You can be forgiven if you thought the MLBPA had figured out Rob Manfred’s game. The way they left him completely naked over last year’s 60-game season, or refused to move the season back a month this time around which would have opened up the CBA again, the union seemed to have finally figured out what the game was here. If nothing else, during last year’s drawn-out and frankly sad wrangling over playing a season during the pandemic, the union had pulled off the rare trick of pulling everyone over to their side in the court of public opinion. Always strange how players tend to get blamed for work stoppages, but that’s usually been the way in North American sports. Not that time, however.
But this is the baseball players union, which means it’s full of baseball players, which means it’s always a safe bet that they’ll lose the plot eventually. Cue the foreign-substance debate. We just didn’t know it would come with so much losing of pants.
While the first three days of this week have been full of frustrated pitchers dropping their pants or laughing off the whole thing, or Twitter feeds full of videos of inspections from umps, or pitchers running to the media after the game to wail some more about how they can’t cheat anymore, there was Rob Manfred yesterday, as serene as could be:
My view is the first two days have gone very well … We’ve had no ejections [for foreign substances], players in general have been extremely cooperative, the inspections have taken place quickly and between innings. Frankly, the data suggests that we are making progress with respect to the issues [in spin rate] that caused us to undertake the effort in the first place.
It’s going as well as he’d hoped, and he probably isn’t really talking about spin-rate, if you can look behind Manfred’s generally pointed and sniveling eyes. He goes on to describe the Scherzer-Girardi kerfuffle as “unfortunate,” knowing that the sport will never be able to completely escape the clash of two red-asses convinced of their own importance like Girardi and Scherzer.
But there’s something else Manfred knows. He knows we haven’t heard too many hitters complaining. And he knows that there’s a serious, perhaps sport-breaking labor negotiation coming up in mere months.
A lot of what you hear from pitchers is that this “crackdown” should have taken place in the offseason, and some agreed-upon substance should have been sought and found for everyone to use during the season. But why would Manfred and the owners give anything away with the CBA ending in December? Everything on the table, and that includes rules-changes and how the league and players go about making those changes, is something to be negotiated and a candidate to be horse-traded for something else.
While the actual implementation, or even discovery, of what would be an acceptable substance for pitchers to use for grip, or just new, tackier baseballs, might not end up in the next CBA, the process for finding it will. Some sort of competition or rules committee involving players and GMs and others is probably on the horizon. As of right now, MLB’s competition committee doesn’t have players on it. But if players want in on it to sort issues like this out, they’re going to have to give back something in the next CBA.
Manfred probably also isn’t exactly horrified at the thought of driving a wedge between any groups of players. They’ve done it before, though generally it’s between established vets and younger players eager to get to free agency quicker while the older vets don’t want to see players “rewarded” before they were. That kind of schism probably isn’t possible now. Everybody wants the free agency and team-control rules changed, so they’ll have to find another one. Is dividing position players and pitchers such a bad idea from the owners’ perspective?
Everything is a chip. Yes, the prudent and decent method here for Manfred and the league office was to work with players. But by not doing so, it’s become something else they can use in the winter at the bargaining table. And should the last three months of the season see increased offensive numbers, without getting too many decapitated as pitchers have warned (though in a very lady-doth-protest-too-much fashion), then a good portion of the union isn’t going to be aching to take this up as an issue in negotiations. Which is probably exactly what Manfred wants.
You would have thought the union learned. But no one can escape their nature.