A New MLB Labor War Is Brewing Over League Nonsense
Commissioner Rob Manfred appears set to go over the union's head and enact changes that could trigger a labor war
Baseball’s most recent collective bargaining agreement, ratified at the end of 2016, included some posturing from the league via reports of a threatened lockout, but there was little doubt that the labor truce would be preserved. That deal runs through 2021, but on Tuesday, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred fired the first real salvo by suggesting that there is heat between the two sides and that the continuation of baseball’s Gilded Age is not assured.
The context is a quibble over what amounts to a relative pittance compared to the tensions Manfred’s comments signal. For years, baseball games have slowed down and the league has been trying to combat that trend in the interest of keeping viewers attentive and in attendance.
To that end, the league wants to make changes such as limiting a catcher’s number of visits to the mound per inning and eliminating the procedure for intentional walks, the latter of which is reportedly going to happen, according to ESPN’s Howard Bryant. (It’s an inconsequential move, as intentional walks have been at all-time lows for years, which was covered here back in summer 2013.)
The concern is the overall amount of inaction, given the continued rise of strikeout totals that limit the number of balls in play (i.e. the excitement of motion on the diamond) and the number of pitching changes. Data at Baseball-Reference.com shows that last year, teams averaged a record 4.15 pitchers per game, which computes to 6.3 pitching changes for the two clubs every night, many of which happen mid-inning and slow the game. That’s up 2.1 changes per game in the last 25 years.
Manfred contends that the union is stonewalling on making some of these changes, which the CBA allows the league to make without ratification in year two of the agreement.
“We have a disagreement about the need to push forward on these issues,” Manfred told reporters in Arizona. “. . . I have great respect for the labor relations process, [but] I have to admit I was disappointed we could not even get the MLBPA to agree to even a modest rule changes like [limiting] trips to the mound.”
The union has pushed for better education of the sport’s nuances so that fans would better appreciate the strategic lulls, such as mound visits and coach signals. That plan seems ill-fated at best, and Manfred rightly rejected the idea that it was possible. But then he took matters a step further by airing some negotiating grievances with union boss Tony Clark.
“The idea that management has the right to make changes in its product, in this case the game on the field, is fundamental and well-recognized in labor laws,” Manfred said. “. . . Tony is more than within his rights to say right now he doesn’t want to move ahead with those rule changes. We will continue the process and will exercise the rights we negotiated under the basic agreement. Hopefully that process will reach an agreement. I want an agreement on these issues. But I’m also not prepared to walk away on this topic just because Tony’s not ready to move forward now.”
Those words, taken at face value, are already loaded, but in baseball labor negotiations—a process from which historically few details have leaked—that’s a major threat. And Manfred knows it, after serving as chief negotiator in previous CBA talks and now as commissioner.
The players understand, too. One anonymous major leaguer told Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal that Manfred “doesn’t realize the fight he is picking” and, referring to the next CBA negotiation: “Four years from now, he will see absolute wrath if he makes the moves himself,” the player said, also adding that “the union is listening to the players, and the players don’t want the changes.”
Clark also came out swinging, all but painting Manfred as an authoritarian.
“Unless your definition of ‘cooperation’ is blanket approval, I don’t agree that we’ve failed to cooperate with the Commissioner’s office on these issues,” Clark said in a statement. “Two years ago we negotiated pace of play protocols that had an immediate and positive impact. Last year we took a step backward in some ways, and this off season we’ve been in regular contact with MLB and with our members to get a better handle on why that happened.
“I would be surprised if those discussions with MLB don’t continue, notwithstanding today’s comments about implementation. As I’ve said, fundamental changes to the game are going to be an uphill battle, but the lines of communication should remain open.”
The league knows how to play the media game when it wants to, no doubt planting the ridiculous notion of starting extra innings with a runner on second base to hasten an outcome partly to gauge the fans’ reaction—an overwhelming “you’ve gotta be kidding me” was what they got—but surely also to hedge expectations against something outlandish, thereby making small tweaks like mound visits more palatable.
While the league’s contention that a speedier pace would help the game, so long as there are no “fundamental changes”—although Clark’s definition is probably different from my own. However, that concern is secondary to preserving labor tranquility. If Manfred veiled threats of unilateral action continue, MLB’s union—by far the strongest of any in American sports—seems set to call his bluff.