With every new and nutty proposal to change Major League Baseball, I inevitably reach the same conclusion: Rob Manfred sure seems to find baseball in its traditional sense absolutely abhorrent.
I don't reach that conclusion lightly, either.
Although it's become hip in recent years to question the commissioner's love of the game, to accuse him of intentionally trying to destroy all tradition and build a new, mutated version of the sport, it's been easy to dismiss such takes as merely hyperbolic. But, as spring training begins and the 2020 season beckons, it's becoming more and more apparent to me that these accusations have at least some merit.
Before I get to Team Manfred's latest banger proposal, let’s re-examine the evidence that existed before this week. Since around 2017, the commissioner has seemingly made it his mission to let people know that baseball, as it exists now, is unappealing. There’s not enough action. There’s too much downtime. There are too many strikeouts. Too many home runs. We need a pitch clock. We need to put a runner at second base to start extra innings. We need to make relief pitchers face at least three batters. We need to kill a bunch of minor league teams.
They've all carried the same misguided notion, just with varying volumes: BASEBALL IS IN TROUBLE!
Which brings us to Monday, when word came of a new proposal that would obliterate not only baseball's postseason format, but the way teams approach the regular season. The new plan would essentially allow half the teams to make the playoffs and would include a silly reality TV component to determine matchups. The idea is that more teams in the hunt would create more drama and more fan interest, meaning more teams would spend money, meaning more teams would make money. The proposal, reported by the New York Post, doesn't name Manfred directly, but he’s responsible for making sure ideas like this are shut down.
As change goes, it would be hard to get more drastic. This is not an idea from someone who thinks MLB is in a good place. This is an idea from someone who sees a major, unprecedented, identity-shattering shakeup as a critical component to making the sport more appealing to the masses.
I'll pause to acknowledge that baseball isn't without its significant blemishes: illegal sign-stealing, poor minor league pay, service-time manipulation, a lack of player marketing, silly blackout rules, and more. It seems that a focus on any or all of those would have better long-term success in growing the game than blowing up the semi-traditional postseason approach. And there are also legitimate issues to discuss around attendance, ticket prices and TV viewership. But this revamped, reality-TV postseason idea is a knee-jerk attempt at a "fix" that isn't necessary.
MLB person: Do we need to improve the playoffs?
Rob Manfred: pic.twitter.com/bWctemtu50
— Jason Foster (@ByJasonFoster) February 10, 2020
I'll pause again to say that postseason tweaks have always been part of baseball history. There was the advent of divisional play in 1969, expansion of the league championship series from five to seven games, the addition of a wild card for the 1994 season, and the addition of a second wild card for the 2012 season. Those changes, it could be argued, were more palatable because they were gradual. But imagine if MLB had introduced them all at once. That's kind of what Manfred's latest plan does.
But here's something that can't be overlooked: Aside from Manfred and a few like-minded media folks, nobody — NOBODY — is asking for any of this. Most fans, most players and most media members don't lament over pace of play (though length of game is a different topic), too many home runs or the need to nuke the postseason. This is mostly coming from the league office.
I'll pause a third time to say that I'm not a "get off my lawn" guy who thinks baseball should never change. I've even proposed some rule changes that I think might work. I'm even open to tweaking the postseason because I think fans will generally adapt to anything. But there are gradual tweaks and there are assaults on the sport itself. This playoff proposal leans toward the latter category.
Aside from claims that this or other changes would make baseball more exciting or more appealing, the real goal, of course, is to put more money to MLB’s coffers. More specifically, the coffers of Manfred's bosses — the 30 team owners. So, in one respect, one could argue that Manfred is just trying to do his job. But the problem is that the playoff proposal and all the others seem only aimed at making money and not also about making the game better. There's always been a cold, business-first approach to everything in the Manfred era, with seemingly no regard for tradition or for what baseball fans actually like or want. There's seemingly no love for the game itself — only a desire to use the game as a starting point to find ways to line pockets. It's money over everything. Not that this hasn't always been the case, but I guess other commissioners were just more patient in their approach or just better at hiding their intentions.
So, given all this, I find it hard to believe that Rob Manfred doesn't have at least some disdain, or perhaps just intense apathy, for the sport he oversees. He seems to look out over the vast MLB landscape and see more wrong than right, more sour than sweet, more opportunity for dollars than delight. He's not made baseball better. You could argue he's made it worse. And with each new idea, it's easy to envision a wider chasm.