I don't know if Rob Manfred hates baseball, but nothing he has done suggests he loves the game

August 1, 2022

Late last week, Major League Baseball sent a letter to Congress arguing the organization deserves its antitrust exemption. One would think MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred might wish to express his deep care and love for baseball as the base motivation for all his decisions, but as with many of his other public statements this message communicated the commissioner’s view that maximizing short-term profitability for MLB franchise owners is his primary concern. The tragedy of Manfred is he occupies a role that, historically, has been conceived as caretaker of a major American institution, and yet almost everything he supports and stands for diminishes the long-term prospects that baseball will flourish.

People in my circles focused on the letter’s laughable contention that “the baseball antitrust exemption has meaningfully improved the lives of Minor League players, including their terms and conditions of employment” — partly because it came mere months after MLB unilaterally contracted 42 minor league teams from organized baseball in what most of us clearly understood was a move to reduce operating costs by funding less professional baseball and employing fewer players, and because MLB teams have almost always chosen to put the screws to minor league players rather than make minimal investments to proactively care for them and put them in a position to thrive.

There’s so much in the letter that, as a baseball fan, I find simultaneously infuriating and depressing, but my main takeaway is that MLB’s leadership either does not know or does not care — or both — that these attitudes and actions directly discourage Americans from becoming baseball fans and from playing the game. The nature of baseball and changing social mores are such that unorganized pickup play is dead in most of the country, while at the same time the industrialization of youth sports has proceeded to the point that anyone wishing to play truly competitive baseball must pay obscene amounts of money just to participate. If you are a talented youth baseball player, but your family has limited means, you are very likely to be shut out of the game before you even get started. In the 2022 MLB draft, the top two picks were sons of former MLB stars and the third pick was the son of a former NFL player, which may not be indicative of anything on its own, but to me is symbolic of baseball’s economic divide.

Manfred’s letter suggests that none of this is a problem for MLB’s lords. In the letter’s framing, minor league ballplayers are part-time seasonal workers who are free to find employment in the off season, and oh by the way most of them are there merely to provide fodder for the prospects the parent teams actually care about. If MLB’s explanations are to be taken at face value, its leadership believes minor league players are disposable and not, as I imagine most sports fans believe, a fount of untapped potential.

It all adds up to some very bad outcomes for those of us who love baseball. First, MLB seems intent on reducing the amount of high-quality professional baseball that is available to watch across the country, whether by balkanizing its television offerings or reducing affiliated minor leagues. Second, treating minor league players poorly as a matter of course further ensures that only people with families that can support them will choose to play professionally.

On the one end, we have MLB cutting back on the fundamental method of gaining baseball fans — making games available — thus ensuring that fewer young people will grow up around baseball. On the other end, we have MLB codifying that playing in the minor leagues will absolutely suck. Why would a young athlete choose to play professional baseball if they have another choice? Kyler Murray might be the first modern example to come to mind, but I think Pat Connaughton is more illustrative of the choice more athletes face.

Through seven NBA seasons, Connaughton has earned about $16.5 million serving first as a depth wing and then developing into a valuable rotation player. The thing is, he was much more of a baseball prospect before his senior year of college basketball, a pitcher with a first-round arm who got picked in the fourth round of the MLB draft precisely because he was so adamant about playing basketball, and ultimately he chose to pursue basketball as a second-round NBA pick (though he has also been clear that he may try a return to baseball, eventually.) What if he had chosen to focus on baseball, instead? He received a $428,000 bonus from the Orioles and pitched briefly in 2014 before going back for his senior year of college basketball. Assuming he moved relatively quickly through the minor leagues and made it to MLB for the start of his age-24 season, he would be completing his final year before free agency this year. It’s possible he would have made more money from baseball than basketball at this point, but the instant the Portland Trail Blazers signed him, he got paid far more than he would have as a minor league player.

None of this is good for MLB, or baseball writ large. It seems clear all these forces will lead to fewer fans, fewer players, and, if not a death spiral in the coming decades, a dramatic shift of casual fans’ relationship to the sport, similar to what boxing experienced. And Rob Manfred will not do anything about it because those are problems for the future, and by his actions I must conclude the only thing he cares about is the money MLB team owners are able to make today.

It is sad and it is heartbreaking. We can only hope MLB leadership changes before it is too late.

(Photo: "City Island Little League Play-offs 2012 252" by Edwin Martinez. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)