WASHINGTON — There was only one thing commissioner Rob Manfred and union chief Tony Clark could agree on Tuesday during separate interviews with members of the BBWAA.
Both gushed about Bryce Harper putting on an electrifying show in the previous night’s home run derby, saying that it was a credit to the sport.
Otherwise? Manfred and Clark were about as far apart on a number of issues as the distance of Harper’s bombs. Fortunately for baseball fans, the two sides recently closed on a new collective bargaining agreement, so a work stoppage doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.
But Manfred not only shot down a number of Clarks’ claims regarding free agency and spending, he said the union chief has twice declined invitations to meet about the game’s concerns — despite Clark repeatedly stating before him that he was “looking forward” to such conversations.
Based on last winter’s market freeze, Clark went as far as to say that the union needs to be on guard about the potential fiscal trend continuing among owners.
“What we experienced last offseason was a direct attack on free agency, which has been a bedrock of our economic system,” Clark said. “And if that is going to be different, then we have some very difficult decisions to make moving forward.”
Manfred, as expected, didn’t share that viewpoint.
“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 our clubs carefully analyzed the available players and made individual decisions as to what they thought those players were worth.
“I think if you look back at it — and we’ve been watching very carefully — at the end of the year, you’ll look at the performance of those players and I’m pretty sure . . . you’re going to make the judgment that the clubs made sound decisions as to how those players should be valued. That’s how markets operate.”
Last February, the union went a step further by filing a grievance against four teams — the A’s, Marlins, Pirates and Rays — for not spending their revenue-sharing money in compliance with the collective bargaining agreement. Even so, two of the teams are above .500, and the A’s are competing for a playoff spot.
Manfred said Tuesday that he “categorically rejects” the premise of payroll size solely being used to measure a team’s commitment to winning, adding that any correlation between the two is “extraordinarily weak.” Clark refused to comment on the grievance, but Manfred mocked it.
“Usually what happens is, you conduct an investigation and then you file a grievance,” Manfred said. “In this case — and we’re all big boys here — I think really for publicity reasons they filed a grievance and we are now going back-and-forth with the union on what I would call the investigatory phase that usually precedes agreements.
“I don’t know why you would file a grievance saying they’ve made inappropriate decisions without first learning why they made those decisions. But you know, their prerogative.”
Manfred seems frustrated by the union’s lack of cooperation on pace-of-play issues, and their unwillingness to come to the table on potential rule changes, such as pitch clock. Clark expressed a concern about rushing to alter a game that so many fans already love — and his players have grown accustomed to. Both are valid concerns, and the idea of a universal designated hitter also became a political football in Tuesday’s exchange.
Last month, Manfred sounded like a proponent of the expanded DH, but was being held back by NL owners who weren’t ready for such a change. But as soon as it was relayed to him Monday that Clark said the universal DH was “gaining momentum,” the commissioner appeared to switch gears, perhaps thinking of it as a bargaining chip later down the line.
“I think since I became involved . . . I could have made a deal with the MLBPA on extending the DH to the National League,” Manfred said. “I think that’s been a pretty consistent position with the players since 1987, so I don’t think there’s a real headline there.
“I think the most likely outcome at this point remains status quo. I think one of the things we need to think about, extinction is a bad word, right? It’s a harsh word, it’s a very final word. If you get rid of the DH in the National League, there is a brand of baseball — the non DH brand — is done. Not played anywhere that’s meaningful any longer. I think there’s going to be hesitation with respect to that.”
And based on the current icy relations, especially if Clark and the union are in favor of it.