- - Thursday, November 21, 2019

We are soon going to find out if Rob Manfred is more than a suit.

The commissioner of Major League Baseball, the former right-hand man to predecessor Bud Selig, is facing a trifecta of major challenges in the coming months — the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, minor league contraction and labor unrest for the first time in nearly 20 years.

The industry will be watching to see if the lawyer from Rome, New York, acts in the best interests of the game — something that is part of the commissioner’s job description, per the MLB constitution.

Will Manfred act decisively, for example, on baseball’s investigation into charges that the Astros stole signs electronically during the 2017 season — the year Houston won the World Series?

“Any allegation that relates to a rule violation that could affect the outcome of a game or games is the most serious matter,” Manfred told reporters at the baseball owners meetings in Arlington, Texas, where he also indicated that he had the authority to hand down severe penalties.

“The general warning I issued to the clubs, I stand by,” Manfred said. “It certainly could be all of those things, but my authority under the major league constitution would be broader than those things as well.”

The Astros have few friends among other clubs. The arrogance underlying their commitment to their version of analytics — what’s come to be known as “Astroball” — has turned off many longtime baseball insiders. There will be no tears shed if the Astros are hit with severe penalties — not just fines and surrendered draft picks, but long suspensions and possible bans from the game for the high-ranking club officials behind the alleged cheating.

If Manfred is indecisive on the Astros, it sends the wrong message to baseball.

One the other hand, taking a hard-line stance on the proposed elimination of dozens of minor league teams is likely to work against Manfred and the MLB.

The plan to cut 42 teams — including the Hagerstown Suns, the Washington Nationals’ Class A club in the South Atlantic League, and the Frederick Keys, the Baltimore Orioles’ Class A team in the Carolina League — already looks like a bigger fight than MLB anticipated.

More than 100 members of Congress sent a letter Tuesday to Manfred asking MLB to reconsider the proposal to restructure the minor leagues after the 2020 season.

“The abandonment of minor league clubs by Major League Baseball would devastate our communities, their bond purchasers, and other stakeholders affected by the potential loss of these clubs,” the letter said. “We want you to fully understand the impact this could have not only on the communities we represent, but also on the long-term support that Congress has always afforded our national pastime on a wide variety of legislative initiatives.”

That was a threat — and a real one. When baseball fought a movement to repeal its antitrust exemption during the 1994 strike, they used minor league baseball and the representatives of those communities to stop it.

The plan to shrink the minor leagues comes amid growing criticism over how MLB treats the thousands of players toiling away in the farm system — there’s a class-action lawsuit against baseball charging that minor league players are being paid less than minimum wage working its way through the courts, and lawmakers have been sniffing around that issue as well.

Manfred needs to be cautious and see the bigger picture. At a time when baseball is facing decreasing attendance and is looking to bring new fans into the game, its best marketing tool may be minor league baseball. Families across the country are often introduced to baseball by the affordable minor league teams in their towns.

He’s likely to find out, if he hasn’t already, how politically powerful minor league baseball is. What’s more, baseball may need all the minor league games that can be played. There is a risk, after all, that there won’t be any MLB games in two years, as tensions between owners and the players’ union ahead of the expiration of the current labor deal.

According to NBC Sports, Manfred recently told union officials that there “is not going to be a deal where we pay you in economics to get labor peace.”

There hasn’t been a work stoppage in baseball since the 1994 strike, and talks have been amicable since the 2002 negotiations.

But things are heating up. And we are going to find out soon what kind of baseball commissioner Manfred is.

⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan podcast Tuesdays and Thursdays.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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