After all that came before that night in Washington, namely a global pandemic that shut down the sport for four months, and all that has happened since — across a truncated, 60-game regular season that tested the resolve and resourcefulness of everyone involved — it remains the lasting memory of 2020 for Manfred, MLB’s commissioner, the one he said he will never shake.
“It drove home the reality of where we were and where we are,” Manfred said in a video interview with The Washington Post ahead of the 2020 postseason.
Having reached the end of a regular season many believed would never be completed, Manfred is hesitant to take a victory lap. He doesn’t want to jinx the postseason, for one thing, with the sport soon shifting to a bubble model for the bulk of October — which will feature an expanded field of 16 teams. Where there should be praise, he deflected it toward players, team employees and MLB staffers who got the sport through a season full of figurative curveballs.
“This undertaking involved a tremendous amount of discipline and sacrifice on the part of a large number of people in the industry, not the least of which was the players,” Manfred said. “They performed really, really well. And if they hadn’t, there’s no way we would have played 60 games.”
Manfred now can acknowledge how dicey things got in the middle of the summer, when the sport was dealing with outbreaks among the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals. The season, he said, was “teetering” on the brink.
Everything came to a head July 31, when Manfred called MLB Players Association chief Tony Clark and asked for help in getting players more firmly on board with MLB’s health and safety protocols. At a time of heightened tensions, Manfred didn’t help matters by telling ESPN in the midst of that crisis, “The players need to be better, but I’m not a quitter in general, and there is no reason to quit now.”
Manfred wouldn’t say how close he came to shutting down the season, but he said that when he called Clark, “I was very nervous that day.”
In the wake of those outbreaks, MLB tightened its protocols and scheduled a slew of doubleheaders to make up the lost games, aided by the regionalized schedule put in place for 2020.
“Fortunately, we made some adjustments that allowed us to manage a positive [test] much more effectively,” he said.
Manfred declined to address a question about the desperation level in April, May and June — “Not my favorite three months, I’ll tell you,” he said — as MLB and the players’ union were locked in an acrimonious negotiation over the economic terms of the season. After opening proposals for 82 regular season games (by MLB) and 114 (by the players’ union), baseball wound up with only 60, leading to criticism from some corners, including from players, that MLB wanted the lower number all along to avoid paying players more money.
“I think the 60-game season, given the circumstances, was a really satisfying result for our fans,” Manfred said. “The larger numbers that were discussed earlier — even if we’d have made an agreement on a larger number, we couldn’t have started before we started given the way the virus went.”
Manfred spoke from MLB’s Manhattan offices, which he returned to a month ago. He has been getting tested for the novel coronavirus roughly three times per week, allowing him access to MLB facilities. He said he plans to attend as much of the postseason as he normally would and hopes to preside over the Commissioner’s Trophy presentation.
The trials Manfred has faced in 2020 were not part of the job description when he took over for Bud Selig in 2015.
“The best way to describe it is uncharted waters,” he said. “We have been presented routinely, day in and day out, with challenges that no one has seen before, and they’ve come up in very unexpected ways.”
Even before the pandemic, Manfred’s popularity among fans had taken significant hits over the previous year, stemming largely from the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal and MLB’s planned contraction of the minor leagues in an effort to streamline player development systems.
Some of the rule changes instituted for 2020 — the universal designated hitter, extra innings that begin with a runner on second base and seven-inning doubleheaders — have drawn mixed reviews. Manfred has not ruled out keeping the universal DH and the extra-inning rule in future seasons. That is not the case with the doubleheaders.
“Let me be clear about seven innings,” he said. “We did seven innings because of the situation that confronted us in 2020. There’s no more to it than that. It was not an experiment. It was not an attempt to see how people would react. It was literally expediency.”
Another uproar came when Manfred, during a panel discussion, said he hoped the expanded postseason — the format of which must be negotiated with the union — remains in future seasons. This year’s 16-team format has drawn widespread criticism for not doing enough to reward division champions.
Manfred clarified those remarks, saying he was not in favor of 16 teams in future postseasons. Before the arrival of the coronavirus, MLB had discussed the idea of a 14-team field that would reward division champions with byes into the division series.
The 16-team format came about because “we were going to have a short season, and we thought the fairest thing to do was to give maximum access to the postseason,” he said.
“Every conversation about expanded playoffs that took place before covid, there was never a conversation about 16 teams, and all of those conversations were directed at … preserving the value of winning the division, preserving competitiveness during the entire, long regular season,” Manfred said.
“Yeah, I do think [postseason expansion] is a good idea. Do I ever think it’s going to be 16 teams? No, I don’t. We have always had a very selective postseason, and I think one of the factors that will go into the judgment of exactly how many teams we expand to is our desire to maintain that selectivity.”
Still, as Manfred is well aware, his penchant for innovation and his willingness to press for change as he deems necessary have led to accusations from traditionalists that he doesn’t love the sport — or doesn’t love it enough. It is an accusation that rankles Manfred, who grew up a New York Yankees fan.
“When I talk about changing the game, it’s not because I don’t love the game,” he said. “It’s because I do love the game.”
The profound challenges facing Manfred and the sport won’t end with the final out of the World Series. The industry has taken a major financial hit this year without the income from ticket sales, parking and concessions, and many teams instituted layoffs and furloughs. Manfred said the “economic challenges in the coming years” will be “truly unprecedented.”
“Look, 2020 will be, when it all shakes out, economically devastating to the clubs,” he said. “We’ll lose around $3 billion in cash this year. That’s a lot of money. We will come out with an additional $2 billion in debt, all of which needs to be serviced.”
At the same time, the recent sale of the New York Mets to Steve Cohen (pending approval by MLB’s 29 other owners) and the broadcast rights extension with Turner Sports are signs of solid economic underpinnings for the sport.
“There are bright spots,” Manfred said. “The Turner deal was an improvement of where we have been, and that’s a great thing. And I hope we find more of it. I think the idea that people have enough faith in the game to invest the kind of money that Steve Cohen’s willing to invest to buy the Mets is another positive sign. But the environment, the media landscape, particularly at the local level, is very, very different than it was in the past.”
Given an opportunity to respond to Manfred’s characterization of the sport’s financial health, union leaders, through a spokesperson, declined.
The next year-plus could see a worsening of baseball’s labor relations, with many in the industry predicting a shrinking of team payrolls this winter, which would limit players’ earning potential. Manfred declined to answer a question about those issues, saying, “I don’t think me speculating about what’s going to happen in the player market is helpful to our relationship with the union or helpful to how that market is going to develop.”
Looming further in the distance, though drawing ever nearer, is a potentially combustible negotiation with the union for a new labor agreement, with the current one expiring at the end of 2021. Some in the game are treating a work stoppage heading into 2022 as a fait accompli.
There is still the matter, of course, of the 2021 season, with little certainty about where the United States will be in its fight against the coronavirus. That clouds whatever vision Manfred might have for how the sport will look next spring and summer.
“I’m going to quote my friend [NBA Commissioner] Adam Silver on this one: What 2021 looks like is going to be determined by the course of the virus,” Manfred said. “We hope we will be in a more normal operating environment, that we open [camps] up come February 20 and there will be fans in Florida and Arizona and fans in ballparks. But I just don’t have a crystal ball that’s good enough to tell you. It depends on what happens with the virus.”
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