The Problems Baseball’s Next Commissioner Will Face

Injuries like the one Buster Posey suffered are a Commissioner's worst nightmare  (via Eugene Kim).

Injuries like the one Buster Posey suffered are a Commissioner’s worst nightmare (via Eugene Kim).

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is retiring in 2014 — and this time he probably means it. Of course, Selig is famous for saying that he won’t stay in the job and then doing the opposite. In Andrew Zimbalist’s book “In the Best Interests of Baseball,” the author notes that Selig, shortly after becoming interim commissioner in 1992, told his wife, “It’s two to four months, not more. Don’t worry about it.” He was off by only 22 years or so.

But Selig will turn 80 this month. This time everyone is taking him seriously, and people inside and outside Major League Baseball are contemplating a future with someone else in charge. Selig is the ninth commissioner in league history; only baseball’s first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, held the job longer. Selig is the first who was a former owner and the fourth who came from within the sport, following Ford Frick and Bart Giamatti, who had been National League presidents, and Fay Vincent, who had been Giamatti’s deputy when Giamatti died of a heart attack. The next commissioner may not need to look exactly like Selig, but will need to possess some of the same gifts.

Selig had a few advantages over his predecessors. He had pre-existing relationships with other owners because he used to be one, which proved crucial. Frick was a weak commissioner, likely chosen because the owners correctly surmised that he would not attempt to exert his authority over them in the way that Judge Landis used to do. He was first and foremost a fan. Vincent was handicapped because he lacked a mandate from the beginning: Giamatti had died so suddenly that the owners did not conduct a real search for a new commissioner, and so Vincent had little sway.

Selig knew the other owners and knew exactly how to persuade them. “Bud Selig is, in fact, a remarkably talented small-group politician,” said Vincent, in a phone interview. “He’s like Rocky Marciano — he’s undefeated in the political game.”

Many fans have a negative view of Selig, but there can be no doubt that he has left the game in far better shape financially than he found it. Thanks to lucrative local television deals and the remarkable success of MLB Advanced Media, baseball is overflowing with money.

Perhaps just as importantly, Selig has presided over the most remarkable period of labor peace in American professional sports. The crippling 1994 strike capped a 22-year period that saw five strikes and three lockouts. Since then, baseball has had 20 years of labor peace, while each of the other three major leagues has struggled with work stoppages. The NBA and NHL have each lost huge portions of multiple seasons, including a canceled NHL season in 2004-2005; a referee lockout in the NFL in 2013 made the league a laughingstock for a month. That all adds up to serious lost business.

So what lies ahead, and what should the next commissioner look like? I talked to experts in various aspects of the business of baseball, including the former commissioner. They all agreed that while Selig has left the league in very good health, his successor will be beset by myriad challenges, from health to labor, and they all believed that baseball either would or should tap an insider for the position.

“What’s required, at the top of the list, is the ability to create alignment among the 30 independent ownership groups,” says Vince Gennaro, the president of SABR. “My perception is he (Selig) did it on his longstanding relationships and trust he had built up with individual owners.”

Moreover, by aligning the owners, he was able to find common ground with players. Eugene Freedman, an occasional contributor to The Hardball Times who is counsel at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, observes, “From a historical labor relations perspective, through the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s, baseball was trying to grow profits by reducing costs, and the primary cost is labor. Selig, to his credit, in the mid-’90s, decided he was going to increase profits through growing revenues.” This only works as long as the business keeps growing, however. Selig’s successor will need to have credibility with both owners and players, and he or she will need to keep the business growing.

Selig’s preferred choice for his successor is MLB Chief Operating Officer Rob Manfred, The New York Times has reported. Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf voiced objections to what he viewed as a Selig plan to anoint Manfred without first conducting a serious search, but Major League Baseball is out of the habit of searching for a new commissioner: the last person to be chosen by search was Peter Ueberroth in 1984, the former chairman of the 1980 1984 Los Angeles Olympics whose baseball career collapsed amid a collusion lawsuit.

