• AJ Lise

MLB: When Will Rob Manfred Finally Get It Right?

Image via the New York Times

Major League Baseball Commissioner (MLB) Rob Manfred has been in the spotlight for the last few years, and often not for good reason. From the criticism over not punishing players in the 2017 Houston Astros cheating scandal, to the league’s botched management of the COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020, to the ongoing dispute over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), Manfred has had a difficult time to say the least.

Through it all, one thing has been evident about Manfred’s approach to crises within the league: he is in no way supportive of the very players who keep the league going. In fact, in some instances, he has gone so far as to blame the players for his own failures.

Let’s start first with the pandemic-shortened 2020 season that didn’t begin until late-July. While commissioner Adam Silver of the National Basketball Association (NBA) was busy developing an exemplary pandemic-response model that included a player “bubble” and contact-tracing, Rob Manfred was wasting time arguing with and blaming the player’s association.[1] Two comments stand out. First, after guaranteeing players and baseball fans that a 2020 season would be played, Manfred seemed to renege on his promise and actually threatened MLBPA executive director Tony Clark that he would cancel the season entirely.[2] While Manfred could have spent his weeks producing a comprehensive program to maximize player safety for whatever portion of the season was to be played, he instead chose to entangle himself in a labor dispute well ahead of the current collective bargaining negotiations. Needless to say, it was not a good look for the commissioner.

Manfred’s blunders didn’t end there. After imposing a 60-game season that began in July 2020, the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals quickly faced outbreaks within their respective organizations. While Manfred is certainly not to be blamed for all issues that arose during the pandemic, his approach to the outbreak, like the labor dispute, was troubling yet again. Instead of looking at his own shortcomings in establishing COVID protocols, Manfred placed the blame on the players for being irresponsible.[3] Now, Manfred deserves some credit for taking responsibility for allowing the spring-2020 labor dispute going public.[4] Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like he has learned from past mistakes.

Fast forward to the MLB lockout threatening to delay the start of the 2022 season. While several elements of the CBA are in dispute, chief among them is free agency. Currently, it takes players three years of service time to reach arbitration eligibility and another three to reach free agency.[5] Look at a young player like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. who entered the league at 20 years old and hit 48 home runs and 111 RBI’s in his third year.[6] Under the current terms, even if he continues that level of production, he won’t be eligible to receive a massive contract in free agency for three more years. To address this unfairness, the player’s union is asking for the creation of a $100 million pool of money to compensate players who have not reached arbitration eligibility and for an increase in minimum salaries.[7]

Yet, after nearly two months since the MLB entered a lockout, the league has shown little if any interest in working with the player’s union to make compensation more reasonable for the players. While the player’s union has made some adjustments to its positions, that clearly cannot be said for the league.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised given commissioner Manfred’s history of going against the players. After all the flak he received for the Astros scandal and disparaging of the players and MLBPA during the pandemic, one would think that he would have been more willing to work with the union to address player concerns. I guess that was too optimistic.

Hopefully, pitchers and catchers will report for spring training this February, but right now, it's looking bleak. While we can all rejoice in knowing that games will likely be played in a couple months, the commissioner’s problems will press on. Beyond the lockout, the MLB is now the subject of two additional lawsuits. One, is to end its antitrust exemption. The other, is a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Minor League players to address the fact that they have been severely underpaid for far too long.[8]

This time, let’s hope that Rob Manfred finally gets things right.

A.J. Lise is a 2L at New York Law School. He is a member of his school’s Dispute Resolution Team and has been a personal injury paralegal since 2018. He can be reached at Andrew.Lise@law.nyls.edu and @aj_lise on Twitter.

[1] Ogbunu, C. Brandon. 2020. How the NBA Conquered COVID-19. October 8. Accessed February 1, 2022. https://theundefeated.com/features/how-the-nba-conquered-covid-19/. [2] Miller, Randy. 2020. Union chief Tony Clark trashes Rob Manfred for backtracking on threats to order MLB season / ‘Players are disgusted’. June 15. Accessed February 1, 2022. https://www.nj.com/yankees/2020/06/union-chief-tony-chief-trashes-commissioner-rob-manfred-for-backtracking-on-threats-to-order-mlb-season-players-are-disgusted.html. [3] Keyser, Hannah. 2020. What MLB should have learned from America’s botched pandemic response but didn’t. August 3. Accessed February 1, 2022. https://www.yahoo.com/now/what-mlb-should-have-learned-from-americas-botched-pandemic-response-but-didnt-143059720.html [4] Gregory, Sean. 2020. 'I Blame Myself.' MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred on Baseball's Labor Dispute, Planning for a Postseason Bubble. August 21. Accessed February 1, 2022. https://time.com/5882380/rob-manfred-mlb-bubble-covid/. [5] Perry, Dayn. 2021. MLB vs. players union: What is MLBPA fighting for with lockout likely after CBA expires? November 23. Accessed February 1, 2022. https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/mlb-vs-players-union-what-is-mlbpa-fighting-for-with-lockout-likely-after-cba-expires/. [6] https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/guerrvl02.shtml [7] Nightengale, Bob. 2022. MLB lockout updates: Spring training likely to be delayed as Tuesday negotiations go nowhere. February 1. Accessed February 1, 2022. https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/columnist/bob-nightengale/2022/02/01/mlb-lockout-news-spring-training-2022-likely-delayed/9303711002/. [8] Acquavella, Katherine. 2020. Supreme Court clears the way for class action lawsuit from minor league players being paid below minimum wage. October 5. Accessed February 1, 2022. https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/supreme-court-clears-way-for-class-action-lawsuit-from-minor-league-players-being-paid-below-minimum-wage/.