Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred doubled down Tuesday morning on his assessment that the owners and the MLB Players Association are trying to avoid a labor dispute as collective bargaining for a new Basic Agreement continues.
The current five-year deal expires Dec. 1.
“The best I can say to you is that our No. 1 priority is get a new agreement without a work stoppage, it’s that simple,” Manfred said. “Every single time since I took over the labor job that was our No. 1 priority. It’s worked out pretty good so far. And it remains our No. 1 priority now.”
Manfred and Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLBPA, spoke to a closed gathering of Baseball Writers Association of America members in Denver on Tuesday morning, hours prior to the All-Star Game at Coors Field.
MLB hasn’t suffered through a work stoppage since a player’s strike wiped out the end of the 1994 season, canceled that postseason and delayed the start of the 1995 campaign. Manfred took over the position as MLB’s lead labor negotiator in time for the 2002 talks and navigated treacherous waters ever since.
He replaced Bud Selig as commissioner in 2015.
Manfred basically reiterated what he told a Sportico audience during a video session back in April: Under his watch, there have been no work stoppages.
“Since I’ve been at MLB, we’ve had a pretty good track record at that,” he said. “We’ve never had a dispute and I believe, I really am optimistic, that the process will work here. We’re committed to the process. We’re open minded. We’re optimistic we want to make an agreement. Those should be good sentiments for all baseball fans to hear.”
Clark was less committed about the future when asked the same question Tuesday.
“The dialogue with the league is ongoing,” he said. “It will continue after the All-Star Game with some dates that are being discussed, topics that are being discussed as well. There’s a lot do and a short period of time to do it.
“Nothing has changed as far as the expiration of the current agreement. It’s still Dec. 1. But our focus is on continuing to meet and finding a fair and equitable agreement.”
Neither party would discuss the progress of the discussions.
Clark said during the same April valuations symposium there are a range of possibilities if a new agreement is not signed by Dec. 1.
“Both sides can potentially agree to extend the deadline as a result of the progress that has been made,” he said. “There’s also a possibility of a work stoppage.”
Since players are not paid during the offseason there would be little value in a strike. But MLB still could enforce its first lockout since spring training of 1990 to avoid entering the thick of another free agency season under the rules of the current Basic Agreement.
Manfred countered by saying the two sides have “a very professional relationship.” This, despite a $500 million grievance recently filed by the union over Manfred’s implementation of last year’s 60-game season. The players say despite COVID they could have played more games but were forced to take a 67% pay cut.
“This whole relationship thing gets overplayed and misinterpreted,” Manfred said. “In a collective bargaining situation, you’re going to have disagreements and sometimes they’re going to go public. That’s not a good thing, but it happens, OK? It’s just the way of the world.”
On one other pending issue, Manfred made some news, saying the Oakland A’s search to build a new ballpark in the East Bay is reaching its conclusion.
The Oakland City Council has set a July 20 date to vote favorably on the A’s non-binding $12 billion ballpark village and new stadium proposal at the Howard Terminal. If the Council votes yes, there are still a number of hoops the A’s will have to jump through. If it votes no, the A’s will be able to explore relocation to Las Vegas or another market.
Manfred gave the A’s tentative approval for that possibility two months ago.
“The Oakland process is at the end,” Manfred said. “That proposal is in front of the relevant government authorities. There are really crucial votes, and that’s going to determine the fate of baseball in Oakland. If they can’t get a ballpark, then the relocation process is going to take on more pace.”
For his part, Manfred also said Tuesday the sport is now rebounding economically from the shortened 2020 season played without fans in the stands, during which he claimed the owners took on $8.3 billion in debt and suffered about $3 billion in losses.
He said 85% of MLB’s Tier 1 employees, including players, have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Since fans returned to ballparks this year, which now are almost all at full capacity, 16 million fans have attended.
“With the exception of getting Toronto back from Buffalo, we’ll be at 100% after the break,” he said.
He added that such COVID-era rules as seven-inning games at both ends of double-headers or a runner starting on second base to open any extra inning would probably disappear in the new Basic Agreement.
“I see those as rules based on medical advice to deal with COVID,” he said. “They are much less likely to become part of our permanent landscape.”
The experiment in the minor leagues this season of eliminating defensive shifts could come to the majors as soon as next season. Manfred said many of the owners are now agreed that two infielders must be positioned on either side of second base and somewhere on the field dirt.
The players believe that change would instantly reinvigorate offenses.
“I think you’re 100% right on where the clubs are in regard to regulation of the shift,” Manfred said in response to a question about the issue. “What does that do? It’s not change. It’s a restoration. And that’s why people are in favor of it.”