It is hard to imagine that an outsider could possess anything like the powers of persuasion that an insider might possess, and it is difficult to think of a baseball insider better positioned than Manfred, who has served as baseball’s chief negotiator in labor negotiations. “I’m not of the camp that you leave an awful lot on the table by not considering external candidates,” says Gennaro. “In many situations it would be logical. I’m not sure in this case that it is, if it takes that much longer to gain trust.”

But that is a long way from saying that Manfred has Selig’s advantages. Selig was his fellow owners’ peer, while Manfred has always been their employee. And while baseball is in good shape now, the next commissioner will face complicated challenges.

1) Economics and Labor

Baseball players still have the strongest union in the country, and few have forgotten that the league has endured eight work stoppages in the last four decades. The most important part of the next commissioner’s job will be to get the owners to agree with the players on their terms of employment.

That has been relatively easy to accomplish in the last 20 years of revenue growth, but there are warning signs. “The economics of the sport are very strong,” says FanGraphs baseball writer Wendy Thurm, “despite somewhat flat attendance, despite falling national ratings.” This is because of the incredibly lucrative local television deals that many teams have signed, capped by the $7 billion deal that Fox Sports Time Warner Cable signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

But she sounds a cautionary note. “Is the cable sports boom, regional sports networks, going to bust? And if so, how and when? We’re at the first year of the new eight-year national TV deals, but we could end up in a system with much bigger haves and have-nots.”

Moreover, for the first time in its history, the players association is being led by a former player, Tony Clark. Eugene Freedman, the labor attorney, thinks that some owners may view this as an opportunity. “The owners may see some weakness here: it’s the first time the players association isn’t being led by a labor professional, either a lawyer or an economist,” says Freedman. “Obviously, his experience at bargaining table is limited, but (that) doesn’t mean that he’ll be the lead negotiator, either.” While the union will undoubtedly retain lawyers and Clark will not be alone at the table, any perceived weakness could destabilize the current labor equilibrium.

Maintaining equilibrium is a strong point in Manfred’s favor. “Baseball is a $7-8 billion business; it’s booming,” says Vincent. “Everyone is doing terrifically well, and the union is the pivotal player. Rob Manfred is the acknowledged expert on the union negotiations. I think if you’re an owner today, you want things to go just about the way they are.”

2) Technology

Many direct applications of instant replay have been criticized, but the refinement of call review will only expand, and eventually some calls may be taken out of the umpires’ hands altogether, as with the use of the Hawk-Eye system in tennis. “I think at some point it’s inevitable that technology will be perfected to get ball and strike calls, rather than just overturning or confirming a call,” says Ben Jedlovec, vice president at Baseball Info Solutions.

New technology usually faces a coordination problem: collectively, it is to the benefit of everyone in baseball for technology to be as good as possible, but individually, the different parties have competing incentives. The umpires union will surely fight automatic ball and strike calls. And teams will struggle between the desire to have proprietary data and the desire to have better systems — like PITCHf/x, FIELDf/x, HITf/x, and whatever comes next — available in all 30 stadiums. If it’s available to everyone, it can’t be a competitive advantage. But the alternative is inferior information.

Thus far, baseball has managed to forestall an all-out umpires’ insurrection by insisting that calls can be reviewed on challenge, but all decisions will ultimately be made by umpires. This makes sense politically, but not technologically. Every baseball fan watching television can see an overlay of the strike zone and can see whether the umpire got it wrong. In the end, if the justification for allowing video replay was to make sure to get the call right, once the technology gets good enough, that argument could be used to replace many calls that are currently made by umpire.

Eventually, as Jedlovec notes, it is likely that many within baseball will begin to push for ball/strike calls to be automated, and to make the same argument with regard to boundary plays like determinations of whether a ball was fair or foul or whether a ball was a home run or stayed in the park. Whenever baseball decides to replace video replay with automatic calls, the umpire’s union can be expected to object strongly. Baseball’s next labor fight may involve umpires rather than players.

3) Gaining New Young Fans

A Harris Poll released in January 2014 contained a telling statistic: when asked to name their favorite sport, 35 percent of adults said football while only 14 percent said baseball.

That 20-point gap between the gridiron game and America’s national pastime took only 20 years to build: in 1985, 24 percent answered baseball and 23 percent said football. In 2005, 33 percent said football and 14 percent said baseball. Young sports fans are significantly more likely to be football fans, and less likely to be baseball fans, than they were 30 years ago.

