In the Wake of Countless Controversies, What Reason Is There to Trust MLB?

In a hellacious seven-minute press conference with Rob Manfred, it became abundantly clear how many battles MLB is facing while the World Series trudges on.
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An hour and a half before Game 2 of the World Series, after posing for pictures at the presentation of the Hank Aaron Award, Rob Manfred took some questions. First, he walked down from the stage to stand amid the media. He didn’t like talking down to people, he said.

Then, in order, he was asked to address: MLB’s investigation into Brandon Taubman’s outburst toward female reporters after the ALCS; MLB’s level of concern about the broader culture around the incident; the research indicating that the baseball has been different in the postseason; Tyler Skaggs’s death, which is at the center of an ongoing criminal investigation, with reports that he received opioids from the team’s director of communications; MLB’s general approach to players’ opioid use; and the news that baseball is interested in a serious realignment of the minor leagues that would mean the elimination of several teams.

This lasted just over seven minutes. It covered a set of baseball’s most serious systemic issues. And it was just a recap of headlines from the last two weeks. While October has offered a World Series with thrilling on-field storylines and some of baseball’s most captivating stars, this has all been forced to unfold in the shadow of its most damning problems.

Manfred’s answers were largely non-revelatory. But their context was dizzying. Any media session with the commissioner is likely to have a reasonable focus on hot-button issues; no one was about to ask Manfred what he expected from Stephen Strasburg versus Justin Verlander. Yet, even within that framework, this informal question-and-answer still felt rather remarkable. It was not reporters using World Series availability to ask Manfred about long-running controversies while they happened to have access to him. It was reporters asking him about relatively fresh information that was dominating the baseball discourse in the moment—in the middle of the World Series, a week that has been electric on the field and a disaster off of it.

The issues are distinct and range in severity. But they share a common root. All are questions of integrity and accountability. There is, of course, a meaningful difference between the ability to believe that MLB takes seriously the issue of domestic violence, that it can appropriately address opioid addiction, that it can provide livable conditions in the minors, that it can ensure faith in the simple reliability of the ball. Yet the core is the same: What reason is there to trust MLB? And it’s a question that should resonate for everyone with a stake in the game, whether emotional or financial or cultural.

To this point, Manfred provided mixed answers. He granted the seriousness of the incident with Taubman: “I’m concerned at this point about the underlying substance of the situation… We pride ourselves on providing an inclusive, harassment-free environment in all of the various aspects of our business. I think it’s a core value for baseball, and I think that we have to be tremendously concerned whenever we have an incident that attracts this much attention.” And he similarly nodded toward the importance of a serious approach to opioid use: “We understand that our workforce is a microcosm of society. This is a societal problem.” There is, naturally, an enormous distinction between this conversation and eventual action from the commissioner’s office. But for those seeking clarity on these issues, it was, at the very least, a nod toward baseball’s readiness to address them.

In other areas, however, Manfred was more evasive. He dismissed the research on the ball due to small sample size—“when you have a large sample, variables like weather, who’s pitching, that all washes out… when you start picking three days in the postseason where the weather’s different, you’ve got the best pitching, it becomes less reliable”—although the most prominent public research on the question does account for weather and other such factors. 

On the minors, he said that some of the reports were “inaccurate,” though he did not elaborate on exactly how that was so. “Our preference is never to reduce numbers. It’s to get first-rate facilities,” he said. “If we can’t get to first-rate facilities, I’m not sure it makes sense for us to send people to playing facilities that are inadequate and to continue to subsidize those inadequate facilities.” A natural counter to that would be if MLB is not interested in subsidizing inadequate facilities, the billion-dollar industry could instead pay to subsidize adequate facilities. But Manfred stepped away before there was time for any follow-up.

Had he stayed any longer, someone probably would have realized that more news had broken since they’d entered the room: Umpire Rob Drake had tweeted about purchasing an AR-15 and calling for "cival war," ESPN said. But for now, Manfred's session was over, seven minutes and one madcap run over a hellish public-relations stretch. It felt damning as a matter of optics and deficient as a matter of substance. The core question here—what reason is there to trust MLB?—thrummed under the foundation of Game 2, buried rather than answered.

Scarcely 24 hours later, it bubbled up again. A last-minute addition was made to the workout-day press conference slate, between Dave Martinez and A.J. Hinch: Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, on the new decision to fire Taubman, the team’s baffling process for initially addressing the incident, and everything else that’s left to be covered when a front office continuously puts foot in mouth with a series of contradictory statements that obfuscate and cause harm at every turn. The presser was sandwiched with more typical World Series fare—Martinez on the Nationals’ pitching, Hinch on the Astros’ hitting with runners in scoring position—yet it was by far the most explosive part of the day, overshadowing everything else.

It lasted more than seven minutes. The core question pulsed underneath all the same. What reason is there to trust MLB?