Baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement addresses none of Rob Manfred’s concerns about improving the on-field product, and yet after interviewing the commissioner for an hour in his Manhattan office last week, I came away convinced that major changes are coming.
It’s not the first time Manfred has spoken of wanting better pace of play or more “action’’ in games, but seeing and hearing him up close left no doubt that this is more than just talk.
What I found revealing was how Manfred got a bit agitated when I asked if he worried he might be messing with the fundamental nature of the sport by potentially implementing ideas such as a pitch clock, restrictions on the use of relievers, and curtailing the use of defensive shifts.
“Look,’’ he said, “people always posit these questions as: do you want to change the game? The fact of the matter is the game is changing on its own. You didn’t used to see this type of activity (managers using multiple relievers to match up against hitters).
“I think the issue for us is: it’s not change vs. no change. It’s change that’s organic or change that’s managed, and I do believe we need to manage the way the game is changing a little more aggressively.’’
To which I said:
“That sounds like a nice way of saying you’re going to limit relievers to two per inning.’’
Manfred laughed heartily before saying: “I didn’t say that. I really didn’t say that.’’
No, but that line about needing to be more aggressive in managing the way the game is changing tells you that Manfred isn’t afraid to buck tradition in the name of trying to produce “the best entertainment product for our fans.”
“Entertainment” being the key word there.
In other words, baseball isn’t church. The commissioner, two years on the job as of January, clearly wants to keep his sport relevant in a world that offers people more entertainment choices than ever — especially so for younger generations.
Not that Manfred thinks baseball is in dire straits. The sport is bringing in record revenues and it’s coming off a postseason in which the Cubs’ quest to end their 108-year championship drought sparked spectacular TV ratings.
But it’s his job to look and think ahead, and an hour in his office makes it clear just how willing he is to embrace that responsibility.
Because there is a provision in the CBA that allows for playing-rule changes to be addressed at any time, then, negotiations with the Players Association will continue on that front.
Manfred made those intentions clear during the interview, but he also addressed several other timely topics, from the ramifications of the new CBA to the ongoing Hall of Fame debate regarding steroids users to his feelings on the state of the Mets and Yankees.
Here are the commissioner’s takes:
On implementing pace-of-play changes that weren’t addressed in the new CBA:
“I think those playing-rule issues are on a little different track than the big issues in the CBA. There is a specific provision in the basic agreement, always has been, that allows us to deal with playing-rule changes mid-term. I expect that after we get a basic agreement drafted and printed, we will return to those playing-rule issues, and we’ll have ongoing dialogue with the MLBPA about our desire to get some change in that area during the course of this agreement.
“I think our players either understand or will come to understand the need to deal with the pace-of-play issues. I went around my first year as commissioner and spoke to the players on every team in the clubhouse. One of the things I talked to them about was pace of play. I do believe our players are with us on the pace-of-play issues. I think what happens over the course of a 183-day season is you lose focus on that issue. Last year you saw us slip back a little bit.”
On the need for a 20-second pitch clock that has been used in the minors:
“The reason I like the clock is not that I’m looking to force somebody to do something, but I think it is a constant reminder of the need to move things along, and I think that’s really important in terms of dealing with the pace-of-play issues.
“It’s had great results in the minor leagues. Quantitative data shows that it made the games go faster, but equally important, players don’t complain about it. They get used to it and they work within it.”
On limiting the use of relievers in some way (in addition to his comments I quoted at the top of this column):
“I don’t want to pre-judge these issues. The easiest things to deal with are dead time. How much time does it take a batter to get into the box? How much time is there between pitches? How much time does it take to effectuate a pitching change? There are lots of things around the concept of a pitching change. How quickly does the guy get in from the bullpen? How many warm-up pitches does he need?
“Those are all non-competitive things. When you get into dictating the use of a particular kind of player that affects the competition more directly, you have to go slower.”
On why owners and players couldn’t agree on a change that would limit September rosters:
“I was disappointed that the September call-up deal didn’t hold together. (With the expanded rosters) it literally is a different game at the most important part of the season, and it also affects pace of play.
“I’m not casting blame or aspersions on that. Nothing’s done until it’s done. But I do think limiting the number of players available in September to 28 would have been an improvement for us. Having said that, I’m smart enough to realize that increasing the roster size to 26 has the potential for increasing the problem during the rest of the season.
“The way that they got to 28/26, they were looking at the total number of service days that were earned in a year. One additional player all year long would make up for the difference between 28 and whatever number some clubs went to. We don’t have full transparency on it. I think it was more of an issue for Tony Clark (head of the Players Association) than it was for us.”
