DENVER — A third-floor meeting room at the Hyatt Regency was baseball’s version of Switzerland for a few moments Tuesday.
As Players Association chief Tony Clark finished taking questions from members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, commissioner Rob Manfred approached the podium for his turn.
The two people who will ultimately decide if we have baseball games to watch next year spoke briefly.
Relations between the league and the union were, at best, sour for much of 2020. At a time the world was grappling with a deadly pandemic, the sides publicly bickered over the length of the season and how much the players would get paid.
It was shameful given what was going on around them, but at least there was a season.
Now the collective bargaining agreement expires Dec. 1. While that’s not a hard deadline on the 2022 season, as it draws closer the relationship between the players and owners becomes more than industry gossip.
Now it’s a real problem if they can’t work together.
“Our No. 1 priority is to enter an agreement without a work stoppage. It’s that simple,” Manfred said.
“I think we have a very professional working relationship with the MLBPA. More generally, I think this whole relationship thing gets overplayed and misinterpreted.
“In a collective-bargaining relationship, you’re going to have points in time where you have disagreements and sometimes they get public. I don’t think it’s a good thing, but it happens.”
Clark was less effusive.
“The dialogue with the league is ongoing. It will continue after the All-Star Game,” he said.
There’s much to be done. Baseball needs to adjust its rules to increase how often the ball is in play, steps it already has started to take. Getting myopic players to buy into making changes for the long-term good of the product won’t be easy.
Manfred suggested regulating infield shifts wouldn’t be a radical change in his view.
“It’s not change. It’s kind of a restoration, right?” Manfred said. “That’s why people are in favor of it. And they do believe, I think front offices in general believe, it would have a positive effect on the play of the game.
Clark described it as a “push and pull” in terms of what’s best for the game.
“Analytics and data have always been in the game. There’s more of it now and it’s manifesting itself differently in the game than it has previously,” he said.
How young stars are compensated is another thorny issue. Predictive analytics have helped lessen the value of older players, if not pushed some out of the game. Free agency, once the primary goal for players, has turned into a dead end for many veterans.
Baseball has survived work stoppages before and would again. The game always finds a way. The same Red Sox fans who declared they were finished after Mookie Betts was traded now can’t wait to see Jarren Duran.
But the pandemic proved how quickly all of us are capable of finding entertainment elsewhere. We lived without baseball until it came back. They can’t take that risk again.
The national buzz baseball has built up with Shohei Ohtani and exciting young players such as Rafael Devers, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. can vanish overnight and turn baseball into a sport far closer to the NHL in terms of relevance than the NBA or NFL.
Manfred also addressed some on-field issues, specifically the new rules put in place last year for the pandemic. Purists will be delighted to know the commissioner does not see seven-inning doubleheaders or starting extra innings with a runner on second base beyond this season.
The changes were part of health and safety protocols designed to limit how much time players spent together. MLB kept them in place for this season because in March, when the decision was made, it was unclear how quickly the country would emerge from the pandemic.
Now fans who paid for a nine-inning game are getting seven if it gets postponed and rescheduled as part of a doubleheader. With no compensation, of course.
“I understand it’s not perfect from a fan’s perspective,” Manfred said.
Manfred may want to reconsider dumping the extra-inning rule. More players, coaches, and managers like it than you might expect because it forces the action. A compromise to consider would be waiting until the 11th inning to put a runner on second.
It’s all up for discussion in the coming months.