Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 11, 2022

The Great Game’s Dangling Conversation

It was President Bill Clinton who, during testimony to the Independent Counsel’s grand jury in 1998, famously responded to a question about the accuracy of an earlier statement by his attorney that “there is absolutely no sex of any kind” between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky by saying “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is” is.”  That extreme example of lawerly parsing of the English language came to mind Thursday, when MLB commissioner Rob Manfred declared, “the status of Spring Training is no change right now.”  Given the widespread assumption Manfred would use his press conference at the end of the owners’ meetings in Orlando to formally postpone next week’s scheduled opening of camps, his statement was considered significant.  Some optimistic reporters and fans even inferred that the owners’ next offer on a new collective bargaining agreement, scheduled to be presented to the players’ union on Saturday, will include major concessions leading to a rapid settlement of baseball’s CBA negotiations. 

But the commissioner, who like the former President has an Ivy League law degree, one that he used to build a successful labor law practice, was surely cognizant of the reality that Spring Training cannot begin since the players are locked out.  As much as an eventual announcement postponing the reporting day for pitchers and catchers will be treated as news, as long as the owner-imposed work stoppage is in place, “no change” in the status of Spring Training means no Spring Training.  Whether or not Manfred was playing legalistic word games with his statement about training camps, and despite the pockets of hope that cropped up here and there on social media, it is certain that the start of preparations for the longest season will be delayed.  Gerrit Cole will not be stocking his locker at the Yankees’ facility in Tampa this time next week. 

By the end of his first press availability since the lockout began on December 2, even hoping that the delay in getting training camps going will be short and that Opening Day, scheduled for March 31, will still see players taking the field at stadiums all across the country felt close to naïve.  For in his further remarks and answers to questions Manfred reminded fans that while his title is commissioner of baseball, the current holder of that office does not see himself as the chief steward of the Great Game.  Instead, he remains a loyal servant to and mouthpiece for the thirty billionaires who own major league franchises.

That was most evident in his response to a question from Hannah Keyser of Yahoo Sports, who asked the commissioner if owning a franchise was a good investment.  Manfred’s answer was that MLB had commissioned a study by an investment banker – conveniently unnamed, and fans should not hold their breath waiting for this study to be released – who found that “If you look at the purchase price of franchises, the cash that’s put in during the period of ownership and then what they’ve sold for, historically, the return on those investments is below what you get in the stock market — what you expect to get in the stock market — with a lot more risk.”

It is a testament to the commissioner’s courtroom skills, or at least his acting ability, that he delivered this line and moved on to the next question without doubling over in laughter at the utter absurdity of his words.  Over the last two decades an investment in a portfolio mirroring the S&P 500 Index returned a 308% gain, while during the same period, the value of MLB franchises increased by 564%, per the data compilation company Statista.  Still, the gross inaccuracy of Manfred’s claim about the return on investment is minor compared to his blatant falsehood about risk.  Anyone buying a stock assumes the risk of its value not just declining but dropping to zero.  But ownership of an MLB franchise is essentially risk-free.  With baseball’s antitrust exemption about to celebrate its centenary, the sport’s owners effectively operate as a legally sanctioned monopoly. 

Even more important with respect to risk, the select few in the tiny, thirty-member ownership club look out for each other.  Frank McCourt joined the club in 2004 when he purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers for $430 million.  A case study in hubris and ineptitude, McCourt drove the storied franchise into the ground, with the Dodgers filing for bankruptcy seven years later.  The other members of the club wanted him gone, but as a reward for his incompetence and greed, they found a new owner who paid McCourt more than $2 billion for the team in 2012, a fivefold return on his grossly mismanaged investment in less than a decade.  As a lovely parting gift, the team’s new owners still pay an entity half-owned by McCourt $14 million a year to rent the parking lots surrounding Dodger Stadium.  Similarly, Jeffrey Loria was bailed out of his incompetent ownership of the beleaguered Montreal franchise.  Loria’s initial 1999 investment in the Expos was $12 million.  Just three years later he sold the failing team to MLB for ten times that amount, using the proceeds plus an interest-free loan from the commissioner’s office to buy the Florida Marlins from John Henry who in turn purchased the Red Sox.  Loria eventually left the little ownership club in 2017, when he sold the Marlins for $1.2 billion, one hundred times the amount of his buy-in less than twenty years earlier.

Manfred is neither an idiot nor a fool, so it is reasonable to assume he knew his answer to Keyser would be the stuff of ridicule before nightfall.  But that means he was spouting the delusions of his bosses, a group drawn to the allure and status of owning a major sports franchise but mostly devoid of a commitment to the game, like so many uber-rich dilletantes buying rare works by Claude Monet or Jeff Koons because someone told them being art lovers was cool.  If the entitled yet aggrieved perspective embodied in Manfred’s response reflects a majority of owners, then fans can forget not just about sitting in the Florida sun for a March Spring Training Game, but also about Opening Day and a good part of the regular season. 

Yet hope springs eternal.  One truth the commissioner spoke is that in tough negotiations, “You’re always one breakthrough away from making an agreement.”  He implied that an offer opening the door to such a jumpstart will be put on the table this Saturday.  Or maybe he didn’t officially delay Spring Training today so that he could do so this weekend, blaming the intransigent players and their failure to immediately embrace his employers’ latest begrudging and piddly offer.  That combative, blame-shifting path is well trod by Rob Manfred, while the previous one, in which the owners speak to rather than past the players, is until now a road not taken.  One hopes the commissioner has read his Robert Frost.  But don’t count on it.

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