Why the next 10 days 'are important' for Major League Baseball

·MLB columnist

LOS ANGELES – First off, it seems important to say, this is not how the world ends, on the sword of baseball games being decided on this side or the other side of 10 p.m.

But, you know how these things go, so somebody or a lot of somebodies are going to be mad eventually. It’s our nature, and 10 minutes is 10 minutes, and we all apparently have someplace to be. Ten minutes ago.

That leads us to a room on the second floor of the Four Seasons hotel early Thursday afternoon, where Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, representing the 30 team owners, expressed again his hopes/intentions to shorten baseball games by, as of last season, about 10 minutes. He also seemed somewhat flummoxed by the players union’s resistance to either the idea of shortening games or the strategies on the table to shorten the games. Either way, it would appear, there will be mechanisms in place – perhaps a pitch clock, perhaps a limit on mound visits, perhaps shorter inning breaks – for the 2018 regular season, an outcome Manfred is within his power to implement unilaterally, which he said is not his preferred method. Spring training sites begin to fill in about 10 days. Any changes would almost certainly have to be in place by then or shortly thereafter.

“The next 10 days,” Manfred said, “are important.”

Players generally prefer a quicker game or, better framed, a game played apace. They are not inclined to accept an outcome that would reward a batter with a better pitch count because the game required some deeper thought, or otherwise impact the game inorganically. There’s also a broader subject of the current relationship between player and management, player and ownership, player and marketplace, none of which is rosy. Asked specifically about pace-of-play proposals Thursday, union chief Tony Clark responded in text message, “As we sit here today, the first week of February, our focus is on the 100+ Free Agents still available. Players and the PA remain committed to the competitive integrity of the game on all fronts, including on-field rules.”

They are not happy. For whatever reasons the offseason has been a free-agent slog, and you’ve heard most of them – soft cap, tank mentality, market correction, strains of collusion, etc. – the players seem of the mind to focus first on jobs, then on whether they have 20 seconds or 22 to throw a pitch.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news conference at the baseball owners meetings in the Four Seasons Hotel, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP)
Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news conference at the baseball owners meetings in the Four Seasons Hotel, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP)

Where that leaves everyone is on the verge of change.

In 2015, the average time of a nine-inning baseball game was 2 hours, 56 minutes. Folks on Park Avenue seemed very happy. Then, in 2016, the average time of game rose to 3:00. Last season, the number was 3:05. And so the game that is romanticized in part through its freedom from time was on the clock, because an average of 3:05 meant lots of games of well more than 3:05 (as well as less than, but those aren’t the issue, assuming you believe there’s an issue.) Manfred’s goal is to have games average about 2:55. In his most recent three-year proposal to Clark, Manfred said, mound visits would be limited, but there would be no pitch clock. If games shortened to 2:55, then there would be no clock in 2019 either. Basically, Manfred said, if the players believed games could be compressed without artificially hurrying pitchers and catchers and batters, and if they proved it by paring those 10 flabby minutes with a little stay-in-the-box, hustle-in, hustle-out awareness, then he was good with that.

“The players seemed to be saying that pace of game was a problem, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed, but we don’t like clocks,” Manfred said. “Our proposal then was, ‘Let’s see how year one goes.’ If in fact we get a reduction in our game time … there would be no clock in the second year of the agreement either. What we tried to explain in the process of making the proposal was, we were trying to put control over whether or not a clock went on the field in the hands of the players.

“We are waiting for a response to that proposal. We remain 100 percent committed to the idea that we need to make changes, to address the pace of game, and that the best way to address pace of game for us, for the players, and most importantly for our fans, is to get an agreement with the players. That was our goal when we started 2017 and it remains our goal today. The owners were fully supportive today. I’m fully authorized to go forward and make an agreement or to proceed as we may have to … in the event we can’t reach an agreement.”

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