Ben Frederickson: MLB commissioner Manfred’s legacy is at stake this offseason

I recently read something hopefully encouraging about Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred.

It came from New York Post baseball columnist Ken Davidoff.

Was it meant to be encouraging? Probably not. But maybe, in one way, it was.

Davidoff was one of the media members involved in a question-and-answer session with the commissioner before the start of this World Series.

Many of the questions Manfred faced understandably revolved around two polarizing topics.

Half of this World Series is being held in Atlanta, the same place the league relocated this year’s All-Star Game from because it wanted to be on the record as disagreeing with Georgia’s new voting laws. To my knowledge, there was no discussion of putting the Braves’ World Series games in Denver. Mixed messages much?

And then there is the polarizing tomahawk chop, a fan ritual at Braves games that is supported by the team but reviled by others who view it as either outdated at best or racist at worse. In the recent past, Manfred had praised what seemed to be Atlanta’s trend away from the display. Now? Manfred won’t touch the topic with a 10-foot pole.

From Davidoff: “As he answered reporters’ questions prior to Game 1 at Minute Maid Park, Manfred gave off the vibe that he would rather answer 100 questions about the sport’s upcoming labor uncertainty than tackle these nuclear topics.”

Maybe that’s the good news.

Hopefully it suggests Manfred is laser-focused on solving baseball’s biggest crisis.

That crisis is not the league’s flip-flopping around on bigger-than-baseball issues. It’s not Manfred’s punishment of the Astros’ electronic sign-stealing doing little to dent their power. It’s not the broadcast blackouts that are crippling fan interest or the silly rule changes Manfred keeps creating. All of these things are important, very much so, but none are more important than making sure MLB games are played in 2022.

MLB’s current collective bargaining agreement between owners and players expires at midnight Dec. 2, and signs point toward a work stoppage of some kind arriving before the two sides agree on new terms. A recent Associated Press article made a shortened spring training due to the arrival of an owner-led lockout seem all but guaranteed as negotiations creep forward at a snail’s pace. Anything beyond that could be disastrous.

Baseball’s current problems are nothing compared with the problems of no baseball. A significantly shortened 2022 season — or lack of a season altogether — would be baseball’s biggest self-inflicted wound in decades. Since he took the office in January 2015, Manfred has been a commissioner who keeps the games going. That legacy is now on the line.

On the field, Manfred is known for bad rules such as the three-batter minimum and installing ghost runners in extra innings. His attempts to whittle down game times have mostly failed. He has made changes that encourage instead of discourage tanking, a shameful scourge on the sport. He is the face of the effort to play fewer games, not more, during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, when players pushed for more and ultimately looked right in doing so. The commissioner is so determined to “fix” baseball it’s fair to wonder how much he likes it or the players who play it.

Off the field, Manfred is a moneymaker for owners but a half-stepper on other matters. He pulled the All-Star Game from Atlanta but said entering the World Series that MLB wants to be apolitical. He let baseball jump into bed with gambling to help boost its bottom line. His stances shift. He is not built to be a bigger-than-baseball leader, and it showed during his World Series retreat.

But leading baseball is still a massive task, and baseball desperately needs a calm, cool and collected leader right now. Whether you like Manfred or loathe him, he has kept players and owners mostly out of the ditch when it matters most. Can he do it again?

A shortened spring training is one thing. A 2022 regular season marred by a lengthy lockout or player strike would be nightmare. If there’s one thing owners and players can agree on, it should be this fact.

Baseball should be poised to be part of the post-pandemic sports surge in 2022. Fans want to get back to ballparks, not get reminded they can’t go there because billionaire owners and millionaire players are fighting about their slices of revenue pie. Service time. Free agency. Arbitration. It’s all about the money. Part of Manfred’s job is to make sure noses don’t get cut off to spite faces. Baseball is a sport chasing interest. It can’t afford to go dark, and it should fear what awaits it upon a return if it does for too long.

Don’t forget both the NHL and the NFL agreed on new collective bargaining agreements during pandemic times. Don’t forget baseball has not had a work stoppage since the 1994-45 players’ strike, and it has not had an owner-created lockout since one in 1990 ended with opening day delayed by just a week. Fortunately, a generation of baseball fans have not had their love of America’s pastime insulted by a season-damaging work stoppage. Hopefully that remains the case.

MLB players union chief Tony Clark, like Manfred, is in the hot seat. But while Clark works for the players and Manfred works for the owners, only one job in baseball is responsible for looking out for the greater good of the game. That role belongs solely to the commissioner.

If Manfred lets a 26-year run of labor peace expire on his watch and cannot get players and owners on the same page for a full 2022 season, his other swings and misses will look small by comparison.