Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 18, 2020

Which Words Will Matter More?

At some future date, in some post-pandemic year, fans will look back at the spring of 2020 and attempt to draw lessons from the torturous struggle between owners and players over the terms under which some semblance of a major league baseball season could take place in the time of COVID-19. They will do so with the luxury of distance from the animosity and distrust that has pervaded the negotiations, when they could even be called such, from the suspension of spring training on March 12th right up to Thursday, when the Great Game was poised on a knife’s edge, with the starkly different options of a mutually agreed resolution, an imposed semi-season, or outright cancellation of play for the year all equally possible. For rather than producing light all that heat serves mainly to warp one’s perspective and encourage the substitution of emotion for judgment. Hindsight can contribute greatly to a more reasoned evaluation.

Yet if the last few days and hours have not brought an announcement on the scheduling of a long-delayed Opening Day, perhaps they have given current fans who have been forced to endure them an inkling of one of the most important messages that their future brethren will almost certainly discern. It is a simple admonition far older than even the antique game of baseball itself – words matter.

After weeks and weeks of deadlock and increasingly incendiary public exchanges, it took just three words to shift the debate and produce some movement between MLB and the Players Association. Last Saturday night, at the very end of a statement released by the MLBPA in which executive director Tony Clark dismissed the idea of further talks. Picking up on commissioner Rob Manfred’s assurance just days earlier that “the owners are 100 percent committed to getting baseball back on the field,” Clark said “It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.”

Association officials swear what happened next was not coordinated, but whether it was or not hardly matters. Players by the score picked up on the last three words of Clark’s statement and began echoing it on a variety of social media platforms. In short order “when and where” became the players’ mantra, stating in a mere three syllables that they wanted to play ball and were ready to do so. After weeks of being decried as caring only about their salaries, “when and where” allowed players to be viewed in a more favorable light by fans.

That it turn put pressure on the owners, who had won the right to have Manfred impose a season of any length in the initial March agreement between the parties. But it’s been clear for some time that to minimize expenses a faction of owners wants such a resolution to be as short a season as possible, no more than fifty games. The problem for those owners is that while the calendar continues to turn, it’s not yet at a time when a fifty game season is all that can reasonably be played, so ordering such a campaign now would expose MLB to a grievance by the Players Association for failing to bargain in good faith. That left Manfred to choose between continuing to be pummeled by fans and many sportswriters or offering a compromise.

As powerful as “when and where” proved to be, those three words may yet be outweighed by three others that appeared in the middle of a four sentence statement released by Manfred after he flew to Arizona on Wednesday and met with Clark for four hours. Manfred announced that he and Clark had agreed on the framework for a possible agreement that would be discussed with “our respective constituents.”

Manfred’s phrasing has attracted little attention, with everyone who read it understanding that Clark had to go back to the players and the commissioner needed to gain the assent of the thirty franchises. Manfred even went on to make his task explicit by adding that he was “encouraging the Clubs to move forward.” But in identifying his constituents as the owners, the commissioner willingly accepted a far more circumscribed role than was once true for the head of the Great Game. When the job of baseball commissioner was created in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, Kenesaw Mountain Landis accepted the role only when granted broad authority to act “in the best interests” of the game. Landis was no saint – ample evidence suggests it was no coincidence Jackie Robinson didn’t suit up for the Brooklyn Dodgers until a few years after Landis’s death – but his independence set the standard that the commissioner of baseball’s first duty was not to the small group of owners who did the hiring, but to the far larger and more important constituency of all those who are part of the Great Game, including players and fans.

None of his successors could match the taciturn demeanor for which Landis was known, but they all followed his example of casting their role in broad terms, until 1992. That’s when a cabal of owners dubbed the Great Lakes Gang for their ownership of teams in the upper Midwest led an ultimately successful movement to oust Fay Vincent, who had moved up to the commissioner’s job from the deputy’s role in 1989 after the sudden death of his friend Bart Giamatti. Among assorted sins in the eyes of this group of owners, Vincent was seen as having been too open to the demands of the Players Association during the 1990 lockout.

One member of the Great Lakes Gang was Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, who formally succeeded Vincent in 1998 after serving as acting commissioner for six years. Thus the 1992 owners’ revolt, and the hiring of an owner as the head of the sport, fundamentally altered the commissioner’s role, narrowing the job’s constituency to the thirty holders of major league franchises.

For long stretches, even for years at a time, the change is scarcely noticeable. But then comes a moment when it makes all the difference. Even now fans and pundits alike are spending far more energy debating the proposed expansion of the designated hitter rule to the National League, or the utterly regrettable provision in all the recent proposals to put advertising on players uniforms, than the significance of the diminished job of commissioner. It will be left to those future fans to assess the far greater cost to the Great Game of the latter, a change now likely permanent as its origin fades into history. They will understand the importance of a few words when they look back and realize, perhaps with wonder, that there was a time when a commissioner, if asked when and where, would respond not by polling his masters, but by announcing a place and time to play ball.

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