“That may go with the posture baseball takes toward families,” says Gennaro. “One of the benefits baseball has is that, of the pro sports, it is priced for the family. How do you make it more so?”

In fact, according to data from Team Marketing Report, baseball tickets are cheaper, on average, than tickets for any of the other three professional sports — generally by a factor of 50 percent or more. The average major league baseball ticket is $27.93, compared to $52.50 for the NBA, $61.62 for the NHL, and $81.54 for the NFL.

Yet ticket prices are a relatively minor portion of the fan experience. A stadium might hold 50,000 fans, but many hundreds of thousands more will watch the game on television or on their app. So baseball will need to make sure that its product is compelling enough to keep those fans watching. That will require hard thinking about rules changes to speed up the game and continued outreach to young students across the United States and Latin America who have trouble affording the cost of playing prep baseball.

Put simply, a major investment — in marketing, outreach, scholarships, and flow of the game — will be necessary to ensure that baseball draws a new generation of young fans, who in a generation will grow into adult fans with disposable income.

“Grow the game with younger fans, increase the number of young people who are interested in baseball,” says Jedlovec. “That is something that would not have an immediate impact, but something that all 30 teams would benefit from,” he says. “If it’s growing nationally and internationally, that’s going to help everyone in the long run.”

4) Health

The most discussed current health issue for the sport is the Tommy John surgery epidemic, but other health issues may well arise in coming years, just as concussions became an issue in all sports in recent years, leading to baseball’s successful introduction of the seven-day concussion DL.

This year has seen two experiments to try to limit a few of the more gruesome injuries of recent years. Rules against catchers blocking the plate are intended to prevent the kind of injuries that occur when runners bowl over catchers at the plate, as with Buster Posey’s season-ending injury in 2011. And San Diego Padres pitcher Alex Torres became the first pitcher to wear a padded cap on the mound, as a defense against the line drive-induced concussion that felled his former teammate Alex Cobb.

But elbow surgeries are a serious crisis for a sport that has seen many of its biggest pitching stars go under the knife in recent years.

Hardball Times contributors Jeff Zimmerman and Jon Roegele put together a master list, identifying 755 Tommy John surgeries on major league pitchers since Frank Jobe pioneered the operation on the pitcher of that name in 1974. The acceleration by year is staggering. A quarter of those surgeries have occurred since 2012 — and the 2014 season is barely half over. More than half have occurred since 2008.

Zimmerman also punctures a few of the myths regarding the surgery. First, “Tommy John surgery doesn’t help a pitcher increase velocity.” And second, it isn’t foolproof, as he notes, “One out of every five pitchers who have the surgery just aren’t able to make it back.”

“For all of the progress we’ve made,” says Jedlovec, “to my knowledge, there’s been very little made on the injury prevention front.” He adds:

I don’t think any individual team’s effort is going to get there, whether it’s finding new ways to track injuries, measuring strength of individual fibers in a pitcher’s arm, elbow strength, shoulder strength, biomechanical markers… even down to college teams and high school, to track through their pitchers’ lifetime.

Ultimately, as Jedlovec explains, Major League Baseball will have little success preventing elbow surgeries at the major league level unless serious changes are made in high school and college. Preventing elbow overuse is like preventing steroid use, and MLB will need to take a similarly holistic approach to protecting kids’ arms.

“A 12-year-old throwing 100 pitches on Thursday for one team and then another 100 on Saturday is wrong,” writes Zimmerman. “If MLB pitchers can’t do it, why should 12-year-olds?”

5) Globalization

“Are we going to be able to export America’s game?” asks Gennaro. “Is there a business model that allows Major League Baseball — I don’t know if it makes sense, but — to participate in the growth of the game globally?” I’ve written about Selig’s pursuit of an international draft, an issue the next commissioner will inherit. The World Baseball Classic has been a modest success to date, though the loss of baseball at the Olympics was a slap in the face. For baseball to continue to grow its revenue, it will want to find ways to continue to expand the game globally.

