CLEVELAND — The two men who control the immediate future of baseball, commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark, passed each other while walking through the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Tuesday.
Clark had just taken questions from members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for about an hour and Manfred was on his way to the podium to do the same.
“Good morning, Tony,” Manfred said, extending his hand.
“Rob, good to see you,” Clark replied after shaking it.
How long will such civility last? The collective bargaining agreement expires on Dec. 1, 2021 and baseball has what seems like countless issues to settle before the deadline hits, so many that the sides have taken the unusual step of agreeing to midterm bargaining and have already met once.
Before he entertained questions, Clark ticked off a list of concerns shared by the players.
“We are interested in restoring meaningful free agency. We are interested in getting players something closer to their value as they are producing it. We are interested in ensuring that the best players are on the field at all times,” he said.
“We are interested in improving the dynamic for entry-level players. And we are interested at getting to a point where how our game is marketed and how our game is promoted is something that is more beneficial than where we currently sit.”
Those are ambitious goals and it’s unlikely all will be met. But with more than two years remaining to reach an agreement, it’s fair to think baseball can extend what has been nearly 25 years of labor peace with some give and take.
At a time when sports consumers have so many options, the players and owners would be foolish to allow a work stoppage. Especially with revenue generated from legalized sport gambling on the horizon.
J.D. Martinez is not convinced it will happen. The Red Sox designated hitter is “very concerned” the players will go on strike in 2022.
“We’re all together,” Martinez said before hitting fifth for the American League in the All-Star Game. “There’s a thought that the Association is weaker than it’s ever been due to the younger players. But a lot of the younger players are beginning to understand. We’re all united.”
Martinez had a 1.066 OPS, 45 home runs, and 104 RBIs in 2017 before becoming a free agent. But only the Red Sox offered him a contract and he didn’t sign until well into spring training.
“It was painful for me,” Martinez said. “It was enjoyable at first then you start noticing teams don’t want to win. That affected me right away in free agency.”
That too many teams aren’t interested in winning — “Just cashing checks,” Chris Sale said with disdain during spring training — has been a complaint for two years.
Manfred’s answer is that 20 teams are within five games of a playoff berth. Three of those teams have losing records and two others are either .500 or a game over. So is that competitive balance or just a large collection of mediocre teams?
“To me, teams aren’t going after the best players,” Martinez said.
That the current agreement proved favorable to the owners is evident and the pressure will be on Clark to even the field, likely at the risk of his job if he does not.
Manfred and the owners essentially acknowledged the imbalance by offering to make changes well before the deadline.
“It is unprecedented and it started not because Tony came to us, it started because we went to him,” Manfred said.
Non-economic issues, while not as contentious, also will be debated in negotiations.
Many players, pitchers in particular, are convinced the balls have been tampered with to promote home runs and more offense. Teams are on pace to hit a record 6,668 home runs this season, 1,110 more than 2018.
That MLB owns Rawlings, which manufactures the balls, only adds fuel to that theory.
“Baseball has done nothing, given no direction for an alteration in the baseball,” said Manfred, who became exasperated over the number of ball-related questions he was asked.
“The biggest flaw in that logic is that baseball somehow wants more home runs. If you sat in an owner’s meeting and listened to people talk about the way our game is being played, that is not the sentiment.”
Said Clark: “There’s been an acknowledgment that it’s different, and that difference, in part, is yielding different results on the field. So the question becomes, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ ”
The players want more netting to protect fans from foul balls, something teams determine individually.
A universal designated hitter is an issue that will not arise until 2021, Manfred suggested. But the commissioner did indicate he favors a new rule requiring pitchers to face at least three batters. That can be implemented as soon as next season without approval from the union.