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Rules and format changes become poker chips in MLB's return-to-play negotiations

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred answers questions at a

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred answers questions at a press conference during MLB baseball owners meetings, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, in Orlando, Fla.  Credit: AP/John Raoux

The World Series began in 1903, when the Boston Americans beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the best-of-nine competition.

Since then, baseball has made changes to its playoff format three times.

Three. Over 116 seasons.

One round was added in 1969 with the League Championship Series. In 1995, we entered the wild-card era, which was considered a radical move for the sport, and the Division Series was born. In 2012, the wild cards doubled, and the one-game playoff was created.

Fast-forward to 2020, and baseball’s hallowed postseason, along with a number of its other traditional, long-held core values, have been reduced to casino chips in this high-stakes poker game between owners and players — hastened by a global pandemic. The universal DH, runners on second base to start extra innings, NASCAR-style ads on uniforms, even games ending in ties!

“Strange times breed strange responses,” said John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball. “Experimentation is granted license and mandate. The time to be bold is now. Tie games? Why not? They have a long and honored history in MLB, especially before night ball came in.”

Historically, it takes decades for baseball to make changes. The time between formulating a concept and actually implementing a rule or plan often is measured in generations. But during these maddening return-to-play negotiations, everything now feels up for grabs, and expanding the playoffs from 10 to 16 teams was agreed upon (if not finalized) during a series of emails spanning a few weeks.

That’s a whopping 60% increase, and when that goes on the books, more than half of baseball’s 30 teams will qualify for the postseason each year. The reason is obvious. October is the most lucrative part of the baseball calendar for the owners, and more playoff games means significantly more TV money, with this move leading to a payday of roughly $800 million.

Major League Baseball was aiming to expand the playoffs anyway once this collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season. Doing it now, in such hurried fashion, is designed to help offset the massive regular-season losses accrued by playing games without spectators. Even so, the 16-team playoff will stay for the 2021 season, and you can bet MLB will not go backward from that number in the future.

For traditionalists, those holding on to the sanctity of a six-month, 162-game marathon, letting 16 teams into October is baseball heresy. But that’s only part of the stunning, sweeping changes proposed under the guise of getting the sport back on the field this summer. And this is no lab experiment, either. Most are renovations to the sport’s foundation. Others, such as selling ad space on uniforms, are cosmetic but still jarring.

The universal designated hitter, another item that appeared ironclad in proposals from both sides, had been looming for years. It was destined to arrive sooner rather than later, and I’d argue it’s for the betterment of the game. Still, change is hard. Consider that the DH was introduced to the American League in 1973. Now, almost a half-century later, it looks as if the National League will get it, too.

I’m fine with that. The universal DH was long overdue for many logical reasons, primarily because pitchers stopped even trying to hit after Little League, and their at-bats had become a waste of time in a game that cannot afford those lapses. Not to mention the need to protect the health of starting pitchers, the game’s most valuable commodity.

The owners and players weren’t content to stop at expanded playoffs and the universal DH, however. Despite the time constraints involved in simply trying to get the sport up and running again, they chose to use these restart talks as an opportunity for larger-scale CBA negotiations.

Just in the past week, the two sides also had the framework in place to start extra innings with a runner at second base, as they already do in the minor leagues, or in some cases end games in a tie, according to The Associated Press. Additionally, the proposed rules would allow players who had been taken out to re-enter a game in extra innings, a seismic shift in how the sport is managed on the field.

With shrinking attendance and slumping TV ratings, baseball was due for some 21st century modifications, and commissioner Rob Manfred already was on a mission to establish pace-of-play initiatives. He also was met with resistance from the Players Association on nearly every one of them, be it a pitch clock or a minimum of three batters for each pitcher, with the latter rule scheduled for this season.

Under the current CBA, if the two sides cannot agree on a rule change, the commissioner is empowered to implement it on his own a year after the proposal.

At the moment, however, Manfred needs the union’s approval for this new batch of modifications. And oddly enough, the Players Association was ready to sign off on every one of them, with this critical caveat: an acceptable number of games, which in turn would determine their prorated salaries for this truncated season.

Manfred informed the Players Association Friday night that the owners will not play more than 60 games this season, leaving the union to either accept those terms in a deal or have the commissioner impose his own schedule, possibly with as few as 50 games.

All of the potential changes hinge on money. Maybe the extra-inning modifications make sense to help shorten the games and limit exposure during a pandemic, but they don’t happen without the Players Association agreeing on their game-generated compensation. Same with the others, with the expanded playoffs and uniform ads designed purely as revenue engines.

But baseball is a business, after all. And making money is a sport that was around long before 1903.

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