After the Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz had a contentious interview with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on Wednesday, MLB officials complained about the spot to the highest levels of ESPN management, The Big Lead has learned.
In confirming that these discussions took place, ESPN spokesperson Ben Cafardo passed along the following statement from Burke Magnus, ESPN Executive Vice President, Programming and Scheduling: “We have a terrific relationship with Major League Baseball and we’re in constant communication at all levels, so it’s not uncommon that we would discuss both issues and opportunities in the course of that communication.”
This episode underscores the delicate balance ESPN must strike between its journalism and its broadcast rights partners, and the extent to which the former can make the latter uncomfortable.
The interview was turbulent from the get-go. Le Batard pressed Manfred on whether the commissioner was aware that new Marlins ownership led by Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter planned to slash payroll. Manfred said he refused to be deposed, and that MLB does not approve operating decisions of individual clubs. Le Batard followed up by saying Manfred was starting with a lie, which Manfred took exception to, saying that he wouldn’t be called a liar.
If, semantically, what Manfred said was not an outright lie, it certainly does not appear to have been truthful.
After the interview, Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald wrote, “Two people directly involved in the sales process said that Jeter and Sherman were required to tell other owners their intentions with payroll during the approval process, and that they informed the other owners that payroll would be cut from $115 million to the $85 million to $90 million range, with $85 million used at times and $90 million other times in those discussions.”
Jackson later went on Spain and Fitz on ESPN Radio and reiterated this sourcing, emphasizing that the Marlins’ payroll slashing plan was labeled “Project Wolverine,” and that of course Manfred knew:
“He was totally aware of it, and I think he was disingenuous in his interview with Dan Le Batard today. Now, you could parse words, and say that Manfred was correct in saying that he did not know that the Marlins specifically would trade Stanton, Gordon, and Ozuna, but for him to suggest that he was unaware that there would be significant payroll slashing is simply not accurate. In order for Jeter and his business partner Bruce Sherman to get the team, they prepared this document, which was called Project Wolverine, for reasons unknown, and this document was circulated to potential investors — several of whom ended up investing — and it specifically said that under his plan payroll would be cut from $115 million last season to $90 million this year. Major league owners were aware of this plan. So was Rob Manfred. This came up during the approval process. So, for the Commissioner, and all due respect to him, but for him to go on Le Batard’s show today and say that he was unaware of this plan simply rings not accurate to me.”
Le Batard, who was scheduled for time off today and all of next week, opened his radio show Thursday by saying, “It might be the last show of the year, or it might just be the last show forever, because this has been unpleasant.”
He admitted that his tone was bad and that he was too emotional — he has had an emotional week since his friend and boss John Skipper resigned abruptly Monday, citing substance addiction– and that he should have just stuck to facts as opposed to pounding the table: “ESPN has a partnership with baseball and when you do something like that in public it doesn’t feel like being a very good partner. Rob Manfred is pretty used to safe spaces with his interviews. He’s probably never done an interview quite like that.”
Bill Simmons’ largest problems with ESPN management notably came when he called Roger Goodell a liar, and Skipper made the decision not to renew his contract the day after Simmons went on the Dan Patrick Show and said that Goodell lacked testicular fortitude. Scott Van Pelt was once suspended by ESPN for criticizing former MLB commissioner Bud Selig.
Nevertheless, Le Batard said he did the job he was entrusted to do by this company. “We’re trying to do journalism but [there’s a] conflict of interest that ESPN has between business and journalism and entertainment all the time.”
Le Batard said that what he is most worried about is that if this present rebuild fails, the Miami fanbase will be scapegoated for it and the team is going to move away like the Expos did from Montreal.
“I was not looking to get the commissioner to embarrass himself,” Le Batard said. “And I certainly wasn’t looking to embarrass myself or this network. I simply wanted answers to difficult questions. And so the beginning part of that interview was not me grandstanding. It was me emotional and bothered, and then the first question I asked him, he won’t answer it. He won’t give me a yes or no answer. And then when he does answer it, the thing that he says I know to not be true. And that’s where it escalated. He thought I was just a radio gasbag. He did not think that I actually knew and had facts.”
While Le Batard admitted he should have said what he did in a diplomatic tone and wording, he continued to believe he was largely in the right: “We got at the truth and it was deeply uncomfortable … Journalism is about getting to the truth, and that’s where that went off the rails.”
In addition to national broadcast rights for $700 million annually, ESPN has spent nearly $2.6 billion in the last couple years acquiring 75% of MLB Advanced Media (now re-branded as BAMTech) for its streaming technology, and will be the rightsholder regionally for about half of MLB if its deal to purchase the Fox Sports RSNs is approved by the Justice Department as part of the larger Disney/Fox agreement.
Le Batard is the son of Cuban refugees and values his freedom of speech above all else — even more than the platform he has on ESPN. He has vowed to use that platform, as long as he has it, to advocate for the people of South Florida. The people of South Florida paid over a billion dollars in taxpayer money for a new stadium, only to see Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria sell the franchise for $1.2 billion to a group that had to sell off major parts of a prolific offense, including NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton, in order to finance the debt. This is the fourth time the franchise has gutted itself of its best players.
As commissioner, Rob Manfred made a tacit compromise for the franchise to be sold for the highest sticker price, at the expense of the local fans’ enjoyment of at least the next couple years’ teams. It’s an inconvenient truth, which he denied to someone who wouldn’t back down.