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Rob Manfred on Joe Ricketts and the Cubs, pitch clocks, expansion, labor peace and more

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The Commissioner addressed several topics at the annual Cactus League Media Day news conference.

Al Yellon

GLENDALE, Arizona — Commissioner Rob Manfred covered a vast array of topics on Cactus League Media Day in front of assembled media at the Glendale Civic Center. He began his remarks by celebrating the game, saying he had attended Angels batting practice earlier in the day and that he was ready for baseball on the field.

Well, who isn’t, after this winter of baseball discontent. Manfred also noted the several international games to be played this year, in Mexico and London, and also where big-league games will be played in other “non-traditional” major league venues such as Omaha and Williamsport (where the Cubs will play the Pirates August 18 in the Little League Classic).

He promoted the idea that no one has repeated as World Series champion since 2000 and that speaks to the “competitive balance” in the major leagues, and looks forward to young players like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and others coming to the majors this year as Ronald Acuna Jr. did last year.

Of particular interest to Cubs fans was a question asked about whether MLB would get involved in the controversy surrounding Joe Ricketts’ emails. He replied:

We’ve talked extensively with the Cubs on this topic and we’re fully aware of the situation. Mr. Ricketts, if you look at the ownership structure, really has not only no day-to-day role in the club or control over it, so it is a bit of a reach for baseball to be involved in this set of facts.

Manfred was asked about the reported Manny Machado signing. As the lawyer he is, he acknowledged only the “reports, which I’ve read” but noted the Padres have not yet announced the signing. He did say that having a small-market team like the Padres signing a talent like Machado “is good for baseball, having big stars” in places like that.

I asked him about pitch clocks, which will be coming to spring training games this weekend, and the reports that MLB owners want to negotiate with players before unilaterally implementing them for the regular season. Here’s his answer in its entirety:

I’m not going to speculate as to how those conversations are going to proceed from here. I want to be clear about what I said the other night. What I said is that we were going to make preparations so we can use the pitch clock if we can get a deal or go ahead, and I want to be really clear about this: As is our contractual right, we bargained for the right to do this, and we’re going to start those preparations, give people an opportunity to get used to what the pitch clock looks like and now we’re going to play out the process with the Players Association at the same time.

Translation: We’re doing it in spring training for practice so that everyone is used to it by the time we implement it on Opening Day. Based on Manfred’s response to my question I fully expect us to have pitch clocks in regular-season games this year.

Manfred was asked by The Athletic’s Jayson Stark whether there would be any use to having free-agent signing deadlines, given the late signings this year and several top free agents still unsigned. He replied, “The question is, what do you do if the deadline passes? Say we make a deal with the Players Association that every player has to be signed by, say, January 10. What do you do if someone, in fact, isn’t signed?”

That’s a reasonable question. If there’s a negotiated deadline between two parties for something and it passes without the “something” occurring, usually some sort of financial penalty. But in this case, who would be penalized? And how? So I think something like that probably isn’t going to happen. He noted that owners bargained for a “market system” in the last negotiation, with “smart, aggressive negotiators on both sides,” and that “timing was used as a point of leverage during those negotiations — on both sides.”

A question was asked about banning shifts. Here’s his answer, which was totally noncommittal:

Shifts have been a topic of conversation and I think there is substantial sentiment in the game for the idea of limiting shifts or limiting the amount of shifting that can be done might be a positive for the game. There is another group who believes that the game will self-adjust in response to the shifts and we’re better off leaving it alone. We’re in the process of trying to get a consensus between ourselves and the Players Association as to how to best handle that issue.

This is better, at least, than Manfred’s comments in the very first interview he gave as Commissioner in 2015, when he said he wanted to “ban shifts.” Personally, I feel if a hitter is given the left side of the infield because analytics say he most often hits to the right side (I’m looking at you, Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward), then maybe it’s up to the hitter to adjust to the shift and hit the other way from time to time, spread out the shift. I don’t want to watch a baseball game where there are lines or boxes on the field designating where a fielder can stand until the ball is pitched.

Manfred was asked about his vision for the game five years from now. His first mention, as you might guess, was to have the stadium situations in Oakland and Tampa Bay resolved, as in “having shovels in the ground.” He gave the people in Oakland who are working on a stadium location “a lot of credit” for the work they’ve done so far.

