There are some things Major League Baseball can’t do in its ramped-up efforts to make significant changes to the game.
For example, in order to have more balls put in play, it’s not as if stadiums can be made bigger to offset this year’s power surge. Fenway Park’s Green Monster is pretty much an immovable object.
But MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is determined to alter the sport in ways that should make it more attractive to the next generation of fans, along with the critically important television audience. And his growing frustration with the Players Association, which has filibustered Manfred’s most recent efforts, was evident this past week in Miami.
Here’s why: As other professional sports leagues continue to tailor their game to the changing times, Manfred finds himself stuck with the status quo in 2017. After a new collective-bargaining agreement was hammered out last December, the only thing he could get green-lighted for this season was the no-pitch walk, which is the equivalent of window dressing when it comes to meaningful pace-of-game improvements.
Manfred wants a 20-second pitch clock. He wants to limit mound visits, perhaps cutting back to a maximum of one per inning. The strike zone also is being targeted, with the hope of raising it slightly to above the knee.
These ideas were proposed to the Players Association during the winter but were rejected as too extreme for the union’s constituency. After this year, however, Manfred can implement the rule changes without the approval of the Players Association, and that’s what he intends to do if a deal can’t be struck before then.
“As a general proposition, without getting into any specific proposal, I think other sports have been more aggressive about managing what’s going on on the field in terms of what their game looks like than we have been,” Manfred said during a meeting with the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. “I’m certainly open to the idea that we too should take a more aggressive posture.”
Manfred no doubt is envious of what these other leagues have done. Just this past week, the NBA moved to tighten up its game by trimming the number of timeouts from 18 to 14 and also made them shorter: 75 seconds for every timeout now instead of the previous 90 seconds for the full and 60 for what was called the “20-second” timeout. In addition, the NBA has made it a delay-of-game violation if a free-throw shooter wanders beyond the three-point arc between attempts — not all that different from a batter venturing too far outside the box, right?
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admitted his own annoyance with the back-to-back commercial breaks during broadcasts and said he was working with the networks to trim them. As for on-field alterations, the NFL did add a number of rules for player safety and shortened the overtime to 10 minutes.
For MLB, however, the evolution of the game continues to move at a glacial pace, just like the playing of the sport itself. Manfred bristled when asked about the record length of games this season, which is now 3:05, up from three hours last season and 2:56 in 2015. Both sides have to understand that this can’t continue, not in the current sports-viewing climate, but the Players Association has been steadfast in its opposition to the pitch clock, which has been used in the minors since 2015.
“It’s also a delicate balance when you enjoy offense, but the length of the game can increase while also acknowledging that a 10-8 game can take two hours, 40 minutes and a 2-1 game can take four hours,” union chief Tony Clark said. “There’s always a challenge in balancing how that manifests itself. But we are more than willing to have the conversation. The guys have a lot of ideas and as I mentioned, are willing to have that dialogue here through the second half of the season and to see if some common ground can be found. We’re in the same place.”
Manfred at least put forth a diplomatic front, calling himself a “deal guy at heart” when asked about the possibility of a peaceful conclusion to these negotiations. But these changes have been a front-burner issue for a while now and seem to have gained little traction at the table. While it’s unclear how far the union would be willing to go to soften the impact of the proposed modifications to how the sport is played, the commissioner won’t be deterred from installing them for the 2018 season.
“I remain hopeful that the Players Association recognizes that something has changed in the game,” Manfred said. “That we’re not out to alter individual players’ careers and it’s time for us to think together about what the game looks like on the field . . . I would much rather have a deal than proceed unilaterally, and that is continually true to changes that affect the play of the game on the field because only the players are in between those lines, not any of us.”
Clark also spoke optimistically with the discussions expected to pick up in these next few months.
In the past decade or so, baseball has undergone a number of seismic adjustments, from expanded PED testing to video review right down to rules for protecting players from dangerous slides. Adding important pace-of-game modifications shouldn’t be a barrier to moving forward.
“Players are willing to have the dialogue, understanding that there are some challenges there,” Clark said. “Now how that manifests itself in a new rule or new consideration is another part of the conversation.
“But the guys are stewards of the game, the guys are invested in the game, this is the game they grew up loving and wanting to play. So to the extent that they want to protect it and they want it to be better, they are, and that’s why they’re willing to have those conversations.”