Of course, those are just the issues on the immediate horizon. In 1998, no one could have predicted that in less than a decade, baseball would be confronted by Congressional outrage over steroid use, or that in a decade and a half, baseball would be thrust into a new deadball era in which the biggest anguish was an epidemic of elbow surgeries. The next commissioner will need to react quickly, and to persuade owners, players, and umpires to agree. And, of course, if the baseball economy turns south — if television revenues fall badly and nothing rises to replace them, as has happened throughout much of the rest of the television industry — then the new commissioner may be forced to preside thanklessly over the misery of contraction.

“In the business world, what worked 10 years ago used to have a good chance of working in five years. We’re not in that world anymore,” says Gennaro. “I think the stakes are high.”

References & Resources

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.
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87 Cards
9 years ago

Well-analyzed and discussed article…I have admired the Selig administration’s ability to stabilize the business of baseball and grow the game in the Digital Age…Those bona-fides stated, I feel “Oakland Stadium/San Jose market/SF Giants territory” deserves its own heading and I am interested to see how the new Commish and the MLB owners prioritize the A’s stadium situation….Another fire for the new guy: will MLB attempt to influence the exploitation of young Latin players by street agents?

9 years ago

A new commissioner could also have to deal with a deadbeat ownership group in the nation’s biggest market.

9 years ago

Why not give away the app and include commercials? Watching “This game is in commercial break” is almost as bad as ads. The asinine blackout rules have to go if MLB wants to draw in a younger market.

Mark L
9 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

I’m a subscriber to from the UK, and I remember 4-5 years ago they had adverts – for the MLB shop, for ump school, that sort of thing. I tend to skip the adverts anyway (jump to the next AB) so it’s not an issue, but I imagine just putting adverts in that space would be preferable to some people than 2 minutes of silence.

9 years ago
Reply to  BryanH

I agree entirely on the blackout rules. I was a huge fan when I was growing up and continue to follow the local team, but I refuse to pay for Cable just to watch baseball. Consequently, my three kids have virtually no exposure to baseball and won’t for a while.

While tying baseball to cable was great for revenue short term, making it difficult to watch the game will sharply decrease interest in future generations.

Marc Schneider
9 years ago

Great article Alex. I think the point about losing younger fans is important but what needs to be addressed is why the game itself does not appeal to younger viewers. I think one, if not the primary reason, is the pace of the game. It’s just too slow. The games last too long, especially playoff games, which should be the game’s showcase. It’s agonizing watching pitchers shake off signs and wait and wait to throw a pitch like they are afraid. Or to watch hitters step out of the box continually to adjust their gloves while ostensibly thinking about how to approach the at-bat. Baseball needs to make players play. Enforce a time clock. Limit the number of pitching changes in an inning (by requiring pitchers to face more than one hitter, which would eliminate LOOGYs). Peyton Manning doesn’t get extra time between plays just because it’s a crucial moment in the game; why should baseball players get extra time just because it’s a critical moment?

The fact is, too, that sabermetrics has something to do with the slow pace, by encouraging hitters to take pitches. This, no doubt, is good strategy but slows the game down and makes it more difficult to watch.

There are probably a lot better solutions than the ones I’ve come up with. The point is, I don’t think you have any way of getting younger viewers if you don’t make the game less of a chore to watch.

9 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

“The fact is, too, that sabermetrics has something to do with the slow pace, by encouraging hitters to take pitches. This, no doubt, is good strategy but slows the game down and makes it more difficult to watch.”

I’m not sure where to start with this, but I think I would find my favorite team purposefully ignoring good strategy in favor of a faster game much more unwatchable. “Sabermetrics” doesn’t encourage hitters to take pitchers, winning baseball does, and I want to watch my team win.

9 years ago
Reply to  Paul

Baseball games go by plenty fast. The rest of you should slow down. Sorry, I’m old and grumpy, but catering to the attention spans of gnats isn’t something I want to see. My five year old can sit through most of a ballgame if I keep her mildly entertained in between the action and she has minimal understanding of what’s going on. Yes, games can drag and there’s a lot of nothing going on to the casual observer, but that’s the fault of the announcers and producers not knowing how to fill the blanks.

