The news conference started a few minutes late, but give baseball’s commissioner credit: the whining began immediately.
Rob Manfred did not get what he wanted from the union, and like any good pouter, he’s blaming the other side.
“Unfortunately, it now appears there really won’t be any meaningful (rules) changes for the 2017 season due to a lack of cooperation from the MLBPA,” Manfred said.
Manfred is a smart man, 58 years old, a Harvard Law School graduate. He is an adult, in other words, with a job that calls for him to wear a suit most days and represent a multibillion-dollar business and beloved form of Americana on all days.
As such, this is as close to a temper tantrum as the rules of decorum for a man with a big-boy job allow.
“We couldn’t even make an agreement on something like limiting the number of times somebody goes to the mound in an inning,” Manfred said. “It doesn’t seem all that earth-shattering that we couldn’t make progress on an issue like that.”
After the new collective bargaining agreement was agreed upon this winter, many within the sport saw a loss for the players and a potentially raw and damaging negotiation for the next deal in five years. If it’s true that everything happening now is a prelude to what some worry could be the sport’s first work stoppage since the 1990s, then this week is an awful sign for future labor peace.
What was not too long ago the best owners-players relationship in major American sports is, at the moment, going through something of a rough spot. It’s too soon to say with any certainty whether this is a blip in the marriage, the precursor for counseling or the beginning of splitting up assets.
Let’s set aside, for a moment, that Manfred has been linked to potential rule changes that range from the ridiculous (beginning extra innings with a runner on second) to seismic (a raising of the strike zone that would harm some careers and artificially boost others) to reasonable (fewer mound visits).
Debating the merits of any potential rule change can wait for another day.
What’s striking today is the tone of this particular debate, particularly if it’s a sign of cracks just months after a new CBA. Over the weekend, union leader Tony Clark expressed skepticism about implementing any new rules.
“There’s a lot of educating and appreciating that needs to happen to even have the conversation,” Clark said.
Manfred fired back in a ballroom full of notepads and television cameras on Tuesday, citing “a lack of cooperation,” mocking Clark’s call for education and threatening to use what amounts to a we-can-do-what-we-want clause to implement new rules next year.
This is a battle many hoped would stay private gone all the way public. Cracks are forming all around. The Yankees’ president essentially mocked his own setup reliever after beating him in an arbitration case. Trust is down, to the point that some agents are wondering if owners are colluding against free agents.
Clark and the union were widely thought to have lost the last round of CBA negotiations. They agreed to what amounts to a hard spending cap — something the union has opposed with righteous fervor for decades — on amateur players without uncluttered free agency for veterans.
Maybe this is a pushback, the union’s way of reminding owners they can’t get everything.
Manfred either can’t or doesn’t care to hide his frustration, which is a mistake on a few levels. He looks soft in the moment, complaining about not getting his way.
And if he’s trying to bully the union with the understanding that the owners can universally implement changes for 2018, then rubbing the players’ faces in it now accomplishes nothing productive.
For a man who earned the most powerful position in the sport through negotiation chops, Manfred is causing problems he doesn’t need by whining about a negotiation he couldn’t make.
“I said what I said about the word ‘education,’” Manfred said. “I don’t know how one begins a process of educating someone that makes them like something or feel less strongly about something that they already feel.”
He cites statistics about growing inactivity in baseball — strikeouts are up, balls in play are down — and has an interesting case to make here. The sport’s fan base is aging — too much AARP when the more desired demographic is on Snapchat.
Baseball might do well to respond to a shifting culture, but Clark also makes a valid point about protecting the continuity and subtle parts of baseball. There’s an interesting discussion to be had here, about what’s possible, and what’s desired.
By essentially saying, forget educating you, just trust us because we know what’s best, Manfred is belittling the players and assailing a relationship that took years to solidify.
He may very well be right here. But he’s doing a rotten job of making his case, and he’s punching holes in a relationship he needs to nurture.
He says he knows what fans want, and what’s best for the game. This isn’t it.