Manfred: Dialogue, not discord
Commissioner wants players to engage on pace of play rules
WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. Commissioner Rob Manfred, who grew up in the shadows of baseball’s Hall of Fame in Upstate New York and has been involved in Major League Baseball for 30 years, certainly understands this sudden discord and unrest among players.
Baseball is built on tradition and has always been resistant to change. Traditionalists hated the idea of breaking up the two leagues into divisions in 1969. The wild-card format was bashed in 1994. Interleague play was met with furious resistance in 1997.
Now here is Manfred, changing the four-pitch intentional walk this year, with hopes of making more dramatic changes. He’s seeking a 20-second pitch clock, limits on visiting the pitcher’s mound, alteration of the strike zone, adoption of new baseballs and perhaps even minimizing defensive shifts.
These new ideas have most players, particularly veterans, seething, thinking they’re being shoved down their throats.
“Look, the players are entitled to have their view on what should happen in the game,” Manfred said. “I’m hoping the push-back takes a positive form in the sense they come to the table with ideas on how we should address changes in the game, as opposed to just saying, ‘No, we don’t want to do that.’
“My biggest single hope is that we make an agreement for what we’re going to do in 2018.”
The players agreed to the elimination of the intentional walk, using a hand signal instead of throwing pitches, a change that is being reviewed by clubs this week. They also plan to revise the instant replay review rules, two officials with direct knowledge of the changes told USA TODAY Sports. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the changes have not been announced.
Managers will be required to signal within 30 seconds whether or not they plan to issue a replay challenge. If a challenge is issued, the umpires in the instant replay booth in New York will have two minutes to confirm or overturn the call. The changes won’t become official until the clubs formally adopt the revisions.
Yet while those will be the only new changes in 2017 — agreed upon by MLB and the union — Manfred hardly is hiding his desire for more change.
“The intentional walk with no pitches is a small change in a much larger package,” Manfred says. “We don’t think that particular change will have a momentous impact. But by the same token, every little change that makes the game faster is a good thing for the game.
“We were able to make an agreement with the players on it. We’ll move forward with that and continue our dialogue with them.”
Manfred has the legal right to unilaterally impose new rules in time for the 2018 season, under terms of the Basic Agreement, but Tuesday stressed his desire to have cooperation from the players.
Manfred informed union chief Tony Clark last week that he wants to sit down with him and a small group of players to share his views on why he thinks these changes will help protect the future of the game.
“It’s always important to have direct communication with players on issues that affect the play on the field,” Manfred said. “We want an agreement with the players. That’s what works best when we’re dealing with something between the white lines.
“If we don’t get an agreement, we’ll figure out where we are at that point in time.”
Manfred, after lashing out at the players union last week for its refusal to explore more expansive rule changes, spoke Tuesday in a much more conciliatory tone.
He’s not trying to be combative, he says, but wants to be reasonable, which the players think is essential if he wants their support.
“It’s not like we’re saying if it’s MLB’s proposal we’re not going to do it,” Washington Nationals veteran pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, who’s deeply involved in the union, told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s not trying to pit the players against MLB. I understand their desire to speed it up. I think it’s a well-intentioned change. I don’t look at it as being malicious that MLB is trying to change the game.
“I think the larger issue is when the commissioner just kind of goes out and says we’re going to do what we want because people aren’t communicating. We are communicating. We are trying to understand the rules they’re trying to come up with.
“We have the same intentions as him. We want the game to be fun and great. So let’s have those discussions rather than just going ahead and changing it.”
The pitch clock would be the most dramatic change in a game proudly known for its timeless beauty, but many who dealt with a pitch clock in the minors dismissed the idea that it would cause a major disruption.
“It didn’t affect me, but you do see some guys panicking,” Nationals pitcher Vance Worley said. “You play the game one way your whole life, and now you’ve got to think about it.”
Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux thinks most pitchers would need only a simple adjustment, with the majority unaffected.
But if you’re talking about the elimination of the strike below the knees, Maddux says, you’re starting to get into dangerous territory.
“I don’t understand why you would take away the low strike,” Maddux says. “You’d have so many more pitches called balls. If we want quicker games, you’ve got to call more strikes.
“Every change in the game has been about more offense. And now they want to add another offensive instrument.”
If you want dramatic change, says Nationals special assistant Bob Boone, a former 19-year catcher, change the game to seven innings. If you want to be innovative, one veteran manager says, eliminate the DH but permit pinch-hitters to be used while allowing the pitcher to stay in the game. Another manager thinks that free substitutions should be permitted just like in every other major sport.
“The process of thinking about the game should be an ongoing process,” Manfred says. “It’s not an all-or-none proposition. I’m not committed to any particular timetable or a process that ends at any particular point in time.
“I hope we have a nice, robust dialogue with the players. I hope they come forward with their ideas. That’s what I really want.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred says of player complaints about rule changes, “I’m hoping the push-back takes a positive form.”