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Commissioner Manfred

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It is always a pleasure when the electorate does the right thing. The electorate in this case was the 30 club owners of Major League Baseball, and they selected Rob Manfred as their next commissioner. I have known Rob for 15 years, and he has visited my Sports Law class. I do not pretend to have been impartial in this selection process.

Commentators have accurately portrayed what was at stake for Major League Baseball in the selection of a commissioner to replace the retiring Bud Selig. Some owners, apparently under the leadership of Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox, sought a commissioner who would alter baseball relationship with the Major League Baseball Players Association. Labor peace and a fruitful partnership with the union representing the ballplayers was unpalatable to them, especially when management in other sports was squeezing their unions for every dime at the negotiating table.

Labor relationships have something to do with the allocation of financial resources, but they have much more to do with pure power. For many employers the very thought of consultation and negotiation with a union representing their employees is an anathema. Who runs the show around here? From the earliest days of the modern Players Association in the late 1960s, the owners had considerable difficulty recognizing that the players, through their union, had a stake in the business. Since 1935, national law has protected the right of employees to organize and negotiate over wages, hours, terms and conditions of employment, but that bargaining process was effective in baseball if the players supported their union and were willing to act in a unified manner in the face of management's resistance to their demands. The club owners never had any doubt. Their players would not stick together and miss their paychecks in the process. Solidarity, in their minds, was something for industrial blue-collar workers, not premier athletes.

It is not unusual for employers to test the will of a union, but, normally after a work stoppage or two, management deals with the reality of the situation. It took baseball management more than a quarter century -- and eight strikes or lockouts -- to realize that this union meant business. Eight work stoppages in a row is a record akin to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak! Only after the almost disastrous 1994-95 strike did baseball management finally appreciate the situation it faced. The public was fed up with interminable conflict in the National Game.

The real test of this new managerial recognition that baseball and its players union shared responsibility came in 2002. The Basic Agreement hammered out after the 1994-95 strike was set to expire. All observers opined that another work stoppage was a certainty. There was one major difference this time, however. The people at the bargaining table had changed. Michael Weiner, representing the Players Association, and Rob Manfred, representing Major League Baseball, were committed to avoiding an unnecessary disruption. They faced a complicated set of issues and, after negotiating all night, they avoided what most thought was inevitable.

Mike Weiner, who tragically passed away from a brain tumor in 2013 at age 51, was a staunch defender of union rights. His fellow graduate from the Harvard Law School, Rob Manfred, was his equal in skill and creativity. Their design for the business of baseball created the partnership that has stood the test of time. Everyone is making money. The game is slowly being weaned of performance-enhancing drugs. Five times as many spectators attend Major League Baseball games each year than National Football League games. Yet some club owners would have preferred to upset this mutually favorable stability, and for them Rob Manfred became the symbol of all that was wrong with the partnership. Their effort to reverse course fell short when the owners voted, and ultimately Rob Manfred was elected commissioner.

One would hope that Commissioner Manfred will staunchly defend the partnership arrangement that has brought baseball its renewed prosperity. Working with the union and not against it, Major League Baseball will continue to grow its influence worldwide. There are problems that these partners must address and others are sure to arise, but the owners have done the right thing. They have rejected a return to the bad old days and committed the future of their enterprise to experienced and positive leadership.

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