I Was Supposed to Write About Elly De La Cruz Today

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

I was supposed to write about Elly De La Cruz. The Reds’ 21-year-old rookie shortstop has taken the baseball world by storm during his two-week major league career. He’s as fast, as powerful as any player has ever been, and by all accounts, he is a star in the making. He could be the Julio Rodríguez of Oneil Cruzes.

Instead, Rob Manfred addressed the media after a scheduled owners’ meeting in New York. When the commissioner addresses the media, at best there’s a tense verbal interplay between reporters and a subject who’s either unable or unwilling to reveal the whole truth. It’s the Socratic equivalent of the dance-fighting from West Side Story. At worst, Dan Le Batard pulls Manfred’s pants down over the phone.

Manfred’s performance on Thursday was closer to the latter than the former. So now, instead of talking about a re-energized game being bolstered by an influx of prodigious young talent, we’re talking about Rob Manfred. That’s never a good place to start.

The story of the week in baseball has been the near-finalization of the Oakland Athletics’ long-prophesied move to Las Vegas. In just the past few days, the Nevada state legislature debated and approved a public funding package that would pave the way for a new stadium. Meanwhile, fans back in California staged a downright inspiring sit-in at the Coliseum, a tour de force of passion and solidarity seen all too rarely in American sports. (Evan Drellich of The Athletic compiled Manfred’s comments on the Oakland situation here; all the quotes below come from that source unless stated otherwise.)

On his and the owners’ feelings about the Athletics’ move, here is what Manfred offered:

I think that the real question is, what is it that Oakland was prepared to do? There is no Oakland offer, OK? They never got to a point where they had a plan to build a stadium at any site. And it’s not just John Fisher. You don’t build a stadium based on the club activity alone. The community has to provide support and you know, at some point, you come to the realization, it’s just not going to happen.

It takes a special level of audacity to blame the fans and the city when it was Fisher who drove them away, Fisher who allowed the Coliseum to fall into disrepair, and Fisher who walked away from stadium negotiations that had been ongoing since time immemorial. The office of Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao, who attended the protest Tuesday evening, issued a public rebuttal to Manfred within minutes. It began, “This is just totally false.”

The protest itself, which went largely un-remarked upon by league-owned media despite dominating baseball news generally, also came up. Manfred’s comment:

It’s great to see what is, this year, almost an average Major League Baseball crowd in the facility for one night. That’s a great thing.

Sarcasm is certainly one way to go; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, for instance, often deflects public criticism by mockingly inviting it. Public speaking has never been one of Manfred’s gifts, which ought to be fine because, all things considered, it’s a small part of the job. But his response here reminds me of the day he announced the cancellation of a week of games near the end of the 2021-22 lockout. Manfred, joking about the imminent retirement of New York Post journalist Ken Davidoff, smiled and chuckled for a few seconds.

It was harmless, even collegial, in isolation. But the takeaway for the national viewing audience was that the man who’d just canceled a week of the MLB regular season was laughing about it on television. Manfred’s sarcastic response here is further evidence that reading the room is a weakness for him. “Not charismatic enough to pull off Gary Bettman’s shtick,” is a heavy charge, I realize, and I don’t make it lightly.

Manfred also took a question about the overwhelming academic consensus that public subsidies for stadium construction almost never deliver the promised economic benefits. Here he is on that issue:

I love academics, they’re great. I think, take the areas where baseball stadiums have been built, OK? Look at what was around Truist Park before that was built. Look at the area around Nationals Park before it was built. I lived in that city. You know, academics can say whatever they want. I think the reality tells you something else.

This is somewhere between a lie, an obfuscation, and a statement of total indifference. I’m not sure which. Don’t like an academic consensus based on decades of research and dozens of case studies? Dismiss it. Those eggheads will say anything.

Most of the questions at Thursday’s press conference dealt with the A’s, which fits with the news of the moment. But even after mocking or lying about A’s fans, the local government of Oakland, the taxpayers of Las Vegas, academics, and social science in general, Manfred had contempt to spare.

Over the past few years, the issue of gay and trans rights has captivated political elites throughout the English-speaking world, including, for our purposes, in the United States. Not content to live and let live, right-wing anti-gay and anti-trans activists — aided by the limitless credulity of too many gullible centrists — have set out on a campaign to erase queer people from public life.

This ghost has haunted MLB before, most notably last year when five Rays players removed Pride logos from their uniforms. Since then, similar protests littered the NHL season that just ended, while the Dodgers caved to pressure from Senator Marco Rubio and groups like the Catholic League and briefly disinvited the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an organization responsible for decades of charitable work within the gay community, from their Pride Night. (The Dodgers since reversed course and re-invited the Sisters to the event, which takes place this evening.)

Manfred took a question on whether the league would standardize Pride celebrations across the league. He gave an answer worthy of James Buchanan, reported by Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post:

We have told teams, in terms of actual uniforms, hats, bases that we don’t think putting logos on them is a good idea just because of the desire to protect players: not putting them in a position of doing something that may make them uncomfortable because of their personal views.

Comparisons to the various military appreciation events are easy to draw — God knows you can turn to a random page in the MLB schedule and find a pretext for wearing camouflage caps and socks — but ill-considered. What would the league do if a player refused to wear a military appreciation uniform? We’ll never know, because in the arena in which big American corporations operate, it is a precondition of political participation to accept — or even to praise — the militarization of our society. It is not a precondition of political participation to accept — or even tolerate — queer people’s right to live openly without fear of harm.

I would argue that when a marginalized social group faces systematized eliminationist threats and legal discrimination (such as is seen in Florida), the moral difference between neutrality and complicity is close to nil. But as much as some of us might want Manfred and his benefactors to take up a position reflecting this emergency, they are disinclined to do so.