Most of them try to explain what’s going on or make it sound more exciting. If it wasn’t exciting before you started pulling statistics out of a hat, you’re really not helping by telling me Bobby Joe hits to the right side 38% of the time on Tuesdays with an overcast sky. And if I do care, I can look that up myself. Tell a story. Talk about something completely unrelated. I can’t tell you how many pitching changes I happily sat through as a kid while Phil Rizzuto (RIP Scooter) went on about a cannoli he had on the way to the park. Entertain. It’s your job. You’re not on tv to be a statistician.

9 years ago
Reply to  Paul

I misremember plenty, but what’s a half hour here or there? If I watched a twelve inning game for 3.5 hours in ’78, why would I care that I’m watching a 3.5 hour 9 inning game in ’14? If you’ve got something better to do with your time, by all means, go off and do it. If you need me, I’ll be on the couch watching baseball.

Shawn Young
9 years ago
Reply to  Paul

@Hopbitters: the issue is that not only are games longer, they are night games. So if parents of a 6-8-10 year old kid wants to take him to the park, or let him watch on TV, 7pm starts used to be over by 9, 9:30. Now it’s 10pm-plus. For my Sawx, with Big Papi getting undressed and redressed between pitches, it’s 10:30, 11, or later.

Glad you like the existing product, but this article is about growing the game. Kids-and-schoolnights are an issue, like it or not.

9 years ago
Reply to  Paul

Kids and schoolnights (or worknights) are nothing new. I’ve had to leave games early because I had an early meeting the next morning. I once missed a glorious 9th inning comeback capped by a walkoff HR. It didn’t make me stop watching baseball. It made me stop accepting early meetings. You gotta have priorities. As a kid in CT, I never saw the end of any of the night games on the west coast. And yet, here I still am.

I’m not (quite) so stuck in the past that I don’t think the game needs to grow, but I’m not convinced that the length and pace of the game are the fundamental issue. I could be completely wrong, but I still think it’s an issue of perception and presentation. The game has been around in some form for through multiple centuries, changing dramatically along the way, as has society, through multiple world wars, depressions, recessions, insurrections, and 8 billion other forms of distraction and entertainment. I just don’t buy that after all that, the sport is doomed by our collective attention spans and other obligations.

Telling people that the game needs to speed up is the same thing as telling them that it’s boring. You don’t speed up things you enjoy. You slow them down. Do you get spam mail for pills making sex go by faster? There’s a reason for that. If you entertain fans between pitches, nobody will care how long the game lasts. At the ballpark, that should be plenty covered by food, drink, mascots, friends, fellow fans, scorecards, scoreboards, organists, etc. On tv and radio, it’s the role of the announcers and producers.

J. Henry Waugh
9 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Sabermetrics causing hitters to take pitches thus slowing the game….bunk….I remember Harry Caray imploring in his unique way hitters to take a pitch over 25 years ago.

Mark L
9 years ago
Reply to  J. Henry Waugh

I would love the game to be sped up a little. Any moves in that direction would definitely help the game.

8 years ago
Reply to  J. Henry Waugh


Teve Torbes
9 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Agree 100% with the metrics comment. Not only w/r/t batters extending at-bats as long as possible, but also with the surge in defensive shifts. Longer games and declining offense…awesome!

More than anything, Selig has the advent of the DVR to thank. Networks have been willing to pay through the nose for so-called “appointment TV,” even if it gets ratings as crappy as MLB’s. That ain’t gonna last, especially if cord-cutting takes hold. (And, for the sake of consumers, I hope it does.) I think the Dodgers-DirecTV dispute could prove to be a Waterloo in this regard.

The labor peace et al are the direct result of the insane TV deals, which Selig can’t claim credit for.

Sam Hutcheson
9 years ago

I read topic #3 as “Gaining Neil Young Fans” and thought “that’s silly, most of those guys will be dead soon.”

9 years ago
Reply to  Sam Hutcheson

It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.

9 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

I hear you. He’s probably #2 to Mark Knopfler on the all-time guitar-quality/vocal-quality ratio list.

9 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

Good one – blends Young’s irritating quality with Knopfler’s lack of pitch recognition or range. Sort of Lou Reed with plus-plus guitar skills.