He mentioned expansion to 32-team leagues and was open the idea of “Canada and Mexico” as possibilities (as well as having a better system for “player development in Mexico”), and when that happens he noted “geographical realignment” and possible changes in the way postseason play is arranged, though he wasn’t specific about that. He added, “I hope we will have another Basic Agreement in place and another extended period of labor peace.”

This was a common theme throughout his remarks; he was asked again by more than one person about strike talk, about players coming up to media unasked and talking about labor-management relations, and he always said the “right” thing, noting that “people said we wouldn’t have an agreement without a strike in 2002, and we had an agreement without a strike, and people said we wouldn’t have an agreement before the offseason in 2008, and we had an agreement before the offseason.”

I’d counter to those comments that labor-management relations were much more peaceful when Bud Selig — for all his faults — was in charge. Selig was a conciliator and managed to broker several good agreements. Manfred, for all his experience in collective bargaining — and he mentioned this several times during the presser — doesn’t seem to have the same kind of collaborative ability. I should say that he tried to position his remarks in a way that reached out to players. Whether this will end in a positive way for the sport remains to be seen.

In particular, he was asked whether he could find a solution to the current team practice of keeping players (Kris Bryant, Ronald Acuna Jr., etc.) in the minor leagues to manipulate service time. Here’s his reply in its entirety:

I’m convinced that we can have a meaningful conversation with the MLBPA on this one. The only reason that I hesitate is I think both bargaining parties, if you gave them truth serum, would tell you we have struggled to reach this goal. We then have to determine a mechanism to reach that goal. The problem comes down to the fact that clubs have the right to decide who’s going to be on their roster at any given point in time. It’s hard to determine a mechanism that you can impose on top of that really fundamental right that gets you to the result that you want to achieve.

He went on to say, again, that he was a believer in collective bargaining. Which leads me to say that the players, if they want a better system, ought to have a better negotiator than Tony Clark to get it. It would appear, in Bruce Meyer, a good labor lawyer, they now might have that. Manfred said he thought some of the issues were “a little overblown right now,” and though I personally am still concerned about a strike that could wipe out the 2022 season, I do think Manfred is sincere about his desire to avoid that, and he asked media to not “sensationalize” the current back-and-forth on the issues. That’s a fair request.

There was a question asked about the Arizona Fall League, and Manfred hinted that the league might wind up having its schedule moved back. The reason actually makes some sense — he said that having the minor leagues stop in September, then take four weeks off before the AFL season begins, could lead to possible injuries. That’s a valid concern — but then, do you have the AFL season end during the baseball postseason? Now, it goes into November, and can have some attention to itself. Perhaps they can begin it in September and keep it going into November by playing fewer games per week. A similar concern prompted the Cubs to move their instructional league from October into January, when players would then have the winter off, and come back to play the week of instructs just before spring training begins.

On this, I give Manfred some credit for forward thinking.

Lastly, I brought up the attendance drop from 2017 to 2018, and noted three factors: bad weather, tanking teams, and the one I wanted him to address, high ticket prices. I asked him what he could do to assure fans that baseball games would remain affordable. Again, here’s his answer in its entirety.

I think baseball remains, by some considerable margin, the most affordable of all the major sports in North America. We work really hard at that, and in fact most clubs have special arrangements, discount days, that if fans look for tickets they can find them at a reduced rate and we will continue to work hard to make sure that our ticket prices are not too high so that we remain a family-affordable sport.

Someone let the Cubs know about that, please.

I found Manfred to be more open-minded in his remarks and responses this year than on previous Cactus League media days. He’s learned, I think, that consensus is needed for radical changes in baseball, even though there are some (the automatic intentional walk, the mound-visit limit, and possibly the pitch clock) that he has instituted unilaterally. Those are minor blips on the baseball stage, though, and any bigger things in the game itself (shifts, divisional realignments, etc.) will require a lot more thought. I still think he ought to listen more to real baseball fans; I don’t think he does enough of that. Perhaps someday Rob Manfred will have a news conference open to fans. I think he’d be enlightened about how much fans know, and care, about the game we all love.