NEW YORK — At the end of a week that included A’s fans in Oakland pleading for new owners who won’t look to relocate as well as a significant step forward for the current owner’s efforts to move to Las Vegas, Rob Manfred addressed reporters Thursday at the commissioner’s office. It was his customary news conference at the conclusion of MLB’s quarterly owners meetings, but given the timing — seemingly approaching a conclusion to the years-long saga of trying to get a stadium built for the A’s somewhere that will provide a certain amount of public funding for the project — the bulk of the 22 minutes was spent on what comes next for this franchise.
On Wednesday, as part of a special session convened specifically to address the matter, the Nevada legislature approved a bill that dedicates $380 million of taxpayer funds toward the construction of a new ballpark in Vegas. That had been the most significant legal hurdle to A’s owner John Fisher’s efforts to take the franchise out of the Bay Area. Still, Manfred stressed Thursday that there is still an internal process before relocation can be approved. The team now must file an application that addresses the market it’s interested in moving to, the one it’s leaving behind and the efforts that were made to remain there.
The commissioner said, “It has always been baseball’s policy and preference to stay put.”
And yet, in Manfred’s view, Oakland did not make that possible.
“I think that the real question is what is it that Oakland was prepared to do? There is no Oakland offer,” he said. “I mean, they never got to the point where they had a plan to build a stadium at any site. And it’s not just John Fisher. You don’t build a stadium based on the club activity alone. The community has to provide support. And, you know, at some point, you come to the realization it’s just not going to happen.”
The mayor’s office in Oakland quickly issued a statement calling that claim “just totally false.”
Oakland is a significantly larger media market than Las Vegas, but attempts over the years to get a new stadium built in the Bay Area have been stalled by the city’s reluctance to divert public funds. What was once a trend in stadium construction has been shown to not result in the promised return on public value. In response to studies showing as much, Manfred said, “Academics can say whatever they want. I think the reality tells you something else.”
Meanwhile, on the baseball field, the A’s are historically bad this year. Despite a recent win streak, they’re playing sub-.300 baseball more than a third of the way through the season. And despite past success on a relative shoestring budget, this year’s roster is as about as bare-bones as a big-league club can be — and about as cheap, too.
Earlier this week, Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner expressed concern about rival teams hurting the overall business of baseball by fielding such uncompetitive teams, especially when team owners have the financial means to invest more.
Asked if he believes the current A’s represent a good faith effort by Fisher to field a competitive club, Manfred instead cited financial limitations.
“I think if you look at the A’s record over time — and the economic circumstances, including the state of the stadium that they’ve operated in for a very long time — they had a very, very good record up through the pandemic. That’s what I would say,” he said. “Markets that face that kind of financial difficulty often have to make hard decisions with respect to players when you have limited financial resources.”
If Manfred was trying to imply that this is the best Fisher can do under dire economic straits, he wouldn’t say so directly.
“I don’t make judgments about how people put their teams together,” he said. “It’s not appropriate for me to do.”
In Oakland, the on-field product combined with the disrepair of the stadium and the out-of-step ticket prices have succeeded in generally driving fans away from the A’s current home at the Coliseum. But because that kind of low attendance can be held against a fan base in justifying relocation, Oakland A’s fans organized a “reverse boycott,” turning out Tuesday in green “SELL” shirts to show support for the team, if not the owner.
Manfred didn’t watch that game — he was out to dinner with owners at the time — but said of the event: “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.”
If that was intended as a joke, he did not laugh. And, indeed, the snark served to undermine his earlier claim to “feel sorry for the fans in Oakland.”
Lastly, Manfred confirmed that should the relocation application be approved, MLB would waive the relocation fee.
On the latest in sticky stuff enforcement
Several years after a concerted crackdown on pitchers’ use of sticky stuff, umpires rely on trained touch to determine if a particular pitcher is abusing rosin or an illegal substance. This has been relatively smooth, with just three pitchers ejected and suspended so far this season. However, the concentration on certain teams has raised some concern. Two New York Mets big-leaguers, Max Scherzer and Drew Smith, along with one Yankees starter, Domingo Germán, have been the only pitchers punished this year.
“Where the violations happen to fall, that’s a product of who’s violating, in my view,” Manfred said Thursday.
Asked if he thought those were the only three (major-league) pitchers illegally using sticky stuff, he said no.
“I’ll tell you why I answer it that way,” Manfred said. “I am sure that out of an abundance of caution and good judgment, umpires have had questionable situations that they decided are just not quite sure, and I am 100 percent certain they err on the side of no violation.”
On the ongoing Pride Night controversies
MLB’s relationship to the LGBTQ+ community has been a focal point this month as 29 teams — all except the Texas Rangers — host Pride Nights, at times inspiring backlash from outside groups and even some players. Manfred said the league office leaves it up to individual clubs to decide how to celebrate, or not, Pride Month, saying “each market is really in the best position to decide what’s good in its market.”
But he said MLB has provided some recent centralized guidance: “We have told teams in terms of actual uniforms, hats, bases that we don’t think putting logos on them is a good idea just because of the desire to protect players and not putting them in a position of doing something that may make them uncomfortable because of their personal views.”
Asked if he would like to see all 30 MLB teams celebrate Pride, he said, “I think that my expressing an opinion on what should happen across the league is directly contrary to our policy of letting the local clubs decide.”