Manfred gets confrontational over MLB union’s resistance to pace-of-play changes

PHOENIX — I get the players’ perspective. They worry about the game on the field changing too radically due to pace-of-play improvements. They worry, as one told me, that, “If you try to control the game, you turn us into robots.”

These are legitimate concerns — concerns to express in bargaining with the clubs. But in the view of commissioner Rob Manfred, the union is stonewalling, not bargaining.

Strategically — no matter where one stands on the issue — that is a mistake.

Manfred, speaking at a news conference Tuesday, threw a figurative 95-mph fastball under the chin of union chief Tony Clark, a man who experienced that sensation quite literally in his playing days. The confrontational tone of the commissioner’s remarks was stunning, considering that the two sides reached a new collective-bargaining agreement less than three months ago.

The problem for Clark is that if the two sides cannot agree on proposed rules changes, the CBA gives Manfred the power to act with more than just words in year two of the deal. Manfred left no doubt he would exert that power — the baseball equivalent of an executive order – saying, “we intend to pursue our agenda for change in year two … for the benefit of the game and the fans.”

To put it more bluntly, Manfred threw his figurative knockdown pitch without fear of an umpire issuing a warning. Quite the opposite, actually – Manfred’s pitch was the warning, and the CBA empowers him to throw the next one directly at Clark’s head.

Yes, it’s that nasty in this supposed era of good feeling.

Labor peace is assured through 2021, but baseball essentially threatened a lockout to get the CBA done. The widespread perception that the deal is one-sided in favor of the owners probably did not help the union’s disposition. And now tensions are rising over issues on which there should at least be a semblance of common ground.

Whether the players want to admit it or not, pace-of-play is an issue. Pace-of-action also is an issue. And while the players are rightly protective of the game on the field – a game that, as Manfred noted, attracted 75 million people to major-league parks last season – let’s not forget that change often is necessary and good.

Many players expressed skepticism about the home-plate collision and second-base slide rules, but after brief and somewhat tumultuous adjustment periods, both proved beneficial, helping make the game safer. Pace-of-play improvements also would require players to change old habits. But as the game gets slower and slower and society moves faster and faster, can someone please explain why that is such a bad thing?

The facts are damning, and not in dispute.

The average time of game increased by 4 minutes, 28 seconds last season after a reduction of more than six minutes the year before. Manfred said that since 1980, home runs are up 32 percent and strikeouts 67 percent.

The percentage of balls in play last season was (yawn) a record low, the relief pitcher usage per game (double yawn) a record high. And no, replay is not the cause — the average length of review last season was the lowest in the three years the system has been in place.

Manfred said baseball will maintain its proposals to the union — a pitch clock, reduced mound visits and higher strike zone among them. The effect of the higher strike zone, in particular, is debatable, even if data shows that the bottom of the zone has dropped by two inches since 2009. But let’s just say the union needs to agree to more than just the elimination of the four-pitch intentional walk.

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One player said defiantly that Manfred “doesn’t realize the fight he is picking. Four years from now, he will see absolute wrath if he makes the moves himself.” The player added, “the union is listening to the players, and the players don’t want the changes.” He also said that baseball is offering the players nothing in return.

Clark, though, is not even speaking the same language as Manfred — the union chief wants to educate fans on what happens during the dead time, explain the nuances of the game. He mentioned his ideas to reporters over the weekend, and elaborated upon them to me in an E-mail on Monday, albeit without saying how such a plan would work.

“Our game is full of conversations that may never be spoken and decisions that are often made in the blink of an eye,” Clark said. “At times, those conversations, those decisions, we see or we see the result of. Often times, we don’t.

“Sometimes they happen on the field. Sometimes they happen in the dugout. Often times they happen on the mound or in the batters box. But in a game, in a chess match, they happen. And being able to see them, talk about them and explain them is what the folks in our game do very well.

“It is that willingness to continue to engage, educate and equip that is part of the reason that I believe we can excite our fans and fans-to-be once the dust settles.”

Clark said that mound visits are part of the chess match, complicating the discussion about reducing their number. Whatever, Manfred was having none of it, saying, “I reject the notion that we can, ‘educate fans to embrace the game as it’s currently being played.’”

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“We know not based on impressions or thoughts — we know based on really fundamental research — what our fans think about the game,” Manfred said. “It’s in the player’s interest it’s in our interest to be responsive to what fans think about the game.”

Clark issued a statement in response to Manfred’s remarks, disputing that the union has not been cooperative, noting that two years ago it negotiated pace-of-play protocols that had “an immediate and positive impact.” He added that he expects continued discussions, but that, “fundamental changes to the game are going to be an uphill battle.”

Well, those changes are necessary, and those changes are coming. The union needs to get with the program already. If Clark is unable to negotiate a deal the players find acceptable, Manfred will fire an even more pointed knockdown pitch and decide the terms for him.