What a year that weekend was.
There was already plenty of reason for pessimism in baseball, with the waves of positive tests that had already effectively shut down the Miami Marlins. And then on Friday, news broke that multiple St. Louis Cardinals had tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the cancellation of the team’s Friday game against the Milwaukee Brewers, and eventually, the entirety of the series.
That the news qualified as shocking to anybody is evidence of the head-in-sand attitude that the United States in particular is taking towards a worldwide pandemic that has already killed what is creeping towards three-quarters of a million people, including over 150,000 in the United States alone. Major League Baseball’s plan for starting the 2020 season, to the extent that one can call what they arranged a “plan”, still involved thousands of people traveling around the world’s foremost hotbed for COVID-19 and being within close proximity of one another. Unlike the NBA and NHL, whose restarts in Orlando, Edmonton, and Toronto are operating reasonably well so far, MLB is operating in the real world–players are not existing in a “bubble” just because there aren’t fans at their games. One can easily argue that asking baseball players to exist in a “bubble” for an even longer period of time than basketball or hockey players with no possibility of leaving for months is not a reasonable expectation. But that doesn’t mean that just playing the season and pretending that the world isn’t falling apart is a reasonable alternative to it.
From basically the beginning of his tenure as Major League Baseball commissioner in 2015, Rob Manfred has been a whipping boy for fans. Considering that his predecessor, Bud Selig, was also widely maligned, and that fellow big four commissioners Roger Goodell and Gary Bettman aren’t exactly popular, I’ve spent most of that time not taking rabid criticism of Manfred seriously. Baseball fans are naturally resistant to any sort of change, and I’m more open to listening on a pace-of-play rule proposal than those who view a pitch clock as an existential threat to the sport. But in 2020, Rob Manfred has been every bit the clumsy oaf that his reputation suggested he could be.
MLB’s plan was always based on blind faith, the sort of blind faith that has spent months insisting that the problem of millions sick and thousands dead was always going to resolve itself somehow, even with a material percentage of those involved not taking any proactive steps to help. And now, it is falling apart as those who participated in a level of wishful thing somewhere between utter dread and outright conspiratorial doubting of the virus are forced to confront the fact that playing baseball games in empty stadiums was never the only way to combat the spread of the virus among baseball organizations.
Rob Manfred, the man who spent part of the first game of the MLB season on ESPN explaining an hours-old playoff system during a game being played without one of its biggest stars because he had tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the day, has spent the last several days letting everybody know who is to blame for the catastrophic re-opening of the sport–the players. Here was what he said on Saturday to ESPN’s Karl Ravech.
I do not want to completely exonerate players for a lack of individual responsibility. Some players have reportedly committed fairly egregious violations of social distancing (most of these are thinly vetted rumors, so I won’t cite any in particular, but given that we’re talking about hundreds of relatively low-risk people, I don’t dispute that it is happening at least some of the time), and just like people who buckle their seat belts and drive their fully licensed cars to licensed stores and restaurants and refuse to wear masks because they oppose government intervention, some of them are behaving recklessly.
But assuming that any positive COVID-19 case is a moral referendum on the infected person is a willful misunderstanding of science. There have been several high-profile instances of large social gatherings taking absolutely no precautions, and not all attendees (or even most attendees) got sick. There have been people who wore masks and did everything in their power to stay more than six feet away from anybody who still got sick. Wearing a mask and encouraging others to do so is a good practice, but treating it as an invincibility shield is wildly inaccurate and seems to be giving a false sense of security.
That or Rob Manfred is willingly misrepresenting the situation. Maybe a little of both. Well, mostly the misrepresenting the situation part.
Manfred, of course, is using lots of language of stolen valor, saying that he “is not a quitter”, as though he is not able to perform all of his duties as commissioner remotely as he subjects players to engage in an activity during which social distancing is impossible, games are played daily, and COVID-19 test results generally take more than a day to generate results. Less than five months ago, one positive COVID-19 test shut down sports worldwide almost overnight. That same night, when Tom Hanks was diagnosed with Coronavirus, we treated it as though this was the twenty-first century version of the Magic Johnson HIV announcement. In July and August, we see dozens of athletes testing positive, hundreds of thousands in the United States dead, and we shrug. Rob Manfred doesn’t have to “quit” because he isn’t the vulnerable one. Not unlike politicians who advocate for destructive wars without shouldering any of the immense burden faced by either side of the conflict they are proposing, Rob Manfred is perfectly willing to sacrifice others for the sake of his own benefit.
An occasional criticism of Rob Manfred is that he is a mouthpiece for owners rather than an impartial mediator for the sake of the sport as a whole, a criticism which is both accurate and naive about the role Manfred was hired to do. Rob Manfred was hired by MLB owners. Players had no say in the matter. Owners care as much or less about the safety of players than Rob Manfred–they’re just rich enough that they don’t have to say the things Manfred does in public. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t roast Rob Manfred–he is a terrible communicator considering he is paid $11 million a year to be a public-facing whipping boy–but just know that Rob Manfred isn’t the problem. And that’s the problem.
If Rob Manfred became an advocate for the players, he would lose his job and be replaced by somebody else. If somebody other than Rob Manfred took over, perhaps he would do a better job of conveying the will of owners in a way that is at least semi-tolerable for baseball fans, but the overall trajectory of the message would be the same. Bud Selig was better at being a publicly tolerable mouthpiece for owners, which is ironic because 1. He was still very bad at it; 2. He was a literal MLB owner. But he still engaged in bad-faith labor negotiations on the behest of owners that resulted in the cancellation of a World Series. In the 1980s, commissioner Peter Ueberroth orchestrated owner collusion in the free agency market, an aggressively (and illegal) anti-player practice. Between Ueberroth and Selig, following the brief Bart Giamatti tenure, was Fay Vincent, unequivocally the most even-handed owner in MLB history. He made it three years before owners pushed him out.
Rob Manfred is doing his job. I would argue he isn’t doing it well, but it is not as though he is being negligent. The alternative to Rob Manfred might be an improvement, but incrementally, not by leaps and bounds. I’m even tempted to believe that having somebody as egregiously incompetent as Manfred in charge in 2020 is the best-case scenario. Owners were always going to neglect the safety of players while banking on fans to side with “The Team” (i.e. owners) rather than the players. At least with a chief executive who is constantly getting his own way, the persistent ethical rot of MLB ownership is becoming abundantly clear to those who hadn’t noticed it before.