What it means for Cubs: Rob Manfred’s rise and MLB’s labor battle

What it means for Cubs: Rob Manfred’s rise and MLB’s labor battle
August 16, 2014, 10:30 pm
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NEW YORK — The Cubs will find out what Major League Baseball’s next commissioner is all about. Rob Manfred is the ultimate insider, but no one knows exactly how he will put his imprint on the game.

But if the ownership hawks really want to fight another labor war, the MLB Players Association will say: Bring it on.

The stakes will be high for a Cubs franchise that believes a long run of contention could begin right around the time the current labor agreement expires — after the 2016 season — and the battle lines already appear to be forming.

Cubs reliever Carlos Villanueva, who’s on the union’s executive board, doesn’t think the two sides have to go nuclear when the industry could be zooming past $9 billion in revenue. But it’s another warning sign when Bud Selig can’t perfectly choreograph his succession plan.

As expected, Manfred, MLB’s chief operating officer, beat out Boston Red Sox chairman Tom Werner, who’s best known for producing “The Cosby Show.” But it didn’t happen without White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf reportedly leading a behind-the-scenes movement trying to defeat Manfred and institute a hardline approach toward the next rounds of collective bargaining.

“There’s never fear from our side,” Villanueva said before Saturday’s 7-3 loss to the Mets at Citi Field. “We’re prepared. That’s what’s been put out there — that they wanted a harder-type guy — but every time that the owners’ side has tried to be bullish or hard, that only makes the players united even more.

“I think they know by now that’s not the right way to approach it, because we have the best union for a reason.”

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Earlier in the day, Villanueva had brought teammates Neil Ramirez and Kyle Hendricks to the MLBPA’s Manhattan headquarters to visit with former All-Star first baseman Tony Clark, who rose to the union’s top leadership position after Michael Weiner’s death last November.

As MLB’s top labor lawyer, Manfred had helped craft three consecutive deals without a strike or a lockout, giving the game at least 21 years of labor peace.

Manfred grew up in upstate New York, graduating from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and Harvard Law School. A former partner at a Washington law firm, he worked as MLB’s outside counsel before going in-house in 1998.

Manfred will have to deal with a union that will refuse to accept a salary cap. After getting his hands dirty in the Biogenesis investigation, he might have to make a tough drug-testing program even tougher.

“We believe in our principles and we have never really swayed from them,” Villanueva said. “That’s what we’re going to continue to do. We’re involved in the future generation and the older generation, everybody together. That won’t change.

“I don’t think we were worried at all who it was going to be. (We’re) ready for anything that comes our way, any negotiation. We’ve been getting ready for the last couple years now. We just wait now.”

It’s another X-factor for The Plan at Clark and Addison, where the Theo Epstein administration initially hoped to pour money into the draft and international market, until the labor deal severely regulated what teams could spend on amateur talent.

Manfred has to organize billionaires and keep the small- and big-market owners on the same page. He has to secure long-term futures — Las Vegas? Montreal? — for the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays. He has to settle the messy legal dispute between the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals over MASN, the regional sports network.

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Manfred has to worry about the pace of the game in a short-attention-span world where everyone is staring at their phones checking Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

It’s not just Cubs manager Rick Renteria making so many pitching changes. Expanded instant replay has slowed the game down. There’s too much dead time with pitchers walking off the rubber while hitters constantly step out of the box.

Who knows if soccer or the NHL can capitalize on the momentum and capture more of a fractured audience? But it was hard to miss the huge crowds for World Cup viewing parties at Grant Park and Soldier Field. The Blackhawks have turned their playoff games into must-see events, drawing a much younger crowd to their summer fanfest while the Cubs play bingo at their winter convention.

The entire media landscape has changed since Werner produced sitcoms a generation ago. There are too many options competing for your attention, from Netflix to nonstop NFL coverage to on-demand entertainment.

Manfred will have to keep growing the game at a time when the Cubs will be hoping the cable bubble doesn’t burst before they can cash in with a TV megadeal in 2020.

Manfred has a reputation for being pragmatic at the bargaining table, but it’s not like he’s been soft on labor. He was said to be furious when the Cubs bought out Jeff Samardzija’s potential NFL career and gave $10 million to the Notre Dame All-American.

Now, as the Cubs try to renovate Wrigley Field and accelerate their rebuild, Manfred’s fingerprints will be all over the game.

“He’s an incredibly bright guy who knows this business inside and out,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “When it comes to his intelligence and his experience, I think he was certainly the right guy.”