It’s Time For An Independent Commissioner In Baseball

It’s Time For An Independent Commissioner In Baseball
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MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.
Elsa via Getty Images

There’s something about baseball in March, about spring training in Florida and Arizona.

Yes, it’s a sign the new season is near. And it also means warming temperatures for us northerners. But I think it’s also the game’s nostalgia and traditions that grab us in a way that preseason camps in football and basketball don’t.

There’s also a stronger connection between generations in baseball than there is in football and basketball.

As such, baseball might be the only industry that’s better off when few changes are made to it. In fact, the game is more of a cherished cultural practice than it is a business. The history of the leagues, franchises, sacred records and rituals is all part of baseball’s strong charm – and yes, brand.

Unfortunately, protecting a sacred trust is down the list of baseball owners’ priorities. They are driven by a profit-at-all-costs (PAAC) mindset that isn’t in the best interests of the game, or its fans.

That’s why we need an independent baseball commissioner, not an owners’ mouthpiece, as Bud Selig and Rob Manfred have been.

Baseball is a cultural institution, a “quasi‑public utility,” as commentator George Will has called it.

As such, baseball needs a commissioner selected by all baseball stakeholders, including the fans. As longtime baseball executive Bob Howsam once said, “Everybody talks about the issues from the viewpoint of the players, or from the standpoint of the owners, but nobody talks about the issues from the viewpoint of the fans. It’s the fans’ game. They pay the freight.”

Economist Gary Roberts has said, “The commissioner should not simply be a CEO for the owners, but rather should be empowered to act in the best interests of the game, which means taking into account and balancing the interests of owners, players, communities and fans.”

Roberts suggested a rule, perhaps legislatively imposed, that requires the commissioner be approved by a panel made up of representatives of the owners, players, and fans. Removal of the commissioner before his/her term would require approval by the same panel.

Fans definitely need a voice beyond what they are supposedly getting from their federal politicians. To assume federal politicians will conscientiously represent their constituents is naive. For years, federal politicians have stood on the sidelines, in effect protecting the owners’ interests (by allowing baseball’s antitrust exemption to stand among other things). Meanwhile, their constituents, the fans, have watched owners damage the game time and time again through actions exhibiting shortsighted self‑interest.

Another economist, Andrew Zimbalist, has suggested that any baseball legislation stipulate that a baseball commissioner never come from the baseball industry, in any role, for a designated period, for example, five years—the objective being to limit political influence and enhance the commissioner’s independence.

No argument there.

Among the independent commissioner’s many roles would be to play an arbitrator‑type role in maintaining the “integrity of the game,” making decisions in the best interests of baseball and its stakeholders. (NOTE: The long-standing “best interests of baseball” clause was removed from the baseball commissioner’s powers by MLB owners after they fired Fay Vincent as commissioner.)

Funding for this new independent commissioner’s office could come from a type of central baseball fund.

It is proposed here that a surcharge be applied to all baseball stakeholders—for example, owners, players, umpires, and fans. Owners’, players’ and umpires’ contributions could be derived from dues paid to a central fund. Fans could contribute via a surcharge applied directly to the cost of a game ticket.

Ultimately, the United States’ baseball commissioner could work with sports commissions of other nations with an eventual goal of a true “World Series” for baseball, similar to the World Cup in soccer. (No, the current World Baseball Classic doesn’t qualify in this regard.)

To summarize, here are some general guidelines regarding how this independent baseball commissioner could work: (a) The commissioner would be selected by a panel representing owners, players, umpires, administrators, fans and possibly, communities. The commissioner would have a non-renewable ten-year term. This would allow for the infusion of some fresh ideas into MLB on an every decade basis. (b) The commissioner could not come from the baseball industry, in any role, for five years—to limit influence and enhance the commissioner’s independence. (c) The commissioner’s overarching duty would be to maintain the integrity of the game. He/She would also serve in an arbitrator‑type role for disputes. (d) Unlike today, in which the commissioner is paid by the owners to be their CEO, the new commissioner’s office would be funded through a special levy on all groups represented on the selection panel.

The fans, and the game itself, would benefit from an independent commissioner.

And, from a long-term perspective, if the game’s healthy, and the fans are happy, the owners and players would also benefit.

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