Baseball right to abandon unpopular rule changes
By Matthew Gagnon
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, who I have called “the worst commissioner of any major sport” just said something remarkable that I think is deserving of high praise.
During a question and answer session hosted by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America on Tuesday, Manfred was asked about some of the rules changes that were implemented in baseball during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, the question was posed as to whether or not these changes would be permanent.
The rule changes were many, but notably included changes to how double headers and extra-inning games were handled. Major League Baseball has been running doubleheader games of seven innings each, rather than nine innings, and have started extra innings with a runner on second base.
“I see the extra-innings rule and seven inning doubleheader as rules that were adopted based on medical advice to deal with COVID,” Manfred said. “I think they are much less likely to become part of our permanent landscape than some of the other rules we’ve talked about over time.”
Now, these changes were not, as Manfred said, implemented “to respond to the pandemic.” That is certainly what Major League Baseball claimed at the time, but most of the implemented changes were in fact considered well before the pandemic as part of Manfred’s push to deal with length and pace of play issues in the game, and his desire to make the game more dynamic to younger generations.
Indeed, the extra-inning rule was actually implemented in the minor leagues in 2018 as part of a suite of many changes that baseball wanted to try out, and see how they fared. Major League Baseball itself announced that starting in 2019, the extra-inning rule would be used in the All Star Game.
What COVID-19 actually did was provide Manfred cover to begin to implement a number of changes in Major League Baseball, and attempt to get some traction for those changes to hopefully keep them into the future.
Which is exactly why I think his statement that the changes would likely be removed is so remarkable. It is a rather brave admission that some major changes championed by his office were not, it turns out, good ideas.
It is incredibly difficult for a leader to admit that truth, particularly when they had advocated and accomplished a major change to disrupt the established order in a conservative entity like baseball. It requires maturity and honesty to evaluate that change on its merits, decide that it didn’t do what you wanted it to do, and then decide to abandon it.
You almost never see this happen, whether you are talking about a major corporation, a government agency, a sports league or any other large, slow to change entity. This is due to a version of the “sunk cost fallacy,” a concept first described in the investing world, whereby people would refuse to cut their financial losses because they had “already invested too much” to abandon the investment.
This human psychological phenomenon applies to much more than finance. We see it in business, relationships and politics.
When leaders go out on a limb and push for change, they invest so much time, effort, money and emotion in the effort that often it becomes impossible to objectively analyze it. To them, they have sunk so much of their own credibility on an idea, if the idea is undone it will mean that all that “sunk cost” has been wasted.
Of course, if the idea was a failure, the effort was indeed wasted anyway.
This is why I find Manfred’s decision so refreshing. In this case, he seems to understand that the ideas he wanted to try out were ultimately bad changes that fans hated, and changes that did not actually make the game of baseball any better. And so he had the maturity to admit that, and move on.
This is something I wish we would see out of politicians and bureaucrats more, as they are the worst offenders. Bad ideas, bad policies, bad approaches — they are all very common, and yet very rarely will you see leaders confront that truth, admit that their idea ended up not being a good idea and promise to walk it back.
The irony is that if they did that, people would likely respond. Certainly, politicians would open themselves up to accusations of flip flopping and indecisiveness, but would any of us really have a problem with hearing one of our leaders say, “upon further reflection …” followed by an admission that they were wrong?
Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland.