Ben Frederickson: MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is a problem in the clubhouse

A player’s productive postseason experience matters when he joins a World Series contender before the trade deadline.

A pitcher snapping a skid with a dominant performance that sparks a winning streak means more than a number in the win column.

Even the most advanced metrics in a value-obsessed sport can’t quantify a clubhouse presence. When it comes to team morale, guys are either one of two things. A minus, or a plus.

Here’s something Major League Baseball owners should take a moment to consider when they gather this week for their meetings in Orlando, Florida.

What is commissioner Rob Manfred’s score with players, and how is it hurting negotiations, or lack thereof, during this ongoing labor dispute?

“He (Manfred) has galvanized us in ways he can’t imagine,” an anonymous MLB player said to Forbes. “He underestimates how unified we are in this moment.”

Other players are more than happy to put their name on their criticism.

“Manclown and his boys need to figure it out and stop ruining the game of baseball,” Cubs starter Marcus Stroman tweeted.

“Not a single negotiation with the guy has been in good faith,” Trevor May said during a recent livestream. “He doesn’t do good faith things.”

The Mets reliever was just getting warmed up.

“Him and the people he put around him, his team, all the executives, are going to leverage every single ounce,” May said. “This is not good faith. This is not a mutually beneficial situation. They want to win. So, in the past, there has been an element of, like, respect for the game of baseball. And tradition. Romantic. Those things are not on Rob’s radar. They are just not that important to him. It’s just that simple.

“He doesn’t really think about the fan as a fan. He doesn’t really think about the players as people. He thinks about all of us as dollar signs, and he wants to move the pieces in order to maximize the number of dollar signs that go to his bosses.”

It’s one thing when fans and even media hammer a commissioner. But these are players going to town, publicly. And the examples of an all-out verbal assault against baseball’s boss are becoming easier and easier to find as the owner-led lockout lengthens to the point of impacting spring training, increasing the likelihood that the regular-season schedule gets marred.

Is Manfred an easy target? Of course. He gets paid handsomely to be the bad guy in situations such as this. His actions have made it clear he’s less interested in being an ambassador for the game, and more interested in maximizing revenues for owners. And don’t forget this part. He’s quite good at it.

But there is a downside to his cold-blooded way of doing business. It has contributed to the crumbling of the relationship between the league and its players. That’s an easy problem to overlook almost always — except for when a collective bargaining agreement expires, and some level of compromise is required to determine the next one.

The latest non-news from the front line of the lockout provides a perfect example. Players quickly rejected the owners’ request to bring in a neutral mediator to potentially move the stalled conversation forward. One reason was because players were told a counter proposal, not a call for mediation, was coming. Another reason was because they felt like owners were making a public relations play. A standoff that really could use a neutral third party didn’t get one, at least not yet, and in large part because of distrust.

Baseball is going to be blue on Valentine’s Day. The most popular topic in American sports after the Super Bowl will be bashing baseball for failing to launch. Maybe it always was going to be this way, but I can’t be convinced it had to be this bad, and it’s going to get worse, I’m afraid.

Manfred might be good at making money for his bosses, but he has made a lot of unforced errors as this labor fight loomed. I’m not talking about the bizarre rule changes and multiple controversies about the composition of the baseball. I’m talking about how those distractions and others got more attention from the commissioner than inching his sport out of the direct line of the world’s most telegraphed punch. America’s pastime is about to take it square on the chin, and Manfred leaned baseball into the blow.

Figuring out how to play through the pandemic could and should have softened the edges of this conversation. It sharpened them instead. At a time when the average American is intolerant of players and owners fighting about money, baseball is preparing to melt down. Many are responsible, but who is more responsible than Manfred? He led the game here.

When players talk about their distaste of tanking, service time manipulation and how the growing difference between league revenue and average player salaries are a sign of not enough teams wanting to win, they can point to a quote.

It’s Manfred’s, who in 2020 had to apologize for calling the World Series championship trophy named after his position, “a piece of metal.”

When players unapologetically negotiate like they have been negotiated against for years, they have a way of doing business to reference.

It’s Manfred’s, whose league was caught in 2019 handing out an unofficial award to the front office that did the “best” job limiting player salaries in arbitration.

Fair or not, Manfred is perceived by some players as an enemy more than an opponent, at a time when he should be viewed as a partner. Fair or not, the commissioner is being being publicly insulted by some players instead of respected as a business ally. Fair or not, complicated negotiations about the game’s economics would be tense without the presence of so much bad blood, and Manfred so often has made players’ blood boil.

If Manfred’s biggest strength in the eyes of the owners is that he is good for business, his bosses should also be sure to consider the downside that is playing out now.