And the winner is ... Rob Manfred.

The World Series is set, and as game one between the Dodgers and Rays got going last night, it’s clear this championship boils down to the fact that it’s happening. 

The World Series that seemed impossible to reach as Major League Baseball fumbled through the first half of its pandemic-shortened season has arrived. Players are bubbled up, and the virus had been more or less pushed out before then thanks to improved practices and stronger enforcement. You can never say never with COVID, but it seems baseball has a clear path to the finish line. The COVID criticisms of Rob Manfred that were easy to find and well deserved while baseball’s season looked shaky have since cooled. He weathered the storm.

It gets better, way better, than that for Manfred.

The sign-sealing story line Manfred desperately wants to see go away has been sidestepped. I’m sure Major League Baseball would have loved the ratings that came with a rematch of the 2017 World Series, but Astros-Dodgers would have required plenty of discussion about the electronic sign-stealing that happened in Houston under Manfred’s watch. It would have reminded us that key Houston players in that 2017 World Series were back in this one after facing no real punishment, while former manager A.J. Hinch was serving as one of the hottest names in managerial searches following his brief suspension. Adding fuel to the fire would have been former Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow’s timely interview with a Houston NBC station. It airs in full tonight. In it, Luhnow makes his case that the Astros’ sign-stealing was a retaliatory move to similar processes used by the Yankees and the Red Sox. You can see why Manfred might be glad to avoid Astros-Dodgers, unlike the rest of us.

This Dodgers-Rays matchup gives him much more appealing story lines.

Such as ...

The expanded postseason did not lead to the best teams in baseball being booted from bracketball in an early upset. The Rays led the American League in wins with 40. No other team had more than 36. The Dodgers led the National League in wins with 43. No other NL team had more than 37. Manfred has made it clear that he and the owners he represents want this version of the playoffs, or something close to it, to stick around. A massive upheaval, like the 29-31 Astros making a World Series run, would have created some discussion about the integrity of bracketball. That argument can and should still be made, of course, but there is not a glaring example of evidence in the first run.

There’s another reason Manfred should love this series.

You are already seeing it pop up in conversations. It’s the big-spending Dodgers versus the penny-pinching Rays. The Rays have one of baseball’s lowest payrolls. The Dodges have one of baseball’s biggest. Manfred, the commissioner of a salary-cap-less league that is one season away from a new collective bargaining agreement, likes to stress that payroll doesn’t equate to competitiveness. Usually, he’s wrong. As Jared Diamond of The Wall Street Journal notes in this fascinating story, 18 of the last 20 titles have been won by a team in the top half of payroll. Still, the optics of Rays-Dodgers is great for Manfred, who often has to defend tanking owners who are not as interested in maximizing value like the Rays. Baseball is still speeding toward a massive labor debate after the 2021 season, when a new collective bargaining agreement must be agreed to between team owners and players. Owners are going to point to the pandemic as a reason their spending must be adjusted. Manfred can point to the Rays as a reason to tell players declining payrolls don’t always mean declining performance. It’s an outlier, sure, but one that will certainly be used.

With that, let the series begin. We await the winner, while already knowing the biggest one. It’s the commissioner who looked like he was on shaky ground just months ago.

Manfred seems to have regained his footing.

Now he just has to remember to avoid calling the Commissioner’s Trophy, “a piece of metal,” when he hands it over to this year’s champion.

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