MLB commissioner Rob Manfred ratchets up pressure on union over pace of play

TORONTO – Rob Manfred has had little difficulty getting the attention of the chattering classes whenever he’s brought up the topic of “pace of play” or “pace of action.” Fans, media and former players have all staked out positions and generally enjoyed the resulting rather robust debates.

It’s all been good fun, in the way debating the merits of the designated hitter is fun. Until now.

Only Manfred knows for certain why he ratcheted up the pressure on the Major League Baseball Players Association on Tuesday, taking advantage of an organized spring training media availability in Arizona that promised little to deliver a shot into the bow of the union.

Referring to a “lack of co-operation” from union chief Tony Clark on the matter of proposed rules changes, Manfred revealed that he was more than willing to unilaterally impose changes in time for the 2018 season. Yes, he can do that under the CBA – and in the process, Manfred took what was essentially the games version of bar talk and turned it into a labour issue.

That research sitting in Manfred’s office about fans’ desires to see changes to the pace of play? Must be something else.

For the first time since replacing Bud Selig as commissioner in January 2015, he used the bully pulpit of his office. And it was something to see. Know this about Manfred: as commissioner, he has made pace of play a cornerstone concern for his administration.

Under Manfred, baseball has used the minor leagues and Arizona Fall League to experiment with a pitch clock and instituted a clock in Major League stadiums to help umpires enforce time between innings. Manfred has also expressed interest in experimenting with the installation of a runner on second base to start each half of extra innings, a rules quirk that will be used in the World Baseball Classic.

To that end, the four-pitch intentional walk has reportedly been replaced by a simple indication from the manager that the hitter was being intentionally passed, and would also see the bottom of the strike zone raised by two inches. Tuesday, Manfred seemed to suggest that limiting the number of trips to the mound was also on the table (he referred with a sense of bitterness at frustration with an inability to get the MLBPA to agree to “modest changes … like limiting trips to the mound.”)

The players association would need to approve these changes, and Clark shot them all down over the weekend – essentially saying he was fine with the game the way it was, that people need to stop harping on the rigors of the three-hour game and suggesting that maybe baseball needed to do more to educate fans on the nuances of the game. It wasn’t exactly “screw you, Millennials, and your attention spans of a three-year-old,” but it was close.

Manfred believes that the debate has been improperly framed. It’s not how long the game takes to be played, it’s the amount of action. He has, he said, no target for the “ideal” length of game, because it is obvious that doing things such as raising the bottom of the strike zone – which would theoretically see more balls in play – doesn’t necessarily speed up the game.

“The fact is that you can induce action … but you can’t control time,” Manfred said.

What the commissioner wants it less dead time. He wants fewer walks and strikeouts with more balls in play. Less dithering in the batters’ box, less navel-gazing and contemplation of their surroundings by pitchers when they’re on the mound, fewer trips to the mound by catchers and pitching coaches and infielders.

People familiar with Manfred’s thinking maintain that his plan all along was to ‘scare’ the players into speeding things up by running out all manner of changes in the minors with suggestions they’d be instituted at the Major League level, then proceeding with further measures from there.

It’s understandable that players would think long and hard about something as fundamental as changes to the strike zone, since that’s a bread-and-butter issue for hitters and pitchers, but what seems to have particularly galled Manfred is the union’s apparent refusal to consider getting rid of what might be called non-essential delays. (If you’re wondering about video replay, which is something everybody agrees has slowed down the pace of play, Manfred reiterated that he believes a time limit must now be placed on managers deciding whether or not to challenge a play, while reminding folks that is an issue between the umpires’ union and his office that does not require player approval.)

At any rate, it’s been some time since baseball felt a spring training chill like the one it felt Tuesday.

Among those with memories of past labor battles, there will be concern this morning as to whether there isn’t some kind of wider agenda at play. To be sure, it’s possible that the commissioner sees an opportunity to push Clark into a corner after a winter in which labor negotiations took a surprisingly negative turn, en route to a collective bargaining agreement that seemed to tilt the playing field toward ownership.

Does Manfred and, by extension, ownership sense they can shift the ground underneath Clark, a whip-smart, former player who nonetheless has failed to receive the same level of respect – grudging or otherwise – of his predecessors Michael Weiner and Donald Fehr? They were both labor lawyers who struck up a strong relationship with Manfred when he was one of commissioner Bud Selig’s point men on CBA talks, lawyers who were able to find common cause with the commissioner’s office on matters such as congressional investigations into the game’s steroid issue, the WBC, and the importance of advanced media.

Manfred certainly wouldn’t be the first commissioner to view little wins here and there as a means of forwarding a wider agenda, to take advantage of every opportunity to chip away at the union. And perhaps there’s still some residual bitterness over recent CBA talks. Some re-staking of failed positions on both sides.

But at this juncture, with labour peace guaranteed through 2021, it’s tough to see a reason for either side to have that as an endgame. Let’s just hope it’s a matter of Manfred needing to get the attention of the one constituency that might have the most to lose in all this and convince them that, in reality, they have the most to gain.

The ‘or else’ card was in his hand all along. Tuesday, he played it.