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In January of 2015, Bud Selig retired as the commissioner of Major League Baseball after 17 seasons at its helm. Selig’s choice of replacement, Rob Manfred ’80, unanimously beat out former Padres’ owner and Red Sox chairman Tom Werner in a vote.
Manfred’s background hits close to home, as he transferred into the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell as an undergraduate. He was then able to parlay his academic career into a spot at Harvard Law School. He clerked for a judge with the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts during college, and eventually rose to partner in a law firm where he focused on labor and employment law. His ILR background played a role in his career trajectory before he worked in baseball as well.
He was involved (in an outside capacity) with the labor dispute of 1994. In 1994, Major League Baseball was dealt permanent damage when the season was shortened and the World Series was cancelled. Fans viewed this as pure, unadulterated greed from both the owners and the players. On a less relevant but personally important tangent, a full season in 1994 could have given Padres’ legend Tony Gwynn the opportunity to be the first player to hit over .400 since Ted Williams. The sport struggled to recover its fans after the disaster in 1994, but they have maintained relatively smooth labor negotiations since then.
After 1994, labor negotiations became one of the most important issues facing the commissioner’s office. Part of the reason for improvements in owner-player relations was the involvement of Manfred, who joined Major League Baseball in 1998 on a full-time basis. He was a part of the negotiations between the Major League Baseball Players Association and MLB on many occasions. 1994 was the last time a labor stoppage occurred, with several collective bargaining agreements being hammered out since then.
Manfred’s experience with labor law and work with Major League Baseball made him a natural fit for the position. He has largely kept the status quo, with the exception of creating the automatic intentional walk rule (a rule that allows managers to signal for a player to be intentionally walked without having the pitcher throw four pitches outside of the strike zone) and other rules to cut down on game times. He has remained quiet, yet operations have ran smoothly since he took over as commissioner, facing no controversies or issues that have made it into the public eye.
In November of 2016, Major League Baseball and the MLBPA came to a five year agreement on a new CBA, just hours before the previous contract was set to expire. Several rule changes were discussed, but only a few changes set around luxury taxes, free agency and international free agency were made.
I would argue that a commissioner’s job is not to stay in the spotlight. It is to ensure the operations of Major League Baseball continue successfully, and helping MLB adapt its strategies in response to changes in the marketplace and world. Manfred has done this quite well. He is making minor changes when he sees fit, but is largely focusing on keeping Major League Baseball as America’s pastime. Outside of Major League Baseball’s rules and regulations, he has focused on reaching minorities and underprivileged kids and attempted to integrate technology into the game and the fan experience.
Even though Manfred hasn’t announced any landmark decisions or been covered excessively by the media, he has been an excellent commissioner. Other commissioners may hold household names, but arguably Manfred is the most popular commissioner in professional sports with fans and the media. He has handled problems behind the scenes and has, for lack of better words, kept everyone happy. His lack of a public presence does not diminish that, but in fact makes his success even more impressive.