Rob Manfred Dec 7, 2022; San Diego, CA, USA; MLB commissioner Rob Manfred looks on during the presentation of the Allan H. Selling Award for philanthropic excellence during the 2022 MLB Winter Meetings at Manchester Grand Hyatt. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The role of a sports commissioner is an interesting one. Commissioners tend to have significant individual power, especially in areas like media deals and discipline for players or owners, and they also oversee large and powerful departments of league employees. But commissioners are also still working at the behest of individual team owners, which presents some complications.

Beyond that, a significant portion of any commissioner’s job is being a public face for their league. That involves sometimes taking criticism for it, and that in and of itself can be valuable for the league. If people are mad at the commissioner rather than at teams or owners, that makes them more likely to keep spending time and money supporting teams while griping about the commissioner. (Along these lines, Gary Bettman regularly getting booed while presenting the Stanley Cup has not really been a problem for the NHL.)

But there’s a difference between taking already-fired shots for the league and stepping on a bunch of rakes that were just innocently lying on the ground. And what MLB commissioner Rob Manfred did in a press conference Thursday was more of the latter. There, he managed to tick off a whole lot of people with fully-unnecessary comments insulting Oakland A’s fans, the City of Oakland (which he claimed provided “no actual offer,” which the mayor’s office responded to with “This is just totally false”), and LGBTQ+ fans. And that prompted some notable criticisms from veteran sportswriter Joe Posnanski on his Substack, in an article titled “Friday Rewind: Manfred Is Not the Man” and a section titled “Why Is Rob Manfred So Bad At This?”, which involved particular roasting of Manfred’s comments bashing A’s fans. Some highlights:

Rob Manfred decided to give a press conference on Thursday, which means he said a whole bunch of dumb, obviously false and kind of cruel things. This seems to happen whenever Manfred decides to give a press conference. I don’t quite get it. Does he not prepare? Does he not know that he’s terrible on the fly? Does he not trust anyone to advise him?

Remember when he called the World Series trophy “a piece of metal”? I mean, that was sort of the quintessential Rob Manfred press conference moment because he faced what was the most obvious question imaginable — a simple question about whether or not the Astros’ World Series title would be marked with an asterisk or taken away — and he said, “Asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act.” It was so dumb, but more than dumb, it was just so easily avoidable. I mean, do a little studying for the test, man!

So on Thursday, when asked about the A’s reverse boycott — when 30,000 people went to that dump of a stadium to make a statement about how much they loved baseball and how badly they want to keep the A’s — the answer was SO easy. I mean, you say, “There are so many good baseball fans in Oakland, and I feel for them as we go through this process but …” and then you blah blah blah however you want about the rest. No, nobody’s going to buy that you actually care about the Oakland fans, but you’re the commissioner of baseball, and you make the token effort to salute fans for loving baseball and their team, right?

What could be easier? I mean, it’s not like Manfred was surprised by the question, right?

This is what he said: “It was great. It’s great to see what is, this year, almost an average Major League Baseball crowd in the facility for one night. That’s a great thing.”

Of course, Posnanski was far from the only prominent media member to rip Manfred after his remarks Thursday. Here are just a few other examples:

Beyond the specific comments Manfred made Thursday, this is a larger issue. As Posnanski notes, the missteps this week are far from the first unforced public speaking error from Manfred, including that 2020 “piece of metal” comment on the World Series trophy (which he later apologized for). That came as part of wider comments on the investigation into the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, and Manfred made further missteps there, including snarky public comments to Jared Diamond of The Wall Street Journal over Diamond obtaining and publishing a letter Manfred sent to Astros’ GM Jeff Luhnow.

Manfred has also put himself in situations that were obviously going to go poorly. Those include his 2017 Dan Le Batard Show appearance amidst a high-profile Miami Marlins’ teardown, which should not have been hard to predict as something not to do. And he’s taken heavy criticism from many team and network figures. And he’s looked very thin-skinned in response to some criticisms of him.

Manfred is not the only commissioner to make PR blunders, of course; they all have at times. Just amongst the other three major North American sports, the NFL’s Roger Goodell looked particularly foolish with his lack of response to Jim Trotter’s highly-foreseeable (he asked the same one the previous year) question about NFL Media diversity at this year’s Super Bowl, and he’s bashed journalists and made on-air mistakes. The NBA’s Adam Silver has put his foot in his mouth at times, especially over Masai Ujiri and locker-room access.  And the aforementioned Bettman has created lots of NHL controversies over the years, on everything from concussions to the Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal to tanking.

But Manfred seems to be doing this more than his counterparts recently. And he seems to be doing so on some very avoidable fronts. As Posnanski notes, there were a ton of easy, non-committal answers to the A’s questions that wouldn’t have bothered most listeners. But Manfred instead opted for a highly confrontational response, one criticizing A’s fans and criticizing the city’s efforts to find a deal there. And it’s not like that approach did or MLB much good; he’s not exactly winning many over with this argument. And there wasn’t a need to have an argument here in the first place.

Being bad at the public relations side of the commissioner job does not necessarily imply that Manfred is bad at his job overall. That’s a different and more complicated question beyond the bounds of this piece, covering everything from TV deals to leadership around scandals like that sign-stealing one to rule changes to the overall state of MLB’s business, and there have been takes on those fronts both praising and criticizing Manfred. (He does deserve praise for at least one specific thing highly relevant to this site’s media coverage beat; his decision to start and staff up a MLB Local Media department in January, before Diamond Sports even entered bankruptcy and while it was still unclear if MLB would be called on to broadcast any local games, has paid off big-time with a smooth transition in Padres’ broadcasts despite a lot of time pressure.)

And there certainly seem to be some things Manfred has done well behind the scenes. And that’s part of why he still has this job. But this week’s PR blunders are just the latest for Manfred. And it’s notable to see them called out in such strong terms, and to see them get that level of criticism from the likes of Posnanski (who’s not a debate show panelist, but rather a generally-more-nuanced writer and author, and one set to release a Why We Love Baseball book, so not exactly a MLB hater).

And the criticisms here from Posnanski and others raise a very good question: why does Manfred keep doing the PR part of his job in a poor way? Posnanski’s “Does he not prepare? Does he not know that he’s terrible on the fly? Does he not trust anyone to advise him?” are all excellent questions. MLB has an extensive group of public relations staffers, many of whom are very skilled at their job. And they also have a lot of high-level executives who seem much more capable of talking to the media than Manfred. So this would seem to be a fixable problem, either with Manfred taking some PR advice and consulting internally or with him turning over some of these media briefings to other MLB executives. But the current situation is a problem for MLB, which should be able to figure out a better way to communicate with the media and the public than the commissioner repeatedly stepping on rakes.

[Joe Posnanski on Substack; top photo of Manfred at the 2022 MLB Winter Meetings from Orlando Ramirez/USA Today Sports]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.