The face of baseball? Please, not Rob Manfred

DENVER – All-Star week is the ideal setting to ask about the Face of Baseball. Obvious? Maybe. And certainly a little hokey, but the whole week is about self-conscious myth-making anyway, giving the sport an identity specific to the current season. Like trying to provide a real-time version of the sort of nostalgia baseball usually takes to the bank.

Plus, it was the first opportunity to talk to many of these players in person since before the pandemic, and if there’s anything All-Stars know, it’s their competition.

Fittingly for a week dominated by the story of his historic triple-threat appearance, many of them said Shohei Ohtani. Or Fernando Tatis Jr. Or Vlad Guerrero Jr. Or Juan Soto. Many insist that Mike Trout, who earned his ninth All-Star nod this season despite being on the IL, hasn’t lost his hold on the mantle quite yet. Home Run Derby champion Pete Alonso refused to consider anyone other than his ace of aces, Jacob deGrom.

Reds right fielder Nick Castellanos had a different idea.

“Who do I think the face of baseball is right now?” Castellanos said. “Rob Manfred.”

As to whether or not that’s a good thing, well, “It depends on your perspective,” Castellanos said.

Here’s just one perspective to consider: That of the commissioner himself.

“I think anything that distracts from the attention being on what goes on in the field is a bad thing,” Manfred said Tuesday at an annual Baseball Writers Association of America meeting, when presented with the news that his name had come up. “I do.”

He also said that he didn’t want to highlight any one particular player for fear that the implied slights or snubs would get him into trouble — “identifying one guy is particularly inappropriate in a sport that is the quintessential team sport” — and that he would leave it up to me to decide whether Castellanos meant it as a compliment.

So I feel entitled to say that he didn’t. (Historical evidence supports this theory.)

I don’t know that I entirely agree with Castellanos. The young talent in the game is at least as electric as ever. And, if anything, the fervor surrounding the Juniors and hanging on the hopes of a viable two-way sensation does a disservice to the consistent contributions of veterans around the game. You don’t have to look too hard to find a Face of Baseball in uniform. But, c’mon, there’s a little truth to it — and to the bitterness it belies.

DENVER, CO - JULY 11: MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announces the picks during the 2021 Major Leauge Baseball Draft at Bellco Theater at Colorado Convention Center on Sunday, July 11, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Commissioner Rob Manfred has been at the center of major storylines about rule changes, labor strife and the future of the game. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

The past two years, in particular, have been dominated by stories about baseball that center on the commissioner’s role in shaping the game. Or else holding it hostage in negotiations with the Players Association to even get a season underway. And with the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire Dec. 1, we’re headed for at least another offseason of the same. Baseball news cycles that hinge not on who or what, but if.

Meetings about that are active and ongoing, which is about as much as we know for now. On Tuesday in Denver, both Manfred and MLBPA executive director Tony Clark renewed their commitment to keep those conversations behind closed doors. As for the acrimony seemingly accrued from two failed negotiations in two years (the 2020 season started only when the commissioner unilaterally implemented a 60-game schedule after failing to reach an agreement for something longer with the union; the current CBA mandated an on-time opening day this year but the league’s attempts to push that back went nowhere), Manfred explained that, “this whole relationship thing gets overplayed and misinterpreted.”

OK. Sure.

But what about the rule changes he implemented? News about the Manfred Man and the Manfred Seven-Inning Doubleheader — the very conceit of Manfredball (not to be confused with what Manfred’s done to the baseball) — dominated the news ahead of the All-Star Game. The changes made as a concession to the pandemic are likely to be gone from the game by next year, different changes could be coming.

You have opinions on all those things, I’m sure. We’re probably not done publicly litigating whether he was too lax or too heavy-handed, too late or too rash to act on sticky stuff (or, hell, sign stealing).

Personally, I don’t mind all that too much. I hope the commissioner keeps making himself available to be quoted on these subjects and more. I hope he says something substantive and newsworthy each time. But it’s so hard to get everyone in the game to agree on anything, and if everyone in the game agrees that players themselves should be centered and their stories told, then maybe it’s time to let reporters back in clubhouses so we can talk to them again.

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