MLB's 30 owners will meet in Baltimore today to elect the first new commissioner since Bud Selig took the reins in 1992—unless there is enough discord and politicking to prevent any candidate from receiving the required 23 votes. Which there almost certainly is! Today will see the first open, public battle in a vicious power struggle that promises to define MLB's relationship with its players over the coming decades, and, more immediately, the likelihood of a work stoppage in 2016.
The three finalists named by the search committee last week are MLB COO Rob Manfred, MLB VP of business Tim Brosnan, and Boston Red Sox chairman Tom Werner.
As has been reported out over recent weeks and months by The New York Times, this is a two-horse race between Manfred, Selig's underboss and presumptive successor, and Werner, a dark-horse candidate backed by a coalition of maverick owners led by White Sox boss Jerry Reinsdorf.
The battle here is not between Manfred and Werner; it's between Selig and Reinsdorf, two of the last remnants of baseball's old guard from the biliously anti-labor power structure of the 1980s, when owners illegally colluded to fix the free agency market to keep salaries down. (As always, it's important to remember that the players' strike of 1994 was really about the owners' collusion in the 1980s.)
How bad and how real is the fight between Selig and Reinsdorf? Bad enough that Selig had to issue a statement denying any problems.
"[The results of this process are a reflection of the Committee's work alone, and I have not promoted individual candidates. As we approach next week's vote, I will continue to encourage Clubs to voice their opinions within the confines of this process. Reports of personal animosity between Jerry Reinsdorf and me — or any other alleged disputes between owners regarding the process or the candidates — are unfounded and unproductive."
Under Selig's commissionership, baseball's anti-labor tactics have remained largely in the realm of the conspiratorial, featuring a couple more instances of possible collusion. Any truly bold and public power grabs have originated in the New York office—unilateral and quasi-legal drug crackdowns, for instance. A vote for Rob Manfred would be a vote for the centralized dick-swinging of the status quo.
Reinsdorf's attempt to install Tom Werner, then, represents a desire for a more blatant and aggressive strategy, with the owners—and not the commissioner's office, which has historically been little more than a figurehead—wresting back the power to crush the players. Tim Marchman pegged this potential future:
A scenario in which Reinsdorf seized power at the head of an insurgent coalition of owners, by contrast, would quite possibly mark a return to the days of truly hardline anti-labor conspiracy. After all, his fundamental objection to Manfred, as reported by the Times, is that he believes Selig's deputy "will not combat the union." Given Manfred's proven anti-union bona fides and Reinsdorf's past participation in unlawful market fixing, one can only imagine the methods he would use given a free hand.
What the Times depicts as "palace intrigue," then—a matter of Reinsdorf wanting to gather to himself and his allies the power and prerogatives he sees Selig as having usurped from owners—is more usefully thought of as a debate among low-lifes and hardened thugs over how to split their ill-gotten take, and the best methods to use to get more.
The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after the 2016 season. There are enough issues of substance that it is going to be an ugly fight no matter who is leading the owners, with the distinct possibility of a work stoppage. If Tom Werner is elected commissioner today, the real power will be the group of owners led by Reinsdorf and Arte Moreno, for whom the nuclear option carries less stigma and greater rewards.
Today's vote will determine the scale and tactics and ideology of MLB's coming labor war. And if the vote isn't conclusive, it's the surest sign that the infighting among the owners is just as bad as anything they're prepared to inflict on the players.