Manfred: Di­a­logue, not dis­cord

Com­mis­sioner wants play­ers to en­gage on pace of play rules

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Bob Night­en­gale bnighten@usatoday.com USA TO­DAY Sports FOL­LOW MLB COLUM­NIST BOB NIGHT­EN­GALE @BNight­en­gale for com­men­tary, anal­y­sis and break­ing news.

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.”

MARK J. RE­BI­LAS, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred says of player com­plaints about rule changes, “I’m hop­ing the push-back takes a pos­i­tive form.”

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