An Open Letter to MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred

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The dawning of the 2015 baseball season was the first in 23 years in which Bud Selig was not the Commissioner. During his reign, the game saw unprecedented economic growth but it also experienced some lows. In an open letter to MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred, Justin Gorman implores the recently promoted man-in-charge to seize his opportunity to improve the game by learning from the successes and failures of his predecessor and his peers.

Former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig navigated the league through some trying times, and oversaw the implementation of several major policies in his 23-year tenure (which includes his six years as acting commissioner). As is the case with most chief executives, Selig’s administration had some high points – notably, his suspension of Cincinnati Reds’ owner Marge Schott in 1993, and his league-wide retirement of Jackie Robinson’s number 42.

However, Major League Baseball has survived and economically thrived in large part because of its status as America’s Pastime, not because of the policies put in place by Selig. Selig was openly accused by then-commissioner Fay Vincent of having stolen $280 million from the players through collusion. Later, he canceled the 1994 World Series, and grossly mishandled the investigation (and later fallout) from MLB’s performance enhancing drug controversy. Despite all of this – Major League Baseball is still widely loved – except now it is loved at a regional level rather than at a national level. MLB is still incredibly profitable and ratings are strong in local markets. However, the ratings for nationally televised games pale in comparison to the NFL, and even the NBA is gaining ground. This may not necessarily be a bad thing – rather it is a different niche.

On January 25, 2015, Rob Manfred took over as Commissioner of Major League Baseball. He is in his second full month of regular season play and as Cheryl Wright so aptly pointed out, April was awfully entertaining and quirky. The league is experiencing a youth movement, the likes of which dwarfs that of the late-90’s, when everybody was focused on the emergence of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra. Players such as Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant, Gerrit Cole, and Giancarlo Stanton – the list goes on and on – baseball fans are universally excited about the future of the game. One thing MLB is finally doing is focusing on the players with their marketing, much like the NBA has done so successfully for years. These same players are now the faces of their respective franchises, with some even appearing on billboards to promote their teams and their sport.

Manfred is currently sitting on a seemingly endless gold mine of talent. Where other leagues are faltering with public relations gaffes and disciplinary issues, MLB glides ever-so-gracefully above the fray. The sport has proven time and again that it will survive the most serious of adversity, such as the 1994 strike and the Congressional hearings about performance enhancing drugs. No other sport can say that with as much conviction as MLB.

Unfortunately, Manfred is going to have to create the big shoes for his successor to fill – Selig left him with a pair of ratty, unshined dress shoes. He can start creating his own legacy, both in distinguishing himself from certain other commissioners, and by reversing course on some of Selig’s failed policies. These suggestions can be explained in further detail:

Always Remember – The League Is Bigger Than You.

This is a solid rule for anybody to live by in their professional life, but none more so than when you are the public head of a very publicly scrutinized and popular sports league. Your legacy will be defined by how the sport performs and progresses, not by you personally. However, to the extent you must make a public decision, pick your battles wisely. Adam Silver distinguished himself very early in his tenure as NBA Commissioner by handling the Donald Sterling fiasco with resolute, decisive finesse. He immediately gained the trust of his league, both the owners and the players.

Contrast Silver’s successful navigation of the Sterling situation with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s gross mishandling of just about every public relations situation that comes his way, from Ray Rice to Adrian Peterson to “Deflategate.” When it was reported the evening of May 15th that Goodell decided to exercise his right under the Collective Bargaining Agreement to preside over Tom Brady’s appeal … well, perhaps Saturday Night Live put it best.

Goodell is admitting vulnerability as the Commissioner and is demonstrating considerable weakness. It is hard not to perceive that he is injecting himself into an already polarizing situation simply for the PR. It is not the behavior one would expect from the commissioner of a multi-billion dollar organization.

