Commentary

Rob Manfred's mandate

MLB's new commissioner earned Selig's endorsement but faces big challenges

Updated: August 15, 2014, 9:51 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPN.com

It was the summer before baseball canceled the World Series when Reggie Jackson stood in front of a podium placed before an open field populated with thousands of baseball fans in upstate New York and, with uncharacteristic humility, observed that he was just a link in the chain.

Jackson then added a warning and an admonition, words that Rob Manfred, the newly elected 10th commissioner of Major League Baseball, would do well to hold close.

"If the game is lost to the economics that drive it, then we'll lose the humanity that is unique to the game," Jackson said on the occasion of his induction into the Hall of Fame. "We all must feel it and live it in our own way and be mindful of its vulnerability to abuse. From the millions to the billions that this game has come to represent, we all take from this cherished game. Stop and remember Buck O'Neil and 'The Scooter' and all the people who played for the love of the game."

[+] EnlargeRob Manfred
AP Photo/Ricardo ArduengoRob Manfred's election marks a major change for the game, but what will it bring in the future?

Baseball is awash in dollars like never before. Revenues are approaching $9 billion, franchises are selling for $2 billion and up, players are signing $300 million contracts, national TV contracts are doubling in value, and new stadiums have multiplied in unprecedented numbers.

Bud Selig was instrumental in creating the environment that has fostered this gilded age, which is why Bill DeWitt, the St. Louis Cardinals owner who headed the search committee for a new commissioner, stood in front of a podium in a Baltimore hotel Thursday afternoon and proclaimed that Selig "would go down as the greatest commissioner in baseball history."

Rob Manfred, in his role as the owners' chief labor negotiator, played his part, too, by helping to shepherd a new era of labor peace that has held up for more than a decade. The bitterness that befouled the relationship between owners and players through eight work stoppages and a cynical collusion scandal has been replaced in good part by a new spirit of cooperation, one that has allowed baseball to forge one of the most significant drug agreements in American sports. It is wise not to forget, of course, that the new consensus on PED testing was achieved only under duress, after Selig and Don Fehr, the union's man, were dragged before Congress and forced to act. But Manfred proved skilled in forging a more trusting bond with his union counterparts.

Peace, as it almost always does, came at a high price, beginning with the 232-day work stoppage in 1994 that wiped out the World Series and added "replacement players" as the most shameful words in the baseball lexicon since "Black Sox." Then there was either the owners' willful neglect or abject ignorance -- pick one -- of the game's exploding steroids scandal that led to devalued records and tainted heroes, even if it kept the turnstiles spinning.

Baseball would have you believe it has moved past such excesses. You hear phrases such as the "post-steroids era" and an owner-worker partnership that suggests BFF. Selig, as Ahab, landed his great white whale in A-Rod, a vital step, he was certain, in framing the narrative of his legacy in terms of the innovations he introduced -- the wild card and interleague play and expanded playoffs and the World Baseball Classic and instant replay and, of course, the bottom line -- instead of steroids and strikes.

But danger still lurks in the shadows, and baseball cannot afford to be blinded by its own prosperity and overlook it. Last week's indictments of Anthony Bosch and others after a DEA investigation only underscore how PEDs remain a blight upon the landscape, one not simply removed by the elimination of a few small-time operators. There was another lesson there, too, that exercising dubious means the way MLB did in taking down Alex Rodriguez -- under Manfred's direction -- can bring as much, or more, harm to an institution than good.

[+] EnlargeBud Selig
AP Photo/Mike GrollFor a generation, Bud Selig has been the only commissioner baseball fans have ever known.

Not much humanity there.

There are other issues, too, that come at huge personal cost for the principals involved. Baseball currently celebrates the wonderful skills of such Cuban players as Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu and Yoenis Cespedes, but they cannot claim a place in the game without participating in an underworld rife with corruption and peril -- gangster smugglers and bribes and threats, like the one Cespedes received during a game while he was still in Oakland demanding that he pay back the people who spirited him out of Cuba. Puig has faced similar threats. Baseball can no longer be party to such a system, one with which Manfred is intimately acquainted.

And most of all, baseball cannot be smug about its success and its fraying connection with the next generation of fans. It is one reason one-third of the owners during Thursday's balloting threw their support behind Tom Werner, a longtime television executive, believing that Werner might bring fresh ideas to grow the game. National TV ratings are down, complaints regarding the game's length are growing louder, the core audience is graying, and there has been an inability to raise the level of the game's greatest stars to that enjoyed by their basketball and football counterparts.

Manfred, who had long ago displaced former MLB CEO Bob DuPuy as Selig's heir-in-waiting, was regarded by some owners, at least initially, as not ideally suited to take the game to new heights.

In the end, Selig got his man a unanimous vote, the dissenters falling in line.

"Rob was a very desirable candidate and will be a great commissioner of baseball," said John Henry, the Red Sox principal owner who originally promoted the candidacy of his partner, Werner. "We had three very strong candidates.

"Tom had strong support from a third of the owners initially. A number of us passionately felt that he would be a great leader for the game. But in the end, Tom's supporters unanimously agreed that Rob deserved our support. He will have rock-solid support among all the owners going forward, including everyone who supported the other candidates."

So Manfred inherits the mantle of leadership. Let us hope he embraces the spirit of Reggie.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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