Are Players Truly at Fault for MLBPA-Commissioner Feud?

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 27, 2017

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred answers questions at a news conference Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Morry Gash/Associated Press

This is a funny time for a baseball labor dispute.

Funny as in ridiculous.

There's a new basic agreement that runs through 2021. There's a new season about to begin, with players already on the field for spring training.

There's the optimism that comes with every spring...and now the small letdown that comes with every story that mentions Commissioner Rob Manfred, players union head Tony Clark and language like "a lack of cooperation."

Manfred isn't entirely wrong in his efforts to improve the pace of play and increase baseball's appeal to a younger, faster moving generation. Clark and the players aren't entirely wrong in their efforts to hold on to a game that remains hugely popular.

It's also entirely possible the feud that burst into the open over the last week isn't nearly as serious as it sounded. One person involved suggested appearances can be deceiving and that not all the rhetoric should be read as anything that would cause lasting problems.

There is a dispute, and it exists mainly because Manfred hasn't been able to convince the players that the things he wants would be beneficial to the game. The commissioner has made this one of his biggest projects, but the fact is he hasn't come close to making his arguments as well as a few writers have.

Manfred paints players like Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman as obstructionists, but he hasn't done enough to convince them of the need for change.
Manfred paints players like Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman as obstructionists, but he hasn't done enough to convince them of the need for change.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

If you want to understand why some people want fairly substantial change, read Tom Verducci's column on SI.com. As Verducci correctly pointed out, the length of games is much less of a problem than the amount of action in games—and the amount of dead time in between the action.

There are far too many visits to the mound. The game is better when there are more balls in play. A record 30.8 percent of plate appearances ended in a walk, strikeout or hit batter last season.

Making moves to address that isn't getting away from baseball tradition. It's getting back to the tradition of a game that is about pitching, hitting, running and fielding.

There's a case to be made, and there are solutions available. I'm not sure Manfred's proposed solutions—pitch clocks, smaller strike zones, limited mound visits and automatic intentional walks—are the right ones. I don't get why he wanted to rush any of the above into place for the 2017 season.

And I really don't get why he began spring training by issuing what amounted to a threat, saying he wouldn't hesitate to use a clause in the basic agreement that allows him to unilaterally impose new rules next winter.

For the most part, Tony Clark has been willing to let his constituents make the case against change.
For the most part, Tony Clark has been willing to let his constituents make the case against change.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The players shouldn't be the enemy, and their resistance to change shouldn't be taken as an unwillingness to improve the game. As Clark wrote in an email to Bleacher Report, "Cooperation doesn't necessarily mean agreement."

Manfred has to understand that, even if his background as a labor lawyer can lead him to turn any discussion into an adversarial negotiation that must be won.

Baseball should be looking for a win, but it should be a win for everyone. There's no pie being divided. A better game benefits all sides, financially and otherwise.

Clark has refused to fire back at Manfred, remaining his usual even-keel self and avoiding escalating what for now is still a mini-feud.

"Everyone who loves our game and is invested in our game is undoubtedly interested in continuing to move our game forward," he said.

Clark hasn't had to go further than that, because his constituents have done it for him. Anyone who wondered if the union leadership was speaking for its members only had to listen to and read what those members said.

"I don't think we should be changing the game at all," Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman told David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It's a beautiful game the way it is."

As Oakland A's reliever Sean Doolittle tweeted Friday:

In a way, it's a little funny to see a group of players in their 20s and 30s as the traditionalists "protecting" the game, while the 58-year-old "radical" commissioner tries to mess with it in hopes of appealing to a younger generation. But players will be the ones most affected by any changes, and players are like most other humans in their resistance to anything that affects their routines.

They're back to those routines now, back preparing for a season that will be played without any of Manfred's most significant new rules.

The game will go on. The discussions will go on.

And the best thing baseball can do is keep fans focused on the former and insulated from the latter.

                                    

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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