Mr. Manfred – you have a real opportunity here. You are the head of a major American sports league – the leader of America’s Pastime. As an attorney, there is little doubt that you will use your professional training wisely and distinguish yourself from bad precedent. Luckily, between your predecessor and your NFL contemporary, there is plenty of history to learn from.

Make The All-Star Game An Exhibition. Again.

One of the worst decisions Bud Selig made was to make the All-Star Game “count.” What has resulted from this decision is a precipitous drop in viewership, the same level of player performance as one would expect in an exhibition, and … the game still matters? By awarding home-field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star Game, Selig tacitly dismissed the effort put forth by teams during a 162-game regular season.

The simplest fix to this problem would be to reverse course entirely and return the game to exhibition status. The team that has the best record at the end of the season should have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Teams with a record of success throughout a regular season that spans more than six calendar months should inarguably be the best determination of home-field advantage. The outcome of one game, played by two teams whose participants are mostly picked by fans, and managed by other teams’ managers, cannot possibly be the best determination.

In addition, it will restore the validity of the exhibition, and the element of fun, to a game that should be only that. To have the fans interact with the rosters as much as they can is a great element of the All-Star Game. Fans of all sports watch all-star games (and other exhibitions) with no expectations other than seeing what would happen if their fantasy team came to life.

The argument to let the best record in the league determine home-field advantage is reinforced by the mere existence of interleague play, which was also introduced by Selig.

Revisit Interleague Play.

There are some really great characteristics to interleague play – American League teams get to travel to National League cities during the regular season, allowing their fans in those cities to see their team, and vice versa. This would have obviously been impossible to achieve in a pre-interleague play MLB. However, just as the NFL has done with playing a game or two a year in London (where the “F” in their league name couldn’t have more of a fundamentally different meaning), interleague play has turned into a head-scratcher.

There is a major benefit (the money) to interleague play, and it should not (and will not) be eradicated entirely. However, it should be minimized, and scheduled more appropriately. There has been a lot of chatter about reducing the length of the MLB season to 154 games, and should that come to pass, a reduction in interleague games should be the first item addressed. In addition, under no circumstances should there be an interleague series on Opening Day. Players and managers (of which there are a handful of new managers each year) are still trying to get their sea legs back after Spring Training, and get to know their teams and teammates. Managers, in particular, should be afforded the opportunity to play the first few series of the year under the natural rules of the league their team resides in. Having an American League pitcher bat on Opening Day, or forcing a National League team to provide a designated hitter on Opening Day is putting those teams at a strategic disadvantage.

Apart from eliminating interleague play entirely, or an affirmative reduction in the length of the MLB season, adjusting the structure of interleague play may prove challenging. The current balance of teams in the AL and NL, the unbalanced schedule, and the current length of the season make it nearly impossible to reasonably change the interleague schedule.

One way Manfred could make this transition possible (and one that I will explore in more depth in Part 2 of this article) is through expansion. It has been 17 years since the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays were brought into the fold, and 11 years since the Montreal Expos moved to Washington. As the league stands to benefit considerably from the additional regional revenue, there is plenty of talent in the minor leagues, and there are a few excellent potential markets available.

There are seemingly endless reasonable suggestions that could be made to the newly minted commissioner of baseball. Some advocate for a shorter season, some say MLB should radically embrace technology when it comes to strike zones,  putting computers in charge of balls and strikes entirely, while others argue the National League should adopt a designated hitter full-time. Every one of these arguments, and their respective counter-arguments, has merit.

This open letter to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is here to remind you that you are in charge of an amazing sports league and tasked with deciding which of these potential changes are potentially positive. In addition, you are in charge at a time when the NFL, which tended to dominate the conversation during the Bud Selig era, is handing you the keys to its friend’s dad’s Ferrari and urging you to take a joyride. Be bold. Question the league you were handed and make some moves. America’s Pastime has proven it will endure.

Justin’s follow up article about expansion can be found here.

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Follow Justin on Twitter @j1gorman

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