Rob Manfred is ready for a fight if players won't budge

Jeff PassanMLB columnist
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is adamant baseball needs to respond to fans’ desires to change the game. (AP)
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is adamant baseball needs to respond to fans’ desires to change the game. (AP)

PHOENIX – Not even two minutes into his latest state of baseball address, commissioner Rob Manfred, now comfortably into his third season on the job, revealed publicly what for years lurked in boardrooms and offices with windows. He cruised to the commissionership on a flotilla of logic, conviction and mastery of rules, yes, but the trait that always aggrieved his adversaries and titillated his supporters bloomed in full view for the world to see: When he believes in something, he will spare nothing in seeing it through.

As the lead labor lawyer for Major League Baseball, he did what at one point seemed impossible: tipped the imbalance of negotiations, forever in the players’ corner, back to the league. As the bulldog behind the prosecution of Alex Rodriguez, he found lines legal and ethical and tip-toed to the very last millimeter. And now, as commissioner, tasked with a game that has bled young fans for far too long, Manfred made clear Tuesday he will not sit by idly as opponents – and to think he sees them as anything else is a fundamental misread of how Rob Manfred does business – attempt to filibuster changes he believes will help the game.

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Manfred made it very clear: While the MLB Players Association is expected to block league-proposed rules changes that include a pitch clock, a smaller strike zone, limits on mound visits and an automatic intentional walk, he will not hesitate to use unilateral power before the 2018 season to implement the rules should the union continue not to agree with his proposals.

“Unfortunately, it now appears there won’t be any meaningful changes for the 2017 season due to a lack of cooperation from the MLBPA,” Manfred said. “I’ve tried to be clear that our game is fundamentally sound, that it does not need to be fixed, as some people have suggested, and I think last season was a concrete demonstration of the potential of our game to captivate the nation and of the game’s unique place in American culture. …

“I’m firmly convinced that our fans, both our avid fans and casual fans, want us to respond to and manage the change that’s going on in the game. I know – I’m certain – that our job as stewards of the game is to be responsive to fans, and I reject the notion that we can ‘educate’ fans to embrace the game as it’s currently being played.”

In a text message, union executive director Tony Clark told Yahoo Sports that “unless your definition of ‘cooperation’ is blanket approval, I don’t agree that we’ve failed to cooperate with the Commissioner’s Office on these issues.”

Added Clark: “Two years ago we negotiated pace of play protocols that had immediate and positive impact. Last year we took a step backward in some ways, and this offseason we’ve been in regular contact with MLB and with our members to get a better handle on why that happened. I would be surprised if those discussions with MLB don’t continue, notwithstanding today’s comments about implementation. As I’ve said, fundamental changes to the game are going to be an uphill battle, but the lines of communication should remain open.”

In addition, Clark said he believes MLB expect to continue negotiating a number of smaller changes: the no-pitch intentional walks, a two-minute time limit on replay challenges and a new structure for pace-of-game warnings and fines.

Nevertheless, the press conference showcased Manfred at his most forceful, essentially threatening to use the collectively bargained rule that allows the league powers in changing on-field playing rules after two offseasons should it not reach an agreement with the MLBPA. Manfred took a page from presidential diplomacy: Barring the support of the union, he will not hesitate to issue the sporting equivalent of executive orders to further his agenda.

While these ideas could well define the early years of his commissionership, their potential implementation further speaks to the fashion in which the league office views the union. “We have, I think, a good relationship with the MLBPA,” Manfred said, and it’s difficult to argue they are warring after reaching an agreement on a new five-year deal over the offseason.

Still, the subtext of Manfred’s comments Tuesday, as well as those of union executive director Tony Clark over the weekend, underscore a burbling resentment that goes both ways – from the league to the union over what it feels like is unnecessary intransigence regarding the game’s continued evolution and from the union to the league over a chilly free-agent market and fears of a disproportionate percentage of revenues being siphoned away from players and into the pockets of teams.

Manfred was aggressive, pointed and principled Tuesday, contending that while baseball is strong, it cannot ignore the preponderance of dead time and lack of action during the game. A clock, which is used in the minor leagues and allows for 20 seconds between pitches, likely would shave upward of 10 minutes off an average game. The appeal for a smaller strike zone stems from the drastic uptick in strikeouts and desire for more balls in play. Mound visits slow down games, and Manfred believes a number are superfluous. And intentional walks without having to throw the pitches are inoffensive at best.

The union standing firm on the latter two especially chapped Manfred, and he fired back with what amounted to a warning shot.

“I’m glad the players love the game the way it is,” Manfred said. “We know, not based on impressions, thoughts – we know based on really fundamental research what our fans think about the game. It’s in the players’ interest, it’s in our interest, to be responsive to what fans think about the game.”

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/5513/" data-ylk="slk:Tony Clark">Tony Clark</a> is the first ex-big leaguer to run the players’ union. (AP)
Tony Clark is the first ex-big leaguer to run the players’ union. (AP)

Following the 2017 season, the league and union are expected to continue trading ideas on the changes. With the rule in place that allows MLB the “unilateral right” to make changes, Manfred said, he will not hesitate to do so. This may be saber-rattling, but after two decades of negotiating deals with Manfred, the union understands he rarely wields a cudgel unless he plans to use it.

“Hopefully that process will lead to an agreement,” Manfred said. “I want an agreement on these issues. But I’m also not prepared to walk away on this topic just because Tony’s not ready to move forward now.”

Over his first year, Manfred spent most of his time in the public dipping his toes into the water on changes. He prides himself on being a progressive commissioner, someone who is not averse to ideas simply because they run counter to convention. When he took over, he commissioned both broad-based studies as well as focus groups to better understand where fans believe the game needs to go. Such curiosity is one of his great qualities, and Manfred so believes in the idea that his eyes might be lying to him and that data rarely does, he runs the risk of sounding more like a modern general manager.

What Manfred cares far less about is whom he angers along the way, and his tack on these changes confirm that: They will enrage the purist element of the game that gathers its pitchforks and torches any time 245 Park Avenue plays puppeteer.

That was Rob Manfred on Tuesday, a man who spoke with force, who wasn’t just comfortable in the commissioner’s chair but in full control of it. The most powerful man in baseball stood up and didn’t just remind everybody who was boss. He made sure they know that he’s up for a fight if they don’t recognize it.

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