Five weeks before the season opener, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred called upon himself to throw the ceremonial first pitch.
It was a fastball aimed at the chin of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Remember the MLBPA? The most organized of organized labor associations? The union that requires the players’ approval to change the clubhouse clocks from standard time to daylight time?
That’s an exaggeration, but not by much. Since the late Marvin Miller, a former United Steelworkers boss, turned the MLBPA into a collective bargaining force in 1966, nothing has happened beyond the baselines without the players signing off on it.
An outsider doesn’t mess with the MLBPA. An outsider asks, in a very polite tone, if it’s OK to wash the feet of the players before shining their shoes.
During his two years on the job, Manfred has maintained a seemingly cordial relationship with the MLBPA. But during a press conference Tuesday in Phoenix, the commissioner spoke loudly and carried an iron fist.
Manfred wants to accelerate the pace of play. And though there are more daunting issues facing baseball — making the game more appealing to inner-city kids, for instance — it’s clear his No. 1 priority is to keep things moving between the Star Spangled Banner and the victory-line fist bumps.
Manfred recently proposed enforcing a time clock on pitchers and a limiting trips to the mound. Such rules changes must be approved by the union, and the union’s response was “we’ll think about it.”
A yawn, basically.
Manfred saw the yawn and decided: Enough. Rules revisions must be approved by players, so there’s no chance pitch clocks will be used this