How Rob Manfred Navigated a Summer of Peril for Baseball

But when the pandemic forced swaths of the country to lock down and pro sports leagues suspended operations, it seemed like a problem that more suited Manfred’s strengths. Before becoming commissioner, he had been the sport’s top official to deal with the gnarly problem of steroids, and this conundrum felt similar, covering an unusual collision of legal, labor, financial and health issues.

Right after the N.B.A. suspended its season on March 11, Manfred shut down the commissioner’s office in Midtown Manhattan, and set up at his home office in Florida. But even before he could try finding a way to safely playing the game, he had to deal with the financial problems the pandemic had created.

“There was an initial phase of survival, literally, of the business and that mostly involved liquidity,” Manfred said.

Baseball, a $10 billion industry, took on $2.5 billion worth of debt over a matter of days, Manfred said. M.L.B. quickly made a deal with the players’ union to lay out a rough framework of pay for players and other considerations for the 2020 season — whenever it might be played.

He, his deputies, and allies in ownership, including Yankees President Randy Levine, then bore down to study the health and science around the virus and how it might affect their sport, but hard answers proved elusive. Doctors and scientists had different opinions about basic issues, like whether the virus could live on surfaces — an essential question when talking about a sport played with a ball.

But as he believed he was confronting a science problem, a labor one arose. The dispute centered on whether players would receive their same pay per game even if there were no fans in the stands, which was becoming an increasingly likely prospect. Owners felt players should take additional pay cuts if there was to be no ticket revenue, but the union insisted on the initial deal they had struck: getting paid their full prorated salaries for every game played, whether fans attended or not.

Amid public jousting with the players and growing criticism of the owners, Manfred flew to Arizona to meet with Clark, the union head, in the hopes of hammering out a deal.

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