo Colón, and Yasmani Grandal and in 2013 resulted in 13 players receiving 50 game suspensions.
When Manfred was elected to the Commissioner position after Bud Selig, he set out a list of initiatives that included youth outreach and strengthening player relations. The reasonings he gave behind them were…less than altruistic. The youth outreach was less about improving kid’s lives and more about securing their brand loyalty at a young age. Strong player relations were less about supporting player’s physical and mental health and more about attracting media companies that are drawn to player’s lifestyles. Manfred wanted to be able to secure the next Derek Jeter and be able to sell that player’s image to a ravenous crowd.
He was even more transparent when it came to the speed of the game. It was Manfred who introduced the pace of play regulations, limiting mound visits and putting in a pace clock based around commercials.
“Everything we’ve done was designed to make baseball one business,” he said about the first round of changes he implemented in 2015. Baseball is not a game to him, it’s a business.
That’s not wholly a bad thing. Baseball needs to make money to pay its players, coaches, staff, media teams, and the hundreds of people who make their living off of a ball club at every level, not to mention umpires and their support staff. More money means more staff, more facilities, and, in theory, more wins. Wins, in turn, make you more money.
And that’s the crux of most matters when it comes to Rob Manfred. He has, and will always, make the decision that makes money, even at the expense of the game itself. Manfred cares less about what Replay means to the game and more about the fact that the MLB could sell the technology to Disney. He’s so proud of that fact that it’s almost the very first thing mentioned in his official MLB biography.
Do you really think Commissioner Rob Manfred and Deputy Commissioners Dan Halem and Tony Petitti, didn’t have the resources to really find out what happened on the Astros and Red Sox in those fateful seasons? Do you really think CFO Bob Starkey couldn’t find a little wiggle room in the MLB’s $10.7 billion 2019 season gross earnings to come up with the funds for qualified investigators to do a thorough job? Do you really think they didn’t have the ability to get to the bottom of it?
Of course they did. They still do. Given the recently leaked letter, they even likely have.
But they’re at least going to pretend that they can’t.
If winning a World Series can make a franchise more valuable, what happens when the franchise is forced to vacate the title? What happens when it’s their only World Series title win thus far in the case of the Astros? The MLB took a look at the cost benefit analysis and found it wasn’t worth pursuing. In Manfred’s world, good baseball will always take a backseat to good business. And if the business of baseball truly becomes about the bottom line, what does that mean for the future?
Already, we’ve seen the first inklings. Pace of play rules were instigated to make baseball games more palatable to home audiences. Not necessarily a wholly bad thing, true, but this year’s new 3-batter rule will cause fans no end of frustration when they see the batting lineups change based on the reliever and the pitching team has no ability to counter that move. Then there’s that awkward little Nike swoosh now on every player jersey. If these changes had been made to protect players (like the running lane and hard sliding rules), it might be different. But intent matters. These rules were changed to make money, period.
It’s not a leap to make a connection between Manfred’s attempt to sweep cheating scandals under the rug and his desire to preserve profits. Jose Canseco was right about one thing. The MLB is extremely slow to punish any illegal behavior that puts butts in seats.
The Braves manipulation of the international spending cap put a strain on the purchasing power of other clubs in the international market. It was bad for business.
The Astros use of electronic sign stealing was in the pursuit to win a World Series, a thrilling, seven game nail biter that had fans around the country tuning in. It was good for business.
One punishment included a lifetime ban. One got one year suspensions. You do the math.
What Manfred and those other baseball executives don’t seem to realize is the harm these cheating-to-win scandals have done to their product. For a business man, Manfred seems to have a very skewed vision of why people buy in to organized professional sports.
His inability to see how the loss of integrity at the highest levels of the sport undermines the faith and loyalty of nearly every fan is astounding.
His inability to see how entire careers were derailed, how players’ lives and families were upended based on what is now essentially false data is astoundingly cruel.
His refusal to act on behalf of justice should cost him his job.
Rob Manfred is a commissioner who doesn’t care if the play is fair, only that it’s on pace to fit into commercial breaks.
Baseball, and the fans who spend their money on it, deserve better.