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Rob Manfred Doesn’t Even Have To Try

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, seen here wearing reflective sunglasses at the 2022 All-Star Game.
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

As a general rule, a person should not expect too much from the United States Senate when it comes to stuff like "fixing a problem" or "addressing even the most obvious public injustice." If you are someone who lives under the laws that institution passes, or just in the uneasy inertia its creaky, cranky inaction projects outwards, this is not what you want. But the Senate is still the Senate; it's a ridiculous and loathsome antique, an accursed and unaccountably smug collection of horrific deep-sea creatures and ancient goblins and jumped-up local sociopaths congratulating each other every time they avoid doing anything, but it is also an institution that, when it asks you to do something, you generally have to do it.

This is true even if you are MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, and on Friday the commissioner answered a Senate request by submitting a 17-page letter in which he attempts to justify the antitrust exemption that Major League Baseball has now enjoyed, in variously modified forms, for 100 years. It is not very convincing on the merits, but the casual approach to those merits suggests that the league doesn't believe it will have to do much convincing on that front. The barely latent threat running through the letter is that baseball's owners are not just willing but eager to make things much worse for everyone but themselves if they are inconvenienced in the least, and they clearly believe that will be enough. In a sense, the laziness of it can be read as a flex—the league's owners, and the gray-faced lawyer they pay to tell weird sloppy lies for them, clearly believe that their various structural advantages are significant enough to do the work for them.

This uncanny note of lackadaisical menace also suffused the league's behavior during the lockout that threatened the start of this season, as the league floated one overtly oafish proposal and obvious self-serving fiction after another. It, alongside the vinegary personal shamelessness of the commissioner himself, has come to define the Manfred Method. That it is by now so familiar doesn't make it any less weird. Imagine someone threatening to burn down your house, seemingly very much in earnest, but without mustering the will to take their eyes off the Golf Channel, or even turn down the volume, while doing so. It is a strange thing to hold in your mind—this person is serious, and also they truly do not care.

The tone rings clearly through Manfred's letter to Senators Dick Durbin, Richard Blumenthal, Chuck Grassley, and Mike Lee. Manfred opens by taking issue with the Senators' suggestion that MLB's "antitrust exemption is detrimental to minor league players, and that removing the exemption would improve their working conditions." Manfred, rejecting the premise with his signature combination of lawyerly cleverness and absolutely supine lassitude, disagrees with this suggestion. "We respectfully submit that the opposite is true—the baseball antitrust exemption has meaningfully improved the lives of minor league players, including their terms and conditions of employment, and has enabled the operators of minor league affiliates to offer professional baseball in certain communities that otherwise could not economically support a professional baseball team." He goes on, at length, to warn that anything done to roll back that exemption would invariably make things much worse for those players and those communities currently reaping those benefits; those benefits, respectively, include but are not limited to "wages well below the federal minimum" and "getting your minor league team abruptly disaffiliated or disbanded entirely at the whim of the commissioner's office."

Again, this is very easily rebutted. Harry Marino, who runs Advocates for minor leaguers, told The Athletic that the antitrust exemption "is the reason MLB owners can require minor league players to sign the Minor League Uniform Player Contract. The exemption provides a loophole for MLB’s 30 team owners, enabling them to openly collude on minor league player treatment in a manner that would otherwise be illegal." The ways in which Manfred seeks to elide this extremely obvious fact are, again, neither vigorous nor consistent. He mentions that 58 percent of players chosen in the MLB Draft get signing bonuses over $100,000; he notes that the league has (modestly and belatedly) improved conditions for minor league players recently; of the players who make sub-minimum wages for several years before churning out of the sport, Manfred notes that their lot is "not at all dissimilar to the millions of young adults who devote several years trying to break into acting, music, or politics before moving on to other occupations." This approach ultimately resolves to an argument that baseball players should on principle be exploited just as vigorously as everyone else, and that the way the minor leagues are now is the only way they could ever be.

If you do not find this argument inspiring, or even remotely convincing, it is probably because Manfred is not talking to you. Manfred's principal audiences are the most reactionary crustaceans in baseball's fanbase and media and the ultra-aggrieved and ultra-rich owners who are his bosses, and the purpose of this sort of rhetoric is to affirm those people, not convince anyone else. The confusing legal trickery in Manfred's letter is opaque, in a sense, because it has to be; the idea is to obfuscate something that is, in point of fact, quite clear, which is that MLB organizations would not legally be permitted to pay minor leaguers as little in wages as they do were it not for the antitrust exemption. That there is no convincing argument to the contrary would surely be a problem for Manfred if he were actually trying to convince anyone of that.

But that's not what Manfred is aiming to do in his letter, or in general, and it likely will not be what he tries to do when he answers questions about this in front of the Senate in hearings that are expected to happen early this fall. He will simply do the bare minimum to justify an unjust and untenable status quo, on behalf of the people who benefit from it the most, to people who understand their jobs as maintaining that status quo, and trust that all the forces holding that status quo in place—not just money and power and inertia, but the broader American tendency to believe that making things better for someone else would necessarily make things worse for you—will do what they do. At the risk of reading too much into a text that does not seem designed with scrutiny in mind, Manfred and his bosses sure don't seem worried about it.

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