Rob Manfred will be in St. Louis for the Cubs-Cardinals game Sunday evening, a busy day at the start of the 2017 Major League Baseball season. The MLB commissioner’s itinerary will be full, with dignitaries to greet, hands to shake, and reporters’ questions to be answered — maybe too saturated for a pit stop by the cage during batting practice.
Because in the aftermath of the collective bargaining agreement last fall, followed by the brief and mostly failed conversations between the union and MLB about pace of action this winter, it’s apparent that a gulf of communication has developed between Manfred and the players.
Based on chats I had with those in uniform from camp to camp this spring, my sense is that the players’ perception of what the commissioner is trying to do is different than what Manfred aims to accomplish. Right now, the dynamic between the players and management is more contentious than I can remember in perhaps the past decade or more.
It doesn’t really matter how we got to this context; what matters is how the two sides would be best served moving forward, because there are significant issues forming on the horizon.
Manfred has indicated time and again that he thinks the sport needs to change, as the league works to draw a younger viewing audience and better position itself for the future, and he wants to affect change. The union’s substantive contribution to the conversation so far has been to say no.
MLB intends to push this conversation again next winter, when it will have the power to unilaterally alter rules. And, down the road, the next round of labor talks may be more difficult, after what was perceived to be a major management victory in 2016.
The more the two sides understand each other, the better, and we know this from recent history. For about a decade, Manfred and the late union chief Michael Weiner led the two sides through relative labor peace because of how well they communicated.
But now it seems there’s a vacuum of contact, and Manfred could help to fill that by talking more with players, to advance past the polite niceties and get to a place where both sides can say what they think and find common ground.
In his first year as commissioner, in 2015, Manfred formally met with teams, in get-to-know-you conversations from clubhouse to clubhouse. He could help himself by resuming that practice this year — maybe in mid-afternoon informal meetings, before the players get to work, so he can speak to the likes of Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez, Mike Trout, Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Beltre and share his point of view on the rule-change discussion. He could tell them directly what he has told the media: that he really wants to hear from the players, that he would love for them to jump into the conversations with ideas and suggestions and possible solutions, and shape the necessary changes to the players’ product.
And he could present the information behind management’s belief that alterations are important — the big data points. Through these kind of back-and-forth sessions, he’d give the players a forum to spitball some ideas, like one I heard from a longtime veteran: eliminating the requirement for pitchers to come to a set position with runners on base, which could conceivably save a lot of time.
He could invite input from players, collectively or individually. Look, if Kershaw or King Felix or Justin Verlander or Scherzer called and asked to swing by the commissioner’s office with ideas, it’s hard to imagine Manfred saying no; he’d probably love the chat.
Labor peace has been the bedrock of Manfred’s legacy in baseball. It’s what he worked for under Bud Selig, and it’s what he fostered in his strong working relationship with Weiner. It’s what’s best for the owners and the players.
Manfred’s relationship with MLBPA chief Tony Clark has not been nearly as productive. It seems like there is a fracture developing, gradually but steadily, and unless paths are altered, this stands to worsen under the strain of another rules impasse, or increased labor strife.
Maybe Manfred could help bridge this chasm by communicating with players directly, maybe not, but I suspect that more conversations would glean something helpful, something useful to both sides.