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Rob Manfred: MLB Rule Changes Could Be Instituted Unilaterally In 2018

The commissioner made some surprise remarks at Cactus League Media Day.

Al Yellon

PHOENIX, Arizona — In his third year as Commissioner and third appearance at Cactus League Media Day, Rob Manfred departed from his usual friendly greetings to gathered media and instead laid out some comments that reflected him being somewhat upset that the Major League Baseball Players Association had refused to agree to any of the proposed rule changes the commissioner’s office had brought to them earlier this year.

“There won’t be any rule changes this season based on lack of cooperation from the MLBPA,” Manfred said in a rather pointed remark apparently blaming the players’ association for not agreeing to changes in the intentional walk rule, and a modified strike zone, among others.

Even while stating “our game is fundamentally sound and does not need to be fixed,” Manfred went on to say that discussing rule changes is a two-year process and that MLB owners intend to use “year two” to further discussions. But he hinted that if the parties can’t come to an agreement, that owners might unilaterally implement some changes for 2018. By the terms of the agreement, MLB must send a letter to the MLBPA by Opening Day indicating they still want to keep these proposals on the table. After that, negotiations would continue, but if they fail, Manfred hinted that rule changes could be implemented whether the MLBPA — or fans — want them, or not.

This isn’t optimal, as you might imagine. Manfred claims they have done “significant research” that shows that fans want faster-paced games, and I have no doubt that’s true. But as I have written several times this month, “faster-paced” doesn’t necessarily mean the changes they have proposed, in particular the idea of putting a runner on second base in extra innings.

To that idea Manfred said, “We see that as a special purpose rule that was beneficial in developmental leagues,” where he said there was “no real purpose in playing 18-inning games” and, at least the way I read his comments, he doesn’t see this happening in the major leagues any time soon.

Of more interest to us as Cubs fans, Manfred was asked about the possibility of hosting the 2020 All-Star Game at Wrigley Field. Using his best lawyerly skills, Manfred was noncommittal, saying only: “A renovated Wrigley Field would be a great location for an All-Star Game. Chicago is a great city, and over time we have tried to go to cities that are great locations for the game and to reward cities who have made substantial investment in either new or renovated facilities.”

Translation: They’re waiting until they can be assured all the work at Wrigley can be done for a certain year before MLB will commit to an All-Star Game there. If I had to guess, since next year’s ASG is already awarded (Nationals) and they’ll likely award the 2019 game this year to give whoever gets it a chance to do a lot of advance planning, the Wrigley ASG — and no doubt, there will be one soon — would more likely happen in 2021 than 2020.

I asked Manfred what the league’s plans were to address blackouts, now that in-market streaming is a reality. He said, “You will see the continuing emergence of streaming products. I think that the entire relationship, the spinoff to Disney of BAMTech, is recognition that baseball must stay in the forefront of streaming.”

I only hope he means what he said. The current cable model has been very lucrative for both the RSNs and teams involved. But nothing in broadcasting lasts forever and with cord-cutting picking up pace and the possibility that the cable bubble could burst sooner rather than later, this is an issue that MLB has to address — sooner rather than later.

Other topics covered included the tragic auto accidents in the Dominican Republic, where Manfred said as much assistance as is possible is given to families as well as clubs to educate players about the dangers; the World Baseball Classic and rumors it might end after 2017 (“It’ll be around as long as I’m Commissioner,” Manfred said, “but it would help promotion in the United States if the USA team would have a better showing.”); an international draft, which Manfred said was bargained collectively and though a different system than the current one was discussed, what was agreed to will be what’s in place for the length of the current agreement. (Noncommittal again, I’d say.)

A local Phoenix-area reporter asked about the dispute between the Diamondbacks and Maricopa County over Chase Field, to which Manfred said, “It’s absolutely clear from the material that has been made available to me there are serious maintenance needs that need to be met with respect to the stadium.” While that might be true, “maintenance” to me would appear to be different than the major alterations the D-backs are asking Maricopa County to pay for.

The idea of putting a team in Las Vegas, after the NHL and NFL are headed there, was broached with Manfred. He said that he didn’t see any particular reason why legal gambling in Las Vegas would rule it out as a possible site for a team. However, he didn’t offer, nor was he asked about, any information about future expansion. In past years he’s said it wasn’t in the immediate future, so this appears to be a more conceptual question than anything grounded in the possibility in the next few years.

I’m going to wrap this with some thoughts Manfred had about the game in his introductory remarks: “2017 gives us a chance to build on the tremendous momentum we had coming out of 2016, with great young players like Kris Bryant, Francisco Lindor and Mookie Betts, and I’m sure those players will produce the kinds of compelling stories that came out of the World Series between the Cubs and the Indians last year.”

That being the case, Rob, I’d think you’ll want to think very carefully before you mess with the game or its fundamental structure. Baseball’s riding a high of popularity right now. That’s a good thing. Ride the wave instead of trying to fight it.