KC Royals: Manfred’s ‘We’ll play’ meant more than that

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 10: Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the 2019 Major League Baseball Winter Meetings on December 10, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 10: Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the 2019 Major League Baseball Winter Meetings on December 10, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images) /

Fans of the KC Royals probably welcomed this week’s announcement that there will be baseball in 2020. But Commissioner Rob Manfred’s “We’ll play” proclamation meant more than that.

From the outside looking in, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred can seem at times like an affable fellow. He smiles, he speaks well and often says things people want to hear, like his proclamation earlier this week that baseball will be played in 2020. Fans of the KC Royals, itching for a strong dose of the good medicine only baseball can provide, had to be pleased.

But someone in Manfred’s position must proceed carefully when talking about his business, and he strikes me as a commissioner who cautiously considers his words before he speaks. They may not always be what we want to hear (especially if you’re a baseball purist), but those words usually aren’t wasted.

And they occasionally convey more than one message. Such is the case with his “We’ll play” announcement. Manfred made it clear the game will go on whether or not the owners and union agree on the terms and conditions under which the shortened season will be played, but his statement’s timing and substance served more than one purpose.

Good news was needed. Manfred was appropriately short, concise, to the point and importantly unequivocal. “We’re going to play baseball in 2020–100 percent,” Major League Baseball Trade Rumors reported Manfred telling the MLB Network. The message was conspicuously unqualified, although everyone knows pandemic-related issues could derail even the best-laid plans.

Manfred’s news was good news at a time when good news was all anyone wanted to hear. The commissioner, who can decide such things, told us we’ll see major league baseball this season, although just how much, when, and in what form remains to be seen.

He has the power to throw baseball’s doors open and he’s telling us he will if he has to. (More on that later).

So, barring another pandemic-caused stoppage, the KC Royals will play this year. Good news, indeed, even if the campaign’s length isn’t ideal and the format is different.

Manfred delivered the message when it was needed most.

Draft coverage boost. Manfred’s timing was excellent for another reason–media. He announced baseball’s undated but guaranteed return on the MLB Network, the game’s own central and popular medium on the same day, and not long before, its coverage of the 2020 amateur draft began.

The timing was probably no coincidence. Coming so soon before the network turned its cameras to the annual draft, the news was guaranteed a captive and attentive audience. With baseball’s most elite media types present and focused, Manfred’s words were certain to go viral the instant he spoke them.

And the announcement that baseball is on its way back had to draw and hook viewers who then stayed for at least some of the draft, a sure ratings pick-me-up for an event already burdened by the drastic hit it took when it was reduced to just five main rounds earlier this year.

Calling Manfred’s timing brilliant may be too strong, but smart fits the bill.

A line in the sand. The hope Manfred’s Wednesday statement conveyed and needed attention it drew couldn’t, however, mask it’s not-so-subtle message to the Major League Baseball Players Association.

What the commissioner said to the union is this: The ongoing dispute between the clubs and players doesn’t matter. If they resolve it in time to play, that’s fine; if it looks like they can’t or won’t, Manfred will step in and impose a 2020 season regardless of any conventional labor-management accord.

Manfred’s message, plainly discernible between the lines of his statement declaring 2020 baseball a certainty and directed squarely at the players, is that the game will be played this year on his terms if they don’t soon–very soon–give more in negotiations than they already have. Baseball (synonymous with owners) is expected to make another proposal to the players at any moment, probably today (it will be a response to the counteroffer the players apparently made either Tuesday night or Wednesday) so the message is one Manfred hopes the union heeds.

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Quite simply and obviously, the commissioner has drawn a line in the sand between the players on one side and Manfred and the owners on the other. It is no small factor in all this that he is at once the commissioner and the employee of those who own the 30 major league teams. He operates independently in some spheres, but I don’t think this is one of them.

Manfred must pay close attention to what his employers want. And what they want is a labor deal more favorable to them than the players, but they’ll take, if they have to, some number of baseball games they believe they can sell to the fans as a somewhat meaningful season.

Manfred can’t force the former but, as I’ve said before, the owners can achieve the latter through him–he’s their employee and he’ll do as they direct. They know he has the authority to establish and open a season; he knows, one way or another, what his employers want. If the union doesn’t accept the clubs’ latest offer, or quickly move significantly closer to their positions, Manfred will intervene and unilaterally create a season featuring little the players like or want.

If KC Royals fans thought this labor battle was interesting, it may be about to get more so.

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Rob Manfred has drawn a line. We’ll soon know what that means for the KC Royals.