By Michael Levitt
Around the middle of January, former Cubs President of Baseball Operations and Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein signed on with the Commissioner’s Office as a consultant. Epstein will use analytics and work with experts to figure out the impact new rules would have on baseball. This could potentially set him up to have a big role in the league office going forward, if not becoming the commissioner at some point.
Even after getting Epstein to sign on, Commissioner Rob Manfred has continued to overhaul the league office with people who have spent years in and around the game. He brought in former players Raul Ibañez, Rajai Davis, Joe Martinez and Ken Griffey Jr., along with Michael Hill and Bo Porter, who have been in the front office and dugout of teams, respectively.
Doing this is partly an effort by Manfred to replace former pitcher Chris Young, who was the Senior Vice President for on-field operations before leaving to become the Texas Rangers’ General Manager. Young’s position will be filled by Ibañez and Hill, with Davis, Martinez and Porter filling other roles in the operations department. Davis and Ibañez were both around as players for a long time, as was Griffey Jr., so they have seen the way the game has changed over that time period, which means they probably have some good ideas for how to improve it and make it more marketable to the younger generations.
Griffey Jr. will have a special role as a league advisor to Manfred while focusing mainly on making the game appeal more to younger generations. Griffey Jr. will be an ambassador for kids across the country, making sure they are enjoying their time playing the national pastime and can have a future in the game if they want it.
All these new faces helping the commissioner also bring a fresh perspective to the league office. Manfred never played or coached, although there are others in the Commissioner’s Office who did, so having people around him who have played, coached and worked in the front office of teams could give Manfred more insight as to the effects of new rules or rule changes and how young people might perceive them.
These moves made by Manfred could be a rebranding effort to make the league look better. Manfred has not been held in high esteem by most fans, who think he is doing too much to appease the owners and not enough to the players’ liking. Some of his decisions have been received poorly by fans, like the rules put in place last year for pitchers’ three-batter minimum and a runner starting at second base in extra innings. His handling of the pandemic did not get good marks from most fans either, especially with the Justin Turner situation in the last game of the World Series.
Many people around the game of baseball are preparing for a standoff next offseason between the Players’ Association and the league office/owners. The Collective Bargaining Agreement is due to expire after the coming season, and each side seems unwilling to compromise on key issues, such as the universal designated hitter and expanded playoffs.
On Monday night, the two sides reportedly agreed on the health and safety protocols for the 2021 season, which keeps in place some of the rules initiated last season. The reported agreement is a good sign for the season to start on time, although the game may look a little different since the league decided to make the baseballs that are used “less bouncy,” which would reduce offense. It is possible that the Players’ Association and the league office/owners could come to a separate deal before Opening Day that brings back the universal designated hitter and expanded playoffs, but there has been no reports that they are talking about a deal yet.
The coming season will be different from a normal 162-game season. It is still the middle of a pandemic, so there are precautions that need to be taken, and the league is trying to gain more respect from fans and people around the game at the same time. If the right steps are not taken this season, there may not be a season next year because it would be harder for the Players’ Association and the league office/owners to come to a consensus on the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Everyone involved must proceed carefully but be decisive at the same time. It is a tough situation, but one that is very real. The future could be in the balance.
Edited by Emma Moloney