Major League Baseball needs little provocation to tout its place in American history, whether that’s ballplayers fighting in World War II, the league’s role in ending de jure segregation through Jackie Robinson, or its return to play in New York after 9/11. But if MLB had ever been a driver of social change, now it’s merely a trailing indicator.

Driving social change takes courage. It takes initiative. It takes effort. And a lack of effort oozed off Manfred’s answers about both the Oakland situation and Pride. He didn’t really bother to mount a credible defense of Fisher, or justify the portfolio of fuzzy math and doubletalk that won over the Nevada state legislature. Why should Manfred bother trying to win over the fans, or the media? There’s nothing they can do to stop him.

For all the bad things Bud Selig did for baseball during his administration, he was useful in one respect: He destroyed, for good and all, the enduring myth that the commissioner of baseball was some sort of benevolent trustee of the sport, rather than a frontman for the owners.

In that newly redefined role, Manfred’s job is not to stymie Fisher’s pursuit of profit at the expense of his team, his ballpark, his fans, and his community. Manfred’s job is to enable it, so long as there are sufficient subsidized riches to be had at the end of the rainbow. Manfred’s job is not to champion human rights issues when most of his employers are either indifferent or hostile to those marginalized communities. Manfred’s job is not to defend baseball, as a public institution, but defend and abet the avarice of the 30 individuals and syndicates who have fenced off the commons.

And in this task, he has been most successful.

The reverse boycott of the A’s was a remarkable illustration of what makes baseball great. It brings us together, uniting disparate communities. Ironically, you could not ask for a better illustration of why — under certain circumstances — professional sports ought to be subsidized, just like museums and music halls should be.

Life should not be a ceaseless trudge from work to sleep and back. We serve more of a purpose than to dig ditches, or find and sort the scary numbers on the computer screen, in service of the glorification and enrichment of people like John Fisher. Our government should reflect that, should attempt to support and nourish culture, to give us not just life and liberty, but that too-often-forgotten third thing.

That’s what baseball is, it’s why people care, why people in their tens of millions buy tickets to see players like Elly De La Cruz perform wonders. In 10 days in the majors, De La Cruz has done more good for baseball than Manfred has in 30-odd years. He, and Matt McLain, and Hunter Greene, and a few other guys barely old enough to drink, have done something remarkable. They’ve taken a club, ground into irrelevance by the neglect of another heir to inherited wealth, and turned it into a winner. They’re calling it “America’s Team.”

That’s what I’d rather be writing about. That’s what you’d rather be reading, or talking about. That’s the limitless potential for joy that baseball holds within itself. That’s why it’s our national pastime, I heard someone say once.

That pastime has been corrupted. Its sacred bond with us, the people who give it meaning, has been profaned by people who inherited their wealth and see sport as nothing but an investment vehicle. That’s why 27,000 fans showed up in Oakland on Tuesday to join hands and shout obscenities at Fisher. Their anguish deserves an audience, their grievances deserve redress.

But who can that audience be? Who can enact change, stop this desecration of a cultural touchstone that’s been left to wither? Not the government; Nevada’s state legislature grilled Fisher’s functionaries, ridiculed their lies, and then signed over $380 million in public funding. Amid the furor over the Athletics’ move, two U.S. Representatives, including Barbara Lee, introduced the Moneyball Act. If enacted, it would force teams that wished to move more than 25 miles to pay a penalty, equivalent to 10 years’ tax revenue, back to the community. Noncompliance would result in the dissolution of MLB’s antitrust exemption. It’s a reasonable response, but our government at all levels is so beholden to big business I will eat a camouflage baseball cap if such a measure is signed into law.

The owners won’t respond. Neither will their majordomo, Manfred, whose demeanor at Thursday’s press conference evinces a certainty that neither he nor his masters will ever have to fear the repercussions of their actions. That’s the clearest message the commissioner sent. Not that he can defend his — or the owners’ — choices. But that we are so insignificant that he’ll never have to.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
10 months ago

I changed my mind. Take John Fisher’s half-eaten caviar roll that he was choking on and feed it to Manfred in hopes that he chokes. What an absolute turd of a man. The business of sports is always gross, but this is just a level of obliviousness that can’t be real. It has to be malicious at this point.

Every time I hear NBA fans complain about Adam Silver, I just point to Manfred.

Left of Centerfield
10 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

I’m convinced that Manfred is a Russian plant sent by Putin to destroy our national pastime.

10 months ago

Putin should focus on his troops blowing themselves up with their own missile. Again.

10 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

Manfred is just MLB’s puppet. Everything that Manfred said is what the MLB owners are perfectly OK with. If things blow up, they can always fire Manfred and wash their hands of any PR blowback – while continuing to support Fisher and the various threats to munis/fans/etc that all MLB owners benefit from.

Screw you MLB.

10 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

There is a SMBC comic about the only people left who want to be politicians being people who get an erotic thrill from being humiliated.

Rob Manfred makes a lot more sense if you think that he gets actual pleasure from making humiliating statements for the owners.

10 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

You’re missing the point, EonADS. BO JACKSON SUCKS

10 months ago
Reply to  screaminrat

Bo Jackson was mediocre, and I will die on Tal’s Hill xD

10 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

at Age-31, and with a freaking fake hip, he had an OPS+ of 117.

10 months ago
Reply to  dan

To go along with a whopping total of 0.5 WAR in 75 games. And in his non-fake hip prime of 1988-1990, he only averaged .258/.313/.496 23 SB 2.5 WAR. And for his career, it was an average only .250/.309/.474 10 SB 1 WAR. He was not a good player.

10 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

Every time I want to complain about Bettman I just think “Well at least it’s not Manfred…”