Why did Rob Manfred announce this as his final term as MLB commissioner so early?

TAMPA, Fla. — It isn’t clear why Commissioner Rob Manfred publicly acknowledged his plans to retire five years ahead of time. Did he want that message out, or did it just happen to come out?

At a press conference on Feb. 8, Manfred was asked about expansion to 32 teams, and noted it likely wouldn’t happen before he was done as commissioner.  That was the first public hint.

He then made a similar reference again Thursday in another press conference, when he was asked about selecting future All-Star Game host cities. He said he wants the new commissioner to be able to make the selections beyond 2028, because his term ends in 2029. When a reporter followed up, Manfred didn’t hold back.

“You can only have so much fun in one lifetime,” Manfred said Thursday. “I have been open with them (the owners) about the fact that this is going to be my last term.”

Perhaps Manfred was simply giving direct answers about those two topics, expansion and the All-Star Game, rather than proactively trying to disseminate his retirement plan. But does a high-powered lawyer only casually mention the end of his time as CEO in an $11 billion industry?

One possibility is that it just won’t mean anything.

Bud Selig said in 2003 he would leave in 2006, and in 2006 he said he would leave in 2009. He stayed until January 2015, when Manfred took over. So if Manfred changed his mind and the owners wanted him back, it wouldn’t be unprecedented.

Manfred’s predecessor Bud Selig, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017, wasn’t exactly consistent with his retirement plans. (Mike Stobe / Getty Images)

Maybe, in that vein, it’s a bit of a long-term leverage play. Manfred could have been sending a message to the owners that if they do decide they want him back in 2029, they’ll need to make it worth his while — be that in compensation, or maybe simply cooperation.

And Manfred really could intend to leave. He likes to golf, and he’ll have worked in baseball for about 40 years come 2029. The job is grueling, with 30 ultra-wealthy bosses who are difficult to manage, to say the least. And as he pointed out himself, he’ll be 70 come January 2029.

“I think he’s tired,” one person briefed on ownership matters said. “He’s been in baseball a long time.”

Yet, that still doesn’t clear up why Manfred would make himself known as a lame duck, five years out.

“I’m curious about that,” said a second person briefed on ownership matters.

Maybe Manfred sees a certain power in it. If he wants to narrow his owners’ focus on certain topics, setting a deadline for his own departure might help. The job of the commissioner is to herd cattle — the owners. His exit plan could help tilt their efforts toward specific, pressing initiatives. For example: Manfred doesn’t seem to want to move on expansion until MLB better figures out the future of TV and streaming.

“We’re gonna have to get our footing on local media a little better,” Manfred said. “In times of uncertainty, it’s hard to talk about additional change. Having said that, look, I got five (years as commissioner) left, this year and four more. Those teams, even if I push the issue, they won’t be playing by the time I’m done.”

Planting a flag that the job will be open also might allow a longer runway to find replacement candidates outside the sport. Top executives now know that a prestigious job running a major sports league is likely available in a few years. But, reasonably, that notice could have reached those elite circles without a public broadcast.

Manfred is also, today, coming off a season that might well be remembered as his high point: the new playing rules worked well in 2023, increasing the sport’s appeal. It’s not the worst moment to announce departure plans.

Back when Manfred was re-elected, last July, he said he did not know whether this term would be his last — something he contradicted Thursday.

On the day of re-election, Manfred may have felt it simply too soon to reveal his plan. Yet, last summer’s proceeding to bring him back was also a little different than the previous one.

Manfred received an additional four years, whereas his two prior contracts had been for five years. MLB last summer also declined to disclose the tally of votes that gave Manfred the four-year extension. That’s in contrast to his first extension, in 2018, which was reported to be a unanimous vote.

In other words: Manfred’s 2023 extension might not have been as much a fait accompli as the first one in 2018. Some owners might have wanted this term to be his last.

Manfred said Thursday that he had in fact told the owners of this retirement plan at the time of last July’s vote — something that was rumored at the time. Yet, one of the people briefed on ownership matters said Thursday that the retirement plan was not something they learned until after the election.

In the end, Manfred might not been playing public-messaging chess at all. He’s always been more direct than the likes of Selig, so maybe he was just being practical. Maybe it was less, “Why now?” and more, “Why not now?”

But Manfred has had multiple press conferences since July, and the topics haven’t varied that much. It’s hard to shake a sense that recently, for reasons not entirely clear, Manfred decided it was in his or the league’s best interest to go public with his planned exit.

(Top photo: AP Photo / Charlie Neibergall)

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