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Nightengale: As Game Changes, its Leaders Seek Peace Amid Growing Tension

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Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred shakes hands with ball boy Spenser Clark before the MLB Home Run Derby at Nationals Park on Monday in Washington. Photo: Alex Brandon / AP

By Bob Nightengale |

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and players union executive director Tony Clark agreed Tuesday before the All-Star Game that they need to talk, addressing the dramatic changes baseball has undergone, making sure it doesn’t destroy the fabric of the sport.

You can’t sit back with a six-percent decline in attendance, with all but seeding purposes decided in the American League playoff race, and call it a fabulous season just because of the Bryce Harper Show in the Home Run Derby.

But while Manfred and Clark are leery of the impact of analytics in baseball, with record-high strikeouts, fewer balls put in play than ever before, more shifts in history and the growing use of relief pitchers, there’s a deeper, underlying fear.

Clark never specifically threatened a strike, or a work stoppage before the 2021 collective bargaining agreement expires but made it clear he’s not about to stand by and watch an encore of last year’s slow free-agent market.

“What we experienced last offseason was a direct attack on free agency,’’ Clark said, “which had been the bedrock of our economic system. If that’s the case, we’re going to have difficult decisions to make.’’

Manfred insists it was simply a matter of shrewd business decisions, suggesting that many of those free agents proved to be worth just what they received, despite the scarcity of long-term contracts.

“Direct attack involves or connotes some sort of purposeful behavior,’’ Manfred said. “The only purposeful behavior that took place in the free-agent market last year is that our clubs carefully analyzed the available players and made individual decisions as to what those players are worth.

“The clubs made sound decisions as to how those players should be valued. That’s how free markets operate.’’

Baseball has not had a work stoppage since 1994-95, and the period since has brought record prosperity. Yet, as the average salary has remained flat, high-producing youngsters are paid the minimum and valued veterans are left without jobs, the players may be more inclined to steel themselves for a battle – at whatever the cost.

“It’s always good to have tension,” Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto told USA TODAY Sports. “If something happens, something happens. You just have to roll with the punches in a business with this much money, and this many people hoping to get their cut.

“It’s part of it, sometimes.”

Certainly, it will be a debate that will be revisited in the winter, and perhaps for the next few years afterward, but for now, Manfred and Clark agree that it’s essential they discuss the current state of the game, trying to make sure it’s not irreparably damaged before 2021.

“We are paying attention to the organic changes that are going on in terms of the way the game is being played on the field,’’ Manfred said. “There is a growing consensus among ownership that we need to have a serious conversation about whether all of those organic changes are good for the game over the long haul.

“I think we are at a point of time where we need to begin to manage that change. Pace of play, we thought, was sort of the low-hanging fruit. Everybody should be in favor of moving it along. But I think there’s a broader conversation that has to be had about things like pace of play, defensive shifts, use of relief pitchers.’’

Indeed, Clark says the players’ concern is just as strong, worried about how the game has been severely altered from the one he grew up playing.

“Over the last five years, we have seen more changes to the game than in the years prior,’’ Clark said. “All of that is concerning to the guys, where they don’t want to get to a place where the fans are no longer enjoying it, and not engaging the next generation of fans.

“That combo platter is very concerning to them.’’

Yet, to make those changes, there needs to be cooperation between the Commissioner’s office and the union, whether an attempt to limit shifts, lower the pitcher’s mound, add a pitch clock, or bring the DH to the National League.

So far, they can’t even agree to meet, let alone make sweeping changes to help liven the sport.

There’s growing momentum among the players, Clark said, to have a DH in the National League for the first time in history. But there’s a growing momentum among the National League owners, Manfred said, to keep everything the same.

“The most likely outcome remains the status quo,’’ Manfred said, believing that if the NL adopted the DH, the traditional style of play would become extinct. “Extinction is a bad word, a harsh word.’’

Manfred badly wants a pitch clock, believing it will quicken the pace of the game. Clark says players reject the notion, wanting to preserve the sport’s integrity.

Manfred welcomes legalized gambling, providing the sport can regulate it. Clark believes the fears toward players’ safety, including managers and coaches, far outweigh any benefit.

“The research is clear,’’ Manfred said, “gambling can be a source of fan engagement for adults, and we need to take advantage of that opportunity.

“[But] we need to protect our young fans so that they are not exposed too much, and we need to make sure that while you have an opportunity to engage, that gambling doesn’t come too close to the sport. We’re going to try to find that sweet spot.’’

Clark believes there’s a problem with competitive balance in baseball, particular since you can pencil in playoff berths for the New York Yankees and Boston right now, along with Cleveland, Houston and likely Seattle. There are three teams in the AL Central on pace to lose more than 100 games, and two in the AL East on pace to win more than 105.

Manfred insists the parity in the game is strong as ever and loves the idea that the Yankees and Red Sox will be duking it out to the finish, with the loser relegated to a wild-card berth.

“There’s different views, but against the backdrop of the competitive balance we’ve had in baseball the last two decades,’’ Manfred said, “I don’t think we should have to apologize for that.

“I categorically reject that payroll should be the measure of whatever somebody is trying to win in the game today. I know the correlation between payroll and winning in baseball is extraordinarily weak.’’

Oakland and Tampa Bay have two of the lowest payrolls in baseball and have winning records. Yet, of the top 10 teams in payroll, only Toronto has a losing record.

The two spoke in separate hour-long sessions with the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Perhaps one day they’ll actually talk in earnest about their differences, the changes that need to help grow the game. Still, they share the same passion for the game and agree the old-school, unwritten rules of baseball need to be shredded.

They want bat flips, chest-bumping, primal screams and as much emotion shown as possible, assuring that the game stays prominent among the millennials, keeping their attention outside the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game.

“Celebrations need to be a part of our game,’’ said Clark.

Hopefully, the same drama and emotion we witnessed during the All-Star extravaganza in Washington, we’ll soon see on a regular basis in games that, you know, actually count.

Baseball, more than ever before, could use it.

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.

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