SBJ/March 24-30, 2014/In Depth

Major League Baseball’s negotiator

Rob Manfred first made his mark in labor relations ... now he’s the point person on many issues facing the game

Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball’s chief operating officer, can easily be described as a classically trained sports league executive. Harvard and Cornell educated. Longtime labor lawyer for the league, and now overseeing a large portfolio of baseball that includes economics, club matters and drug policy administration. One of the true power brokers in the game.

But a life in sports almost wasn’t to be.

In 1980, Manfred was getting ready to graduate from Cornell University with a degree in industrial and labor relations. He was applying to law school, but wasn’t entirely certain he wanted to go. Through Cornell connections, chemical manufacturer Union Carbide flew a 21-year-old Manfred down from upstate New York to Texas City, Texas, and offered what Manfred thought would be a “plum job” aiding in the company’s collective bargaining with its employee unions.

Manfred has grown into one of Commissioner
Bud Selig’s most trusted advisers.
Photo by: Major League Baseball
Serious labor negotiating work with a major corporation fresh out of college. Seemed great on the surface. For the lifelong Northeasterner, though, the small Galveston Bay town known for its petroleum refining and petrochemical operations wasn’t exactly a garden spot.

“I remember looking around Texas City thinking, ‘Oh, wow, this is going to be different,’” Manfred said. “Then I got back home, and the acceptance letter from Harvard Law School was in

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the mailbox. And I sort of put Texas City up against Harvard and thought that maybe Harvard Law School would be a good plan.”

More than three decades later, Manfred finds himself deep in the weeds on virtually every major issue that’s facing the game. Of course labor relations with the MLB Players Association, as Manfred has been actively involved in every round of collective bargaining in some fashion since 1990. But also the Biogenesis investigation and subsequent Alex Rodriguez drama. Expanded instant replay, and efforts to redo rules around home plate collisions.
The Los Angeles Dodgers bankruptcy and subsequent negotiations around revenue sharing provisions for the club’s new regional sports network. The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network and Oakland A’s stadium sagas. A growing revenue disparity among MLB teams that threatens the game’s health.

With each issue, the common link is the 55-year-old Manfred, who now oversees the administrative functions of the league following a promotion last fall by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to chief operating officer, and stands as one of Selig’s most trusted advisers.

“He’s been a very good resource for Buddy,” said Toronto Blue Jays President and Chief Executive Paul Beeston, himself a former MLB COO. “Rob’s got a highly organized mind, and always seems to know what’s going on. And he’s not afraid of an argument. Over the years, you’ve definitely been able to see his profile and responsibility growing.”

The Manfred promotion last fall was his second title change in less than four months, as Selig earlier last year quietly gave him an expanded title of executive vice president of economics and league affairs, reflecting a set of responsibilities that had long since grown past overseeing just labor matters.

Those two changes, and Manfred’s status as MLB’s first COO since the 2010 departure of Bob DuPuy, have placed him on many supposed short lists to succeed Selig and become the league’s 10th commissioner.

It must be said, though, there is no official search process, at least one publicly known, to select a new commissioner to succeed Selig after his planned January 2015 retirement. And every MLB team and league executive is stridently declining to discuss the matter openly for fear of prejudicing a process that has yet to really begin.

Manfred, however, did acknowledge the mammoth chore the sport now has on its hands, regardless of where the search ultimately goes.

“I think the single biggest challenge for the industry will be how to maintain the kind of unity that Commissioner Selig has produced now for nearly 22 years,” Manfred said. “I think it’s particularly challenging because whoever is the next commissioner, I will take the bet they will not have the same unique, personal, hands-on skills that Commissioner Selig does. Because in many ways, he is one of a kind.”

Early labor lessons

Manfred received many early lessons on the intricacies and tumult of management-labor relations growing up in Rome, N.Y., a small upstate town about 45 minutes east of Syracuse. There, his mother was a unionized school teacher. But more dramatically, his father was an executive for Revere Copper and Brass, a manufacturer with a difficult history of labor issues with its employee unions.

