Manfred gets confrontational over MLB union's resistance to pace-of-play changes

PHOENIX -- I get the players' perspective. They worry about the game on the field changing too radically due to pace-of-play improvements. They worry, as one told me, that, "If you try to control the game, you turn us into robots."

These are legitimate concerns -- concerns to express in bargaining with the clubs. But in the view of commissioner Rob Manfred, the union is stonewalling, not bargaining. Strategically -- no matter where one stands on the issue -- that is a mistake.

Manfred, speaking at a news conference Tuesday, threw a figurative 95-mph fastball under the chin of union chief Tony Clark, a man who experienced that sensation quite literally in his playing days. The confrontational tone of the commissioner's remarks was stunning, considering that the two sides reached a new collective-bargaining agreement less than three months ago.

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The problem for Clark is that the CBA gives Manfred the power to act with more than just words in year two of the deal if the two sides cannot agree on proposed rules changes. Manfred left no doubt he would exert that power -- the baseball equivalent of an executive order -- saying, "we intend to pursue our agenda for change in year two ... for the benefit of the game and the fans."

Or, to put it more bluntly, Manfred threw his figurative knockdown pitch without fear of an umpire issuing a warning. Quite the opposite, actually -- Manfred's pitch was the warning, and the CBA empowers him to throw the next one directly at Clark's head.

Yes, it's that nasty between the two sides.

Labor peace is assured through 2021, but baseball essentially threatened a lockout to get the CBA done. The widespread perception that the deal is one-sided in favor of the owners probably did not help the union's disposition. And now tensions are rising over issues on which there should at least be a semblance of common ground.

Whether the players want to admit it or not, pace-of-play is an issue. Pace-of-action also is an issue. And while the players are rightly protective of the game on the field -- a game that, as Manfred noted, 75 million people to major-league parks last season -- let's not forget that change often is necessary and good.

Many players, remember, expressed skepticism about the home-plate collision and second-base slide rules, but after brief and somewhat tumultuous adjustment periods, both proved beneficial, helping make the game safer. Pace-of-play improvements also would require players to change old habits. But as the game gets slower and slower and society faster and faster, can someone please explain why that is such a bad thing?

The facts are damning, and not in dispute.

The average time of game increased by 4 minutes, 28 seconds last season after a reduction of more than six minutes the year before. Manfred said that since 1980, home runs are up 32 percent and strikeouts 67 percent. The percentage of balls in play last season was a record low, the relief pitcher usage per game a record high. And no, replay is not the cause -- the average length of review last season was the lowest in the three years the system has been in place.