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How do you solve a problem like Rob Manfred?

The commissioner's lack of passion for the sport is a serious liability

MLB Owners Meetings Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

We’ve written and talked a lot about the role of commissioner this offseason. I wrote an entire three-part series about the history of the office, and Rob Manfred’s received an outsized share of blame for this lockout. It’s tricky to completely blame Manfred for the state of things, though.

He is, effectively, the loudspeaker and the lightning rod for 30 owners. There’s nothing that Manfred says that hasn’t been said in closed door meetings with his congregation of bosses, and a good chunk of his $11 million salary pays for him standing up in public and taking the heat off of individual owners. More tuned-in baseball fans might be able to pick that out, but the rank-and-file fan probably feels more venom toward Manfred than they do to, say, John Henry.

So in a way, Rob Manfred is just doing his job, and doing it well. The fact that Mike Trout called out the game’s commissioner, but not Arte Moreno, speaks to how good at his job Manfred is. How can you fault a guy for that? Of course, just doing your job isn’t an excuse for poor behavior. The Sacklers had a whole bunch of lawyers just doing their job, ditto Big Tobacco. MLB and its lockout doesn’t present the same crises that those other two do, but at the very least, just because Manfred’s doing his job doesn’t mean we can excuse the way he’s handled this winter.

But I think there’s a real problem with Rob Manfred especially. The role of commissioner has its problems — a lack of independence, the nature of the lightning rod discussed above — but Manfred’s got a specific issue, and that’s that I just don’t think he likes baseball all that much.

This has not always been the case when it comes to the commissioner’s office. Bud Selig was an incredibly flawed executive, coming into office in a coup hell-bent on busting the union, overseeing the Steroid Era and being absolved of any responsibility, but these are problems with the office itself. Bud Selig liked the game of baseball. Ford Frick, I think, fundamentally enjoyed the sport. I don’t think Rob Manfred does.

I’m sure that Rob Manfred is a skilled labor lawyer. He was, in essence, Selig’s protégé for years, so I’m sure he picked up the ins and outs of covering for ownership. But I don’t think Rob Manfred’s life would be any different if he was a labor relations leader for the US government, or any other organization that deals with powerful unions, like GM or something.

MLB Owners Meetings Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

I guess I just don’t see this as the face of a guy who genuinely likes baseball. I think he takes his job as loudspeaker and lightning rod very carefully, but I don’t think he has all that much interest in the sport itself. At the time he made the now-infamous “piece of metal” comment, you could give him the benefit of the doubt, that he said a dumb thing. We all do it.

Except, as always, it’s never the data point, it’s the trend, and we have a long pattern of Manfred saying dumb things, doing dumb things, and even though he might be doing his job as commissioner, continually displays a lack of passion for the sport.

That lack of passion in a chief executive matters. If 30 of the 30 owners are committed to starving out the union until Memorial Day, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Rob Manfred likes baseball. Still, having some passion for the sport you’re in charge of I think matters on the margins, convincing the one or two holdouts that might be in the owners camp down the line, and it certainly matters in communicating with fans.

Fans aren’t stupid — at least, most of them. We can pick up on energy, attitude and communication styles, and being good, or positive, or interested in those things is going to drive how we react. Manfred has consistently failed in this regard, and it’s why I think he needs to go. He’s behaved with contempt and condescension towards fans of the game for years.

I don’t how much Dan Halem cares about baseball itself. I don’t know how much a prospective dark horse for the job cares. All I know is it sure seems like Rob Manfred doesn’t, and I can’t imagine that having a commissioner who is also a fan of baseball would be a bad thing.