“When you live in a town of 50,000 people and you have an employer that employs 5,000 people and that employer had a strike, everybody in town felt it,” Manfred said, a refrain echoed in hundreds of other small towns across the Midwest and Northeast. “That’s really what got me interested in labor relations.”

After high school, Manfred started at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, where he studied industrial and labor relations and played varsity tennis. He was fairly accomplished on the court, but after his sophomore year, knew he wasn’t good enough to play competitively at a larger school or continue on his playing career much further. He transferred to Cornell at the beginning of his junior year and completed his undergraduate studies there.

Manfred at that point essentially gave up playing tennis cold turkey, and no longer picks up the racket, even casually. His current recreational passion is golf, and he sits on the board of Sleepy Hollow Country Club in Scarborough, N.Y.

At Harvard Law School, Manfred fell under the wing of Archibald Cox, the U.S. solicitor general under President Kennedy, a prosecutor during the Watergate scandal, and a renowned expert on labor law.

“He argued the Steelworkers Trilogy, a series of Supreme Court cases that established how arbitration works, what courts do with arbitration, all the issues we deal with here,” Manfred said. “He had gone on to be a constitutional scholar, but he came back to Harvard to teach labor law when I was there, which was really great.”

After law school, Manfred clerked for Joseph Tauro, a U.S. District Court judge in Massachusetts. He then joined the labor and employment practice at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in Washington, D.C. His first connection to baseball came while working as outside counsel to the league, first in the late 1980s while working on collusion cases, and then in a deeper role during the 1989-90 round of collective bargaining.

In the early 1990s, Manfred began working closely with Selig, then head of MLB’s executive council. The two spent considerable time together between 1990 and 1993 developing an early framework of baseball’s revenue sharing plan, which has since gone on to help level the sport’s competitive landscape.

Manfred returned for the 1994 round of collective bargaining, a brutal episode that led to the cancellation of the World Series and the darkest days yet of what had already been three decades of fractious battles between baseball owners and players. But the eventual settlement yielded the sport’s first form of revenue sharing, which has been substantially increased since then.

Selig and Manfred speak multiple times a day and remain extremely close.

“Rob understood what I thought,” Selig said of those early days working together. “I knew we had to change and do things differently than we had, and he picked up on that.”

In 1998, MLB owners removed the “acting” tag Selig had had on his commissioner title for six years and made him full commissioner. Selig then began forming his own staff at MLB headquarters and quickly reached out to Manfred to head up labor relations.

Manfred saw a big opportunity to reshape a negotiating playing field that to that point had largely been a series of routs by the MLBPA, in part because of a revolving door of senior management negotiators.

“I had come to the conclusion, coming off the prior two rounds of bargaining, that a principal problem faced by the owners was that the union had stable, technically competent, steeped-in-knowledge leadership,” Manfred said. “They were really deep at that time. You had Don [Fehr], Gene [Orza], Michael [Weiner], Lauren Rich, who people forget was a real player, not to mention Don’s brother [Steve] over there. Really, really deep.

“And I thought if I could come here and develop a stable, long-term, in-house labor relations capacity, it would even the exchange taking place at the bargaining table.”

Manfred first attempted to do the job commuting between Washington and New York, but that lasted less than a month. He moved to New York with his wife and four daughters.

Manfred then played a lead role for MLB in the 2002, 2006 and 2011 rounds of labor negotiation, each producing new deals without work stoppages that have since levied major changes such as large-scale drug testing, new rules on acquiring amateur talent, realignment, and the creation of a luxury tax on high-spending teams.

Before 2002, many observers thought a lasting peace between MLB and the players’ union was all but impossible. But Manfred forged a productive relationship with the union, particularly Weiner, a longtime union lawyer and negotiator who was the MLBPA’s executive director from 2009 until his death last year.

“Rob was able to see the union as adversaries, but not the enemy. That’s an important and fundamental difference,” Beeston said. “He crossed that bridge, and the labor stability we now have is in large part due to the relationships he formed.”

Weiner, who also went to Harvard Law a few years behind Manfred, specifically cited Manfred; Manfred’s chief deputy and executive vice president for labor relations, Dan Halem; and that bridge in his remarks announcing the 2011 labor deal.

