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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Over time, pitch clock becoming a bartering tool for MLB

Commissioner Rob Manfred appears to be using it to help thaw frosty relations with the union.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the unveiling

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the unveiling of an exclusive photo exhibit to begin the year-long Jackie Robinson Centennial Celebration at the Museum of the City of New York. Photo Credit: Newsday /Howard Simmons

TAMPA, Fla. — Regarding his pace-of-play initiatives, commissioner Rob Manfred had us at hello. The promise of shorter games, earlier finish times, and just a better, neater baseball product was easy to climb on board with in these days of ever-shrinking attention spans.

But the clumsy rollout of the pitch clock, and its use as a political sledgehammer by Manfred against the Players Association, now has us thinking much differently about the entire process.

After Manfred basically told us back on Feb. 17 that the pitch clock would be used in spring-training games with the purpose of implementing it for the regular season, MLB is retreating from that plan, a source confirmed Tuesday, based on recent negotiations with the union.

Instead, MLB is willing to hold off on the pitch clock, until 2022 at the earliest, while it’s further used as a chip to help thaw frosty relations between Manfred and the union. Those negotiations are continuing, and The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the union had made a counter-offer that includes a single-trade deadline and lowering the mound visits from six to five.

So what’s the goal here? Are we supposed to buy in that MLB cares about the integrity of the game during this whole pace-tightening process? Or is the sport itself just serving as a testing ground these days to see what each side can tolerate from the other?

Manfred seemed to be in the mood for a fight earlier this month when he addressed reporters at MLB’s spring-training media day in West Palm Beach. We came away with the impression that he was going all-in with the clock, and that included Opening Day of the regular season.

The union still was against it, but Manfred had the CBA on his side, which meant the power to impose the clock unilaterally. And we were OK with that, as long as the commissioner was fully committed to getting it done.

A week into the spring-training schedule, however, the clock is turning into a half-measure, and a half-baked one at that. Sure, there’s been a 20-second click ticking down at these games, but nobody is paying attention to it — or apparently intends to do so in the future.

Before James Paxton made his first start Monday for the Yankees, pitching coach Larry Rothschild gave him this instruction about the clock: “Don’t think about it.” Overall, there has been little, if any, discussion about it internally because the players don’t seem to think it will ever be put into play.

“It’s such a hard game already,” Paxton said. “You’re trying to eliminate distractions and focus on what you’re trying to get accomplished at the plate. It just adds one more distraction.”

Not if you just ignore it, as just about every pitcher appears to be doing. MLB’s plan for the clock in spring training was sort of a soft opening, in three phases. The first few games would involve the operation of a clock without any enforcement. Next week, umpires are supposed to “issue reminders” to pitchers and hitters who violate the rule.

Ideally, MLB intends to get to the third phase later in spring training, and that would be assessing ball-strike penalties for violations. This comes with an asterisk, however. The timing of this phase is purposely vague, and is linked to the disclaimer, “depending on the status of the negotiations with the MLBPA.”

Translation: This all could go away, at any time, if we’re able to cut a favorable deal with the union and get something else we want instead.

What a waste of time, literally. There’s got to be better ways to streamline games than the ham-handed deployment of potential rules in this ongoing battle of labor-relations brinkmanship. Others already are in the mix, like a minimum three-batter rule for pitchers, but given this pitch-clock fiasco, we’ll need to be convinced of their legitimacy.

A good place to trim a few minutes would be the replay-challenge process, which definitely feels longer than it needs to be. Also, be more vigilant keeping batters in the box and pitchers on the mound. None of these require radical changes.

The average length of a nine-inning game last season was exactly three hours, down five minutes from the previous year. Everyone seems to agree that the more it shrinks, the better off baseball will be. But the acrimonious back-and-forth over how to make that happen isn’t helping, and recklessly tinkering with the rules not only ticks off the players, but can damage the sport itself.

Something to remember at the negotiating table.

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