On his comments in September, explaining that David Ortiz’s reported positive drug test in the 2003 anonymous survey testing could have been faulty, and whether he was providing any sort of direction to Hall of Fame voters on the PED issue:
“I would never try to point voters in a direction on any Hall of Fame candidate. I’ve never expressed a view on an individual player. The one thing I’ve tried to do is be factual. I tried to clarify what the facts were. It was anonymous. It was nascent testing. It was at a point in time when the federal government had all sorts of legal supplements out there, and distinguishing who was using what was very, very difficult. I tried to make that clear as a subset of a broader proposition.
“I think Hall of Fame voters are perfectly entitled to make whatever judgment they want to make about players who used steroids. I think voters have done a great job of deciding who should get in and who shouldn’t get in for a very long time. The one point that I have made is that I do think it’s unfair for people to treat someone like he was a steroids user when they don’t really know that.
“To say, ‘gee, he looked like he was bigger.’ Well, I know just enough about steroid use to know, deciding whether somebody used based on his physical appearance is a very inexact science. I think it’s unfair if you don’t have a confirmed positive test; or discipline based on some other investigative capacity that we undertook, subjected to the burden of proving it in a grievance procedure; or something like the Mitchell Report that was obviously very, very well documented in terms of who was doing what.
“Absent those kinds of things, to assume that (Player X) was a steroids user because he had acne on his back: that’s ridiculous.”
On whether Bud Selig’s recent election should be viewed as a factor in voting for the likes of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, as some in the media have suggested:
“I really don’t think so. Commissioner Selig had what I uniquely recognize as a very, very difficult job. Whether it was fast enough, slow enough, whatever, he dealt with the steroid issue during his tenure. I think he moved the issue forward dramatically. I think it’s really hard to argue with that.
“He was not the individual that was responsible for the underlying behavior. Individual players made those decisions, not Bud.
“I do think there’s sort of a logical flaw in that whole conversation. It’s a non-sequitur. When you have a problem in a job like this, there are always impediments to getting something done. I don’t use those impediments as excuses – the union was doing what they thought they had to do to represent their members, whatever. But the fact of the matter is he realized it was a problem – maybe not fast enough in some people’s opinions, but he dealt with that problem very effectively.
“That has nothing to do with the decision of an individual athlete to use performance-enhancing drugs and create a competitive advantage for himself on the field in a way that alters his playing record in ways that not all players were altered.”
On whether there is enough offense in the game:
“What’s enough offense? I do think that what’s important is to promote action in the game. And the combination of home runs and strikeouts both being at record levels…when you think about it, a home run is not really prolonged action. The guy trots around the bases and you’re done, right? I do think it’s important for us to beware of those trends. Both are a product of this all-or-nothing mentality in today’s game: swing for the fences, get offense that way; come in (from the bullpen), throw 98 until you can’t throw 98 anymore, yank him out and give me another arm.
“It gets back to something I said before: the game is changing, right? We’re seeing more HRs and more strikeouts because of the way the game is being taught, and I think we need to manage that process more carefully in order to produce the best entertainment product for our fans.”
On defensive shifts and whether hitters will adjust or limitations should be put in place:
“Shifts are just off the charts in terms of the numbers being used. I do think it promotes the all-or-nothing mentality (on offense), and I do think it has a particularly adverse impact on certain types of players.
“Let me say this: we have delayed action on this in order to find out whether hitters will adjust. We’ve clearly talked about shifts. You can’t go from 1,000 to 14,000 shifts, which is I think roughly what the numbers are, and not notice. Yeah, we noticed, but we’re waiting to see whether the game self-corrects.”
On someday using automated technology rather than an umpire to call balls and strikes:
“I think we’re a long way from that, in terms of the technology. I think people are misled by the boxes that are put up on the screen during the broadcasts: they are not an accurate reflection of the strike zone from batter to batter. I think our umpires do a phenomenal job in getting balls and strikes right. Going back to when Sandy Alderson was here — over the last 15 years we have dramatically improved the accuracy and consistency of the strike zone.”
On whether, as someone who grew up a Yankee fan, he likes that they’re rebuilding in the Bronx:
“Yes. I don’t make individual talent evaluations. I know what I’m good at, what I’m not good at. But the buzz surrounding the changes they made late in the season was really positive here in New York. Within the game I think people believe that Brian (Cashman) did a really nice job in terms of getting talent for what he gave up.
On whether it’s good for baseball when the Yankees have a championship-caliber team:
“Yeah, they’re one of the iconic franchises, so it is good. You don’t want them to win every year, obviously. You want there to be a balance. But they can be a compelling storyline in the postseason.”
On whether New York is a Met town these days:
“I think the Mets have made amazing strides in the past few years. I’m a Sandy Alderson fan. I really enjoyed working with him when we were here together and I think he’s done a phenomenal job putting together a great young nucleus for the Mets. The ideal situation from our perspective is we have two really strong New York franchises. It makes for a lot excitement in this town.”