When baseball owners approached Kenesaw “Mountain” Landis in 1920 and asked him to become the first commissioner in professional sports, the then-U.S. District Court judge insisted he be given a very specific power.
Landis insisted he be allowed to make major decisions on his own, without approval of owners or players, for matters he believed were “in the best interests of baseball.”
Exactly one century later, that phrase remains written into Major League Baseball’s constitution, and every person who has served as commissioner since has retained that unquestioned right.
On the handful of occasions in which the clause has officially been invoked, it has mostly been done when the commissioner felt the need to punish an owner or player for egregious actions that damaged the sport’s reputation. Consorting with gamblers. Drug offenses. Selling players to other clubs.
None of that is plaguing baseball at the moment. But what is plaguing baseball at the moment is the outright refusal of just about everybody in a position of power to make decisions about the 2020 season with the overall best interests of the sport in mind.
And that has become crystal clear over the last week.
On Wednesday, just hours before the start of this year’s draft, commissioner Rob Manfred said in an interview with ESPN: “I can tell you unequivocally we are going to play Major League Baseball this year.”
On Saturday, after owners made yet another proposal to players that included significant reductions in pay beyond the prorated salary reductions they already agreed to in March, MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark issued a scathing statement in which he concluded “further dialogue with the league would be futile” and demanded Manfred inform players when and where they should report for work.
Later that evening, MLB issued its own scathing response to Clark’s scathing statement, accusing the union of not negotiating “in good faith” and blaming players for refusing to budge on the matter of further salary reductions (which the league claims it’s entitled to ask for, per the March agreement).
And then came Monday, when in response to suggestions the players would file a grievance if MLB unilaterally imposed a 50-ish-game season on them, Manfred went back on ESPN and this time said, “I can’t tell you that I’m 100 percent certain” the 2020 season will happen at all now.
To which Clark issued his latest and most scathing response, saying players are “disgusted” by Manfred’s backtracking and accusing MLB of “negotiating in bad faith since the beginning.”
And so here we are, beyond the midpoint of June, no closer to a resolution on how and when and where to begin the 2020 season, the prospect of the whole thing blowing up suddenly very real.
And why has it come to this? Because everybody involved is attempting to do what is best for one particular participant in this fight. Clark is only interested in what’s best for the players. Manfred is only interested in what’s best for the owners.
Yes, it’s technically each man’s job to do just that. Clark doesn’t work for the league. He works for the players. Manfred doesn’t work for the players. He works for the owners.
Ah, but that’s the root of the problem. The commissioner of baseball doesn’t work for baseball; he works for the 30 club owners, who can (and have) ousted previous commissioners they didn’t believe were acting in their best interests.
That’s not how this was supposed to work. The owners hired Landis 100 years ago because he was independent from the sport. Baseball was reeling from the Black Sox gambling scandal in the 1919 World Series, and owners recognized an outside voice was needed to restore integrity to the game before the public lost all trust in it.
Over the decades that followed, the original intention of the Office of the Commissioner was lost. Owners picked commissioners they believed would be best for them, not best for the sport. And when one outsider (Fay Vincent) was deemed not helpful enough to the owners, they kicked him to the curb and selected one of their own to succeed him.
Twenty-three years later, Bud Selig finally retired. But he handed the reins to his hand-picked successor, the man who had spent those previous two decades handling all labor negotiations for the league: Rob Manfred.
Now, five years into his tenure, there’s no question who Manfred works for. He works for the owners. Not the players. Not the sport.
And yet he still holds in his back pocket that five-word phrase that Landis insisted be included in his job description. The five words that give the commissioner full authority to act on his or her own, not at the behest of owners. The five words that sadly have been forgotten during these last few weeks of nastiness and embarrassment for the sport.
Manfred has the right to do what’s in “the best interests of baseball.” He can enact a 2020 season that might just be agreeable to players, if only he’s willing to meet them in the middle. And in the process he might just restore his damaged reputation a little bit.
Is this nothing but a pie-in-the-sky dream? Maybe. Probably.
But think about it this way: Has anything that’s taken place the last month been in the best interests of baseball? Not even close.
Maybe, just maybe, if the man in charge of baseball actually paused for a moment and remembered why his position was created in the first place, he might just do something to save the 2020 season. Not for his own good. Not for the good of owners. Not for the good of players.
For the good of baseball.