Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred was last seen not apologizing for throwing Justin Turner under the bus after the league somehow let a COVID positive player back on the field at the end of the World Series ... and before that acting in the best interests of owners, not the game, by imposing a 60-game season in 2020 ... and before that failing to adequately punish the Astros for cheating their way to the 2017 World Series.
That was all in 2020. Not a great year for Manfred.
And 2021 is already off to a bad start.
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that MLB owners want to "delay or even shorten the upcoming season" as the sport continues to navigate the fallout from the virus. The logic for delaying makes some sense: pushing things back, say, 30 days means tens of millions more vaccine doses in circulation before things start and could promote a safer environment.
If the sentiment was merely safety-based, perhaps it would be a win-win. It might mean a neutral site World Series again, since the postseason would probably extend into mid-November even with a lot of doubleheaders in the regular season, but that wouldn't be the end of the world. In fact, a permanent neutral site World Series might make a lot of sense.
But these are owners. And this is Manfred. So it's probably about money, isn't it?
Again, from the WSJ: The reason the owners want to alter the schedule is obvious: It could net them hundreds of millions of dollars if they wait until more fans can safely attend.
There's just one problem: MLB has no real leg to stand on when it comes to trying to enforce a later start to the season or shortened season. And the players' association, after a truncated season with severely truncated pay in 2020, is in no mood to play less than 162 games.
The Journal notes that there could be a compromise that both sides can live with: A delayed start — let's say by 30 days — that still allows them to get 162 games in, thereby ensuring full pay. If players agree to anything like that, though, they had better get all the signatures confirming full pay in triplicate.
Once you delay a season, it becomes easier to delay it again. And once you do that, you leave owners an opening to come back to the negotiating table.
MLB's "only realistic path to delay the season runs through federal and local officials," per the Journal. And here's where it potentially gets really contentious. High-ranking local officials in Arizona and with the Cactus League — the spring training home of 15 teams — DID recently write a letter suggesting that because of COVID spikes in Arizona they think delaying spring training (and therefore the season) is a smart move.
Again, if health and good public policy were the only things at play here, we might be applauding. Arizona, and particularly the largely populated Maricopa County, has been among the biggest coronavirus hot spots in the United States. Case rates are going down now, but Maricopa County had as many as 7,000 new cases in a single day earlier this month and is still seeing 3,000-4,000 new cases daily. (The entire state of Minnesota, by contrast, had 851 new cases on Wednesday).
But The Athletic, citing multiple anonymous sources, reported that MLB encouraged those officials to write that letter for the express purpose of pressuring players. As noted in the piece, the NHL's Coyotes and NBA's Suns are still playing — indoors, no less.
Per one source quoted in The Athletic, talking about a representative from MLB who reportedly was in a Jan. 13 Zoom meeting with Cactus League officials: "The representative was very direct. They believe it is time to push off spring training for a month, but they're having problems with the players because a change would be necessary to the CBA for that to happen. He supported a letter to put pressure on players to push back spring training, a full month. I felt it was made explicitly clear that the owners are supportive of this. And that they would like a delay of the season."
It's shocking, I know, that Manfred — a former labor lawyer who worked as outside counsel for MLB's owners during the 1994-95 dispute that wiped out the 1994 World Series and who subsequently negotiated a series of contentious labor deals before owners voted him in as commissioner in 2015 — seems to be presiding over another money grab on behalf of billionaires.
It's entirely possible the right thing will happen for the wrong reasons in this case. A delay to spring training, but a commitment to playing 162 games, might be the best idea.
The tug-of-war has been percolating all offseason, as our Phil Miller recently wrote. But with camps just a few weeks away from opening, it's coming to a head now.
Regardless of how this plays out in the short term, players have to be looking at this all with suspicion. With the current CBA set to expire after this season it's all just one more reason to wonder what lies ahead in baseball's labor wars in 2022.