By Bob Nightengale |
Major League Baseball once again celebrated their sport Tuesday with the All-Star Game, showcasing the greatest collection of young stars, including one of the finest players to ever grace the playing field in Mike Trout, in a proud city steeped with baseball tradition.
Yet, when everyone returned home Wednesday, getting ready for the second-half of the season, reality finally hit:
Baseball is at a crossroads.
It must decide what it wants to become.
Does it want to remain this nightly edition of home-run derby, with players swinging for the fences every time they step to the plate, with home runs, strikeouts and walks accounting for nearly 40% of the action?
Or does it want to return to the game it was designed to be, with teams manufacturing runs, managers employing hit-and-runs and players bunting and stealing bases
Tony Clark, the players union executive director, who played 15 years, had five seasons of 30 or more homers, retired just a decade ago, and hardly recognizes the game he once played.
Neither does anyone else.
“I think our game needs to figure out what it wants to be,’’ Clark said Tuesday. “It’s safe to say there’s a dramatic change in how the game is played. Our guys know their place in how the game has been played.
“I don’t think there’s anything in our game that can’t be remedied by a little more baseball.’’
Yes, old-time baseball, when players were embarrassed by striking out 100 times a season, not just by the All-Star break. When hitting 30 homers a season was a magnificent feat, not first-half numbers that simply got you into the Home Run Derby. When it truly defined your hitting prowess to be a .300 hitter, and humiliating to be hovering around the Mendoza Line.
Those days are long gone if MLB doesn’t do something with their baseballs.
“The game has changed,’’ Clark said. “I believe the ball suddenly changed. The ball is different. Nobody has presented the why, yet. The question becomes, what are we going to do about it.
“I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t concerned, both as a player and as someone who watches the game played on the field.’’
Commissioner Rob Manfred adamantly insists they are the same baseballs. They have not been intentionally doctored. The only difference is the drag of the ball has changed, resulting in the most home runs hit in baseball history in the first half, and on pace to obliterate every home run record.
He has litany of major-league pitchers who just so happen disagree with him, with American League All-Star pitcher Justin Verlander saying “Major League Baseball’s turning this game into a joke.’’
Still, Manfred stood his ground for an hour during his press conference with the Baseball Writers Association of America, insisting there is no change to the ball.
“The basic characteristics of the baseball, as measured by the independent scientists that we asked to do the study,’’ Manfred said, “provides no support for that. What there is support for is the drag of the baseball is a little less, and when you have less drag, it goes further.’’
And no, please stop with the conspiracy theories, Manfred pleaded, that baseball secretly ordered the balls to be juiced to fight back their declining attendance, with 18 teams drawing fewer fans at the All-Star break than a year ago.
“Look, baseball has done nothing, given no direction for an alteration in the baseball,’’ Manfred said. “As a matter of fact, we commissioned an independent study to make clear there has been no intentional alteration of the manufacturing process. The biggest flaw in that logic is that baseball somehow wants more home runs. If you sat in an owner’s meeting and listened to people talk about the way our game is being played, that is not the sentiment among the owners for whom I work.
“There is no desire on the part of ownership to increase the number of home runs in the game. To the contrary, they are concerned about how many we have.’’
The juiced balls, intentional or not, is among the litany of anxieties that are troubling the players and the union.
The middle class is disappearing, both competitively and economically. There are 20 teams within five games of a playoff spot, but nine teams on pace to either win or lose 100 games for the first time in history. Two dozen of the All-Stars are making the minimum salary. Two of their biggest free agents, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel, didn’t sign until a month ago. And their greatest stars, players such as Trout and Boston Red Sox MVP Mookie Betts are barely recognized outside their sport.
This is why Clark and the union met with Manfred and MLB lawyers before the All-Star Game and informed them that they are interested in re-opening talks at the halfway point of the Collective Bargaining Agreement that expires after the 2021 season.
“We are interested in reestablishing a competitive environment,’’ Clark said. “We are interested in establishing meaningful free agency. We are interested in players getting value as they are producing it. We are interested in getting the best players on the field …
“I would like the system to work the way it is intended to.’’
Clark would love to see baseball act with the urgency of NBA free agency when their biggest stars signed within days, and not eight months, at the advent of free agency.
“Teams are more efficient at what they are doing. They have more restraint than they have before. It has seemingly been more structured, more coordinated than we have seen in a long time.
“When you start hearing the same stories over and over again, you start asking more questions.’’
Clark avoided using the word, “collusion,’’ but the message was clear.
And, yes, he would love baseball to step up their marketing game.
“I’d really like to have our players not have the ability to walk down the street and not be recognized,’’ Clark said. “We are at a time where the talent level of our players is off the charts. There is truly a chance to push our cards across and engage generations in a fashion we haven’t before.
“Promoting our guys on baseball channels will not get us there. Baseball fans know who Mookie is. Non-baseball fans deserve to know who Mookie is.
“Mookie should be a one-name guy. You say Ronaldo, you say Messi, you should say Mookie.’’
So, as you see, there will be plenty for the union and MLB executives to discuss during the course of the summer and winter. We’ll see just how willing MLB is to make changes to the economic system when they already have a contract in place until Dec. 1, 2021.
But much quicker, and realistic, we could find out just what kind of game everyone wants baseball to become.
Manfred still wants quicker and faster-paced games. He no longer is pushing for a pitch clock, but revealed Tuesday that he most likely will recommend to owners they implement the rule that requires pitchers to face at least three batters in 2020. The extra-inning tiebreaker will remain in the minor leagues and at the All-Star Games, but won’t be employed at the major-league level.
And, oh, about those baseballs?
That will tell us everything we need to know what direction baseball plans to go in 2020 and beyond.
If the balls stay juiced, baseball will keep continuing with its nightly Home Run Derby.
If they are deadened, it may lead to the game returning to its old-school values and strategy.
We should know this winter which way baseball wants to go.
“I try to be positive about the way the game is being played,’’ Manfred said. “It is a fact when you poll fans, people do like home runs. But I do think there is a concern the strikeout and the home run have become increasingly predominant in the game.
“If we make a decision to change the baseball, you will know about it before we change the baseball. We’re going to continue to be transparent.’’