The secret is out that Rob Manfred is not exactly popular with the fans as Major League Baseball’s commissioner. Yet, one recent hire for the 2021 MLB season has the potential to convey upon Manfred a positive legacy by proxy: Theo Epstein.
The person, who in short order, turned two historically luckless clubs into champions is now being tasked with the perennial challenge of fixing baseball. Epstein is currently serving as a consultant to Major League Baseball for on-field matters. If done well, as is his typical fashion, Epstein will be on the shortlist to succeed Manfred.
Yet, the very nature by which the commissioner is selected is fundamentally flawed and may hamper Epstein’s chances after the 2021 MLB season.
2021 MLB Season: A Century in the Making
The events that led to the creation of the position of commissioner, the manner by which the occupant was chosen, and even Landis’s legacy all speak to the need for reform.
For decades, players wowed fans, attracted crowds, and generated merchandise sales while laboring under a grossly unfair system. Athletes did not have true freedom to contract, were paid relatively little of the wealth they generated, and faced real financial risk by continuing in such a short career (even the long ones of 20 years are only half – or even less of – a typical working life). This situation helped lead to several Chicago White Sox players throwing the 1919 World Series for a quick payout from gamblers.
Owners, concerned about the integrity of the game and the possible threat to its popularity and profits, created the position of commissioner. They hired Kenesaw Landis as the first occupant of the office; rule-making authority was concentrated in his hands.
2021 MLB Season: The Commissioner’s Office Is Inherently Flawed
This is the important point: The commissioner is hired by and responsible not to baseball, the big leagues, fans, or players, but solely to the owners. And owners are, of course, motivated by a desire to control as much of the money generated by the players as possible.
As a result, the person with the most singular authority in baseball does so on behalf of a small group of 30 rich people. The incentive structure is geared toward further enriching the owners and not protecting or improving the game. This system of owners selecting an individual and granting him or her broad authority over all of organized baseball essentially remains in place today.
While game-throwing was essentially stopped, many of the causes that led to the situation remained. Players only recently earned any level of power at the negotiating table. Even with this development, the commissioner largely retains sweeping authority, and the owners are still his or her boss.
Moreover, concentrating power in the hands of just one individual poses its own problems. One glaring example: Landis refused to allow integration, and there was little the players, managers, or even the occasional owner could do about it.
Though there are some limitations (a positive development), the commissioner decides who will be punished for infractions and to what extent, what rules to keep and those to change, the fate of minor leagues and their players, and more. As the linked examples demonstrate, this has led to no shortage of controversy.
2021 MLB Season: A New and Better Kind of Commissioner
So what should replace a system of power-concentration and ownership control? The commissioner ought to represent the best interests of baseball and not just those of the owners.
Two possible solutions come to mind.
The first option would be to continue the system of one person occupying the commissioner’s role, however, both owners and players would have to agree on who would hold that office.
The second option would be to create a baseball triumvirate. The owners select one commissioner, the players the second, and the two commissioners mutually agree upon a third. A majority of the commissioners would have to agree to make any changes to organized baseball.
Whether keeping one commissioner or instituting a triumvirate, the new system would give the players more of a voice in the rules impacting the game they play. It is possible that such a reform would also increase the likelihood that decisions regarding rules would take into account the game itself and not just the pocketbooks of the owners and players.
2021 MLB Season: Theo Epstein for Commissioner
Theo Epstein is the ideal choice and the person most likely to be agreed upon by owners. The Massachusite is Ivy League-educated and proven in baseball. His early stint with the Baltimore Orioles in public relations prepared him for the highly visible posts he would take with keystone franchises later in his career.
Epstein saw market inefficiencies and carried out deliberate, well-thought out plans to turn perennial losers into World Series champions. Along the way, Epstein made friends from owners and players alike. He made the owners richer. He brought the players glory (and critically recognized chemistry and positive attitudes as key to success).
Epstein is almost uniquely suited to be commissioner.
2021 MLB Season: On-Field Matters
As a consultant for on-field matters, Epstein is tasked with protecting the parts of the game that are working and altering those that could use some improvement. The consensus seems to be forming around a two-hour and 45-minute maximum length for a game, an increase in contact hitting and baserunning, and a decrease in the three true outcomes approach. These goals seem aimed to return baseball to something closer to its style of play when the game was at its most popular. After all, game length, home runs, and strikeouts have skyrocketed while triples and stolen bases have declined.
Tweaks that MLB, Epstein, and company are exploring in the big leagues and minors include:
- Pitching clock
- Automatic runners on in extra innings
- Seven-inning doubleheaders
- Limiting or banning the shift
- Making the ball a little less lively
- Larger bases
- Requiring pitchers to step off the rubber before attempting a pickoff
- Pickoff limits
- Shorter breaks between innings
What Do You Think?
What other items in baseball’s system need attention? Comment with your suggestions for reform to the commissioner’s office and whether Epstein would make a good selection.
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