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Office of the Commissioner, Part III: What comes next?

Agreeing on a nonpartisan chief executive is a challenge, but a worthwhile one.

MLB: Chcago Cubs-Workouts Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve spent a lot of time the last couple weeks thinking about the structure of baseball, namely who should be making the major decisions governing the game’s future over the next 20, 30, 40 years. I’ve arrived at the idea that the major strategic issues facing baseball need to be divided along two lines, and the appropriate responsibilities assigned.

There are the financial questions facing the sport — smaller issues like the CBT and minimum salary, and larger problems around revenues developing outside of conventional means, like streaming rights and gambling. How the game recognizes and capitalizes on that potential revenue (if they even understand it), I’m tempted to leave that to the negotiations between the league and players’ union.

However, where I see the need for the biggest change, and the re-instatement of a real Commissioner, i.e., the chair of a commission, is in the agreement of an independent authority presiding over baseball, while operating on the payroll of both sides. Even Judge Landis, unquestionably the most independent chief executive baseball’s had, was an employee of ownership. Instead, this new authority would be paid, 50/50, by both the league and union.

Splitting that responsibility goes a long way to ensuring, if not full independence, at least a nonpartisan approach to the governance of the sport. Both the league and players would have to agree on the right person for the job, which I think would encourage a candidate with a more wholesome, comprehensive approach to the role. Theo Epstein has been mentioned by others, like Joe Posnanski, as a potential fill for that type of position.

This new authority would be charged with shepherding the best version of the game into existence, taking a lead role in mediating labor disputes between the two sides, but more importantly seize the initiative on competitive and baseball-specific issues, which I think would cool some of the tensions that surround the financial disagreements.

For example, there are real concerns on the player’s side about MLB’s meddling with the baseball over the past half-decade. A livelier ball might lead teams to invest less in power hitters, since any player in the order could put together a 25-30 homer season. Pairing that kind of variance with the performance-based pay proposal for pre-arb players and it’s at least understandable that players would want some form of control over the variance of the baseballs used in-season, or at least, that a nonpartisan officer oversees that kind of thing. Less tension should lead to smoother negotiations, and reduce the number of sticking points overall.

This role would also lend itself well to taking the lead on what we want baseball to look like. Shifting, sticky stuff, these kinds of competitive issues shouldn’t be a part of CBA negotiations, but rather, a nonpartisan entity (or as close as we can get) should be given the power to make the kind of year-to-year changes necessary to produce the best version of baseball. Other sports already do this: the NFL and NHL make changes and tweaks pretty much every year, but they come directly from the league office. A reformed chief executive could do this too, but while simultaneously answering to the players — y’know, the folks who best understand the real use and impact of sticky stuff.

The biggest impediment to this is the status quo. Owners have an outsized amount of power over the governance of the game, and once a group takes power, they don’t generally give it up of their own accord. I’m not sure that a nonpartisan chief executive is worth another long, dragged out conflict between the two sides governing baseball, even if it’s clear the current system isn’t working.

Still, we’ve now spent two weeks, three articles, just north of 3,000 words thinking about the past history of the Commissioner’s Office, and the ways the current governance of baseball is just plain broken. I’ve said it before, but the job is Commissioner of Baseball, not Commissioner of Owners. A change is needed at the very highest level of the game, or the sport will be be spinning its wheels until the next labor dispute.