“The negotiators for management displayed remarkable respect for the collective bargaining process, remarkable respect for the union and remarkable respect for the union’s members and for the players,” Weiner said then. “As a union negotiator, you can’t ask for anything more than that from your managing counterparts.”

Expanding role

The sweep of Manfred’s expanded role within MLB headquarters will likely come into fuller view this season as he turns his attention more to matters such as MASN, Oakland, the implementation of the expanded instant replay system, and potential further changes to the Joint Drug Agreement with the MLBPA.

Such issues were forced to the back burner last year for Manfred as the Biogenesis investigation dominated much of
Manfred was front and center last week for a news conference in Sydney, Australia, in advance of a two-game, season-opening series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks.
Photo by: Getty Images
his 2013. The league had been investigating potential problems around performance-enhancing drugs in South Florida for a while before early last year. But an article in the Miami New Times in January 2013 outlined in great detail the activities of a self-proclaimed wellness clinic run by a man who clients said presented himself as a doctor. Documents tied the clinic to the sale of PEDs to some of the game’s stars.

Manfred subsequently oversaw a six-month MLB investigation that included a much-debated deal with the founder of the Biogenesis clinic, Tony Bosch, to turn over evidence in exchange for dropping a tortious interference lawsuit against him. The probe led to 14 player suspensions, representing the largest drug scandal in baseball history.

The largest and by far most discussed suspension, against Rodriguez, is now in place for the entire 2014 season following an appeal by the New York Yankees third baseman, an arbitration hearing this past fall, and then a pair of lawsuits against the league and MLBPA that Rodriguez ultimately dropped.

Investigating Biogenesis at many times was tense and frustrating, particularly as by MLB’s own admission, media outlets were occasionally several steps ahead of the league’s own inquiries. With Rodriguez in particular the stakes were immense, as a reversal or major reduction of Selig’s intended 211-game suspension by independent arbitrator Fredric Horowitz would have represented a significant repudiation of Manfred’s investigation. And given the whole case began with a public disclosure, virtually every step along the way came with heightened scrutiny.

But with Horowitz’s decision to uphold 162 games of the ban, and with the legal challenges dropped, Manfred now looks back on the entire saga with satisfaction.

“I think the most important thing about the entire Biogenesis episode is the deterrent effect I believe we’ll have going forward,” Manfred said. “Our ability to investigate, follow up on the initial disclosures, and develop enough evidence that we could suspend 14 players sends a very strong message about the commissioner’s commitment to our drug program.”

It is not yet known whether resolutions will arrive as quickly in matters such as Oakland, locked in a dispute with the San Francisco Giants over territorial rights for the San Jose market where the A’s want to relocate, or MASN, where the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles have been in disagreement for more than two years over the Nationals’ proper TV rights within the RSN partnership.

Each problem has already been wrestled with for multiple years, with no apparent answer in sight. But principals involved in each matter quickly credit Manfred’s diligence and demeanor pressing for solutions.

“Rob has the ability to understand that even when it’s raining, it’s not always going to be raining,” said Alan Rifkin, Baltimore Orioles outside counsel who has known Manfred for more than two decades. “That is precisely the right attitude to have in such a complex structure such as [MASN], and something that only comes from a seasoned negotiator such as him.”

Added Oakland A’s owner Lew Wolff, “I enjoy dealing with him. He tries very hard to be balanced, and my experience has been very positive. You get the sense he’s trying to be fair to everybody.”

Manfred said his greatest challenge in his expanded role is now managing the sharply increased demands on his schedule.

“A lot more things have obviously come on my desk. The change in title gave prominence to the changes that have occurred here, and as a result, the commissioner has given me a lot more projects in different areas to work on,” Manfred said.

“The scope of issues has become much broader, and … the most difficult thing has been allocating my time,” he said. “Biogenesis in particular could have been all-consuming. But we are fortunately very strong in the labor area, particularly Dan Halem, and because of that and the ability to delegate, I have been able to stay engaged on other matters such as MASN, Oakland and replay.”

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