DENVER – Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred rarely talks romantically about his sport. But on Tuesday, hours before the All-Star Game after a lonely summer 2020 without one, Manfred gave in to nostalgia. Fifty years ago, at a friend’s house on Lake Brantingham in upstate New York, an All-Star Game captivated him.
“I vividly remember the Great Hall we were sitting in and Reggie Jackson hitting the home run,” Manfred said during a lunch with the writers. “I was 12 then, and I don’t think I remember a single other place I was on a particular day when I was 12. I think that maybe missing out on last year’s game made me focus on how the All-Star Game can be a great event.
Sadly, even the wispy return of the midsummer classic, after the pandemic canceled last year’s event, couldn’t escape controversy. In April, Manfred moved the game from Atlanta in response to Georgia’s restrictive new electoral rules. The sport’s flagship event moved here to Coors Field, where the American League won 5-2. Manfred almost sighed when asked if he would reconsider the possibility of hosting league events in Texas, with lawmakers pushing for their own overhaul of electoral rules.
“The Atlanta decision is probably the most difficult thing I have been asked to do so far,” said Manfred. “I kind of hope that’s the hardest thing I’m asked to do, period. Having said that, I am not going to speculate on who will pass which law and where we will be holding flagship events. It’s hard enough to manage concretely, in real time.
Manfred and Tony Clark, the executive director of the players’ union, have more pressing issues on the agenda. The sport’s collective agreement expires on December 1 and as Manfred has pointed out his track record – there has been no work stoppage in his 23 full-time years with Major League Baseball – the teams are closing in on a critical crossroads.
Players have been skeptical in recent years about the owners’ competitive intentions, reflected in lukewarm free agent offers. Owners worried about the entertaining value of a game with more strikeouts and less action on the court and bases. Players have been reluctant to accept radical rule changes, and Manfred has refrained from unilaterally introducing some ideas he favors.
“Every conversation about changing the game implies, on some level, that something is wrong,” Clark said. “For me the question is: what has changed, why has it changed? When you answer this question, then you can talk about what needs to be adjusted from there. The players are ready to talk about adjustments. Gamers are also interested in protecting the integrity of what the game has always been.
Manfred’s office actively researched ways to spur the offense, installing several rule changes among minors. He said on Tuesday he was strongly in favor of eliminating field shifts (now banned in class AA), which turn more ground players into outs and encourage hitters to swing for fences.
The negotiations, said Manfred, offer a chance to reinvent the sport and “restore it to be played in a way more akin to what many of us have historically enjoyed. The game is evolving. What we’re playing today won’t look like 1971 at all. The question is, which version would you like to access?
The recent innovations brought by the pandemic, he said, are not expected to last. Extra-inning games started with a runner on second for the past two seasons, and matches played in doubles programs have only lasted seven innings each. Both, he said, are “much less likely to be part of our permanent landscape” – though he didn’t require teams to at least offer coupons or discounts as goodwill gestures to the people. fans who bought tickets to matches of nine innings that were changed to seven innings.
“These are things that seem easy,” Manfred said. “They are much more difficult to perform in real life.”
MLB initially wanted to delay the start of the season until early May, but the union rejected the idea, which proved to be a good idea. Yet even now, only 23 of the 30 teams have reached the 85% vaccination threshold needed to ease restrictions on coronaviruses. Ahead of Sunday’s game in Boston, four Philadelphia Phillies players were placed on the Covid-19 injured list.
Clark, who is vaccinated, said the union did not push its members to get vaccinated, but tried to stress the importance of doing so.
“Vaccination is important; it gave us the opportunity to keep the wheels on the track, ”said Clark. “The more we are vaccinated, the better off we will be. Our players have heard us say that too. But the idea that there are still games being adjusted – and we are looking for contacts even though we are here – is a daily consideration.
Last winter, Manfred cited the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic as the reason for presenting expansion plans. On Tuesday, however, he strongly suggested that a franchise could move soon.
Three years ago, Manfred said no other market had the advantage of Oakland, where Athletics has played since 1968, and that the league would regret it if the team ever moved. But athletics soured at the idea of building a new park on the ground around their existing stadium – as have Cincinnati, New York, Philadelphia and others – and a proposed site at Howard Terminal faces a critical vote next week by Oakland City Council.
“The Oakland process is at the end,” Manfred said, later adding, “Las Vegas is a viable alternative for a major league club, and there are other viable alternatives that I have not let go of. A to even explore at this point. So to consider this a bluff is a mistake. This is the decision point for Oakland as to whether they want to have Major League Baseball.
Manfred might want to give the sport back its 1971 look, but he couldn’t do it fully if the As’s moved. The team Jackson played for when he hit his famous All-Star homerun? Oakland athletics.