9 years ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

I always thought Hendrix was pretty high on the guitar/voice quality ratio (tz needs to come up with a snazzy name for his new metric). His voice doesn’t bother me for the most part, but it’s pretty rough in comparison to the guitar work. Knopfler’s voice never struck me as that bad, but I like Neil’s voice, so I guess I’m just weird (reason #854). If I were to pick a king of g/v, though, it’d have to be Eric Johnson.

Guy Incognito
9 years ago

Chewing tobacco needs to go.

9 years ago
Reply to  Guy Incognito

Good call.

9 years ago

I believe the Dodgers’ TV deal is with Time Warner Cable and not Fox Sports.

9 years ago

A nitpick: Ueberroth ran the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The 1980 Olympics were held in Moscow.

9 years ago

Does the commissioner have any say on expansion? Montreal? Portlandia? Viva Las Vegas? Charlotte? Nashville/Memphis? San Antonio? Vancouver?

Herby Smith
9 years ago

Sabermetrics HAVE encouraged teams to drag out at-bats, and to use shifts, and LOOGYS, and many of the other time-stretching ills. However, this is certainly not the fault of sabermetrically-inclined team. The RULES need changing.

Herby Smith
9 years ago

The new commish cannot be a slave to antiquated rules. I love baseball history, and I love the traditions…but not at the expense of the game itself.

When any of the other 3 major sports have a crisis with someone exploiting the rules, they simply change the freaking rules! Examples: not long ago, NFL defensive backs brutalized receivers, and NFL pass-rushers were allowed to tee-off on QB’s. What resulted was obvious; it was real hard to pass the ball/most passes were short drop-offs/the game’s most exciting play (the long bomb) became nearly extinct/the most recognizable stars in the sport (the QB’s) spent huge amounts of time not playing at all, because of constant injuries. So they simply changed the rules.

In the NHL, when the NJ Devils won 3 Stanley Cups by intelligently exploiting the rules (with the neutral zone trap), it slowed down the game, drastically reduced scoring, and make hockey nearly unwatchable. The people who run the NHL are no geniuses, but even they were smart enough to realize that the rules needed to be changed.

Tweaking the rules to make a sport more exciting, more fan-friendly, and more enjoyable to watch…what a concept! NONE of the rules of baseball are written on stone tablets; if things are not working, CHANGE them, so that they work.

Some easy, obvious, immediate changes:

1- Make the batter stay in the batter’s box
2- Make the pitcher throw the ball quickly
3-One pitching change per inning (or make it so that relievers must face at least 5 batters).
4-Intentional walk = 2 bases
5-Limit the number of throws over to 1st base
6-Limit the number of “mound conferences”

Will some people complain? Of course. Who the hell cares? People are still arguing about the DH, and that’s been in place for over 40 years.

If the new commissioner is a “status-quo guy,” then baseball’s fans will continue to find other entertainment. We need someone who has the guts to address these flaws.

9 years ago
Reply to  Herby Smith

In addition to making batters stay in the box, I’d support adding radio headsets to helmets like in the NFL, for the 3rd base coach or manager to relay the signs much more efficiently to all of the runners and batter.

Limiting throws to first would lead to an increase in successful base stealers, not a bad outcome in my book, and it would add a few more exciting plays per game.

I see nothing wrong with adding a 15-second or so pitch clock to the backstop, although it may give runners even more of an advantage on timing their jumps.

9 years ago

As far as globalising the game goes, I’d be interested to know what proportion of At Bat/ subscribers are from outside the USA. I’m from the UK and have an At Bat subscription, and some games are televised over here (but not any any major channel), but MLB hasn’t seen anything like the growth that the NFL has here, and from what I’ve noticed less than the NBA and probably the NHL.
One major downside to attempting to follow baseball here is the game times – tonight, for instance, the earliest starts are at just after midnight. I cleverly chose the Padres as my team, whose weekday home game typically start around 3am.

Jay Stokes
9 years ago

Better balance in team resources seems to me like a key topic. Baseball remains the only major sport without salary caps and material revenue sharing. Until that is fixed, fans in smaller market teams can, correctly, feel the deck is stacked against them.

8 years ago
Reply to  Jay Stokes

One word- Royals.