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Let the kids play

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MLB owners have the losing hand. It’s time for them to fold.

MLB London Series Announcement

Rob Manfred made a startling about-face on Monday evening, pivoting so quickly from his position guaranteeing baseball in 2020 that he ought to consult his local urgent care for symptoms of whiplash.

I suspect, by now, you’ve encountered Manfred’s quotes, plastered on headlines and embedded in articles, or read aloud by talking heads on sports radio. You can probably stand in front of the classroom and recite them verbatim, like a Shakespearian monologue or the Preamble to the United States Constitution. Repeating them here feels indulgent, but a reversal like this comes around just once in a professional lifetime.

Exhibit A. Rob Manfred to ESPN, June 10, 2020

But you know what? I think at the end of the day the most important thing ... is that we play Major League Baseball in 2020. And I can tell you unequivocally we are gonna play Major League Baseball this year.

Exhibit B. Rob Manfred to ESPN, June 15, 2020

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that I’m 100% certain that’s gonna happen.

If nothing else, this episode illustrates that Manfred, as the Commissioner of Baseball, the steward of the game, failed to do his job. Of course, he has to serve the interests of team owners, but it is also the duty of his office to ensure longterm stability for the game. He pays lip service to that goal, but every action he takes reveals a lopsided priority scale: Manfred focuses so much on securing victories for ownership that he put the entire organization in jeopardy.

I considered penning an exhaustive list of errors and grievances, then stapling them to a church door in Wittenberg to conjure up a certain dramatic flare, but SB Nation would’t let me expense the trip. So, you will have to settle for an abbreviated version, focused on two particular examples that capture the entirety of the problem.

Integrity of the game

Maintaining the integrity of the game ranks chief among the tasks of the Commissioner of Baseball. The Black Sox Scandal, the most damaging event in the sport’s history, precipitated the creation of the office. Nearly every commissioner since then has promoted this goal, Manfred included.

Manfred has his hands all over topics related to integrity: He comes down hard on PEDs (prior to ascending to commissioner he led the Biogenesis investigation); he advances the idea of competitive balance to ensure small-market teams have a fighting chance (however contrived that is); and he grapples with the rise of technology-aided cheating (even if he bungled the sign-stealing scandal punishments).

Yet, under his watch, owners have converted their teams into private equity firms. By my count, at least eight teams entered spring training 2020 without intentions of winning. Now, more than ever, teams tank. They unload veterans when they start to get expensive, no matter how productive, slash payroll, and eschew any opportunities to spend and improve their roster in the name of efficiency and future flexibility and process.

Let’s try an exercise. Here’s a link that shows each division, compiled on one page for easy reference. Try to pick the winner for each. This should be difficult. It should lead to debate and analysis and arguments for one team and against another. But it’s not. Only the NL Central and NL East have any shred of competitiveness, and the former has basically been a race to the bottom in recent years.

In addition to teams having no incentive to field competitive teams, Manfred has overseen the drive to restrict, if not alienate, fans entirely. Media blackouts prevent fans from streaming their local teams, and the league wields cease-and-desist notices like a hammer whenever individuals try to share video clips or GIFs. If you want to know why the seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium are almost always empty, it’s because the team reserves them for corporate investors and the filthy rich. Remember Lonn Trost?

Now, I’m conflating integrity and longterm stability here, but I think there’s enough overlap to group them together. In fact, there’s another area where this comes into play, and it’s worth discussing in detail.

Let The Kids Play

How does a commissioner ensure longterm stability of the game? He grows the game. He invests in the future of the game.

Manfred deserves credit for establishing Play Ball, MLB’s youth initiative. The program introduces the sport to boys and girls across the country. He also gets points for capitalizing on a genius marketing opportunity, Let The Kids Play, a campaign designed to promote the game’s cornucopia of young stars and assault the unwritten rules that stifle their personalities.

But, on his guard, owners and executives have embarrassed players, suppressed the market for free agents, and flat-out refused to let them take the field. According to Andy Martino, six owners currently oppose holding the 2020 season. If two more move over to the hardliners, it’s done. No baseball in 2020.

At the same time as this news emerged, players from across the league have taken to social media to express their desire to play. They sum it up quite effectively: Tell us where and when. Several Yankees have joined the movement, too, most notably Gerrit Cole and Gary Sanchez.

Mike Trout, the game’s highest-paid player, wants in. Pete Alonso, one of baseball’s brightest young stars, is on board. There’s Max Scherzer, and Javy Baez, and Fernando Tatis Jr. There’s Rhys Hoskins, Sean Doolittle, Mitch Haniger, and Anthony Rizzo. Bryce Harper and Blake Snell, Francisco Lindor and Jose Berrios, Josh Reddick, Brandon Nimmo, and more. Dozens of players have spoken up to assert their collective wish to get back on the field. Owners love Let The Kids Play when they can monetize it to sell jerseys and t-shirts and video games, but when it comes to actually living up to the phrase, they shy away.

Time is running out on a 2020 season. Owners have lost the PR battle; they no longer enjoy the luxury of writers who act as their stenographers. They’re desperate and willing to cancel the entire season rather than admit they don’t have a winning hand.

It’s time for Manfred to build a consensus, to whip the votes, to convince the owners they earned this loss and have to wear it.

It’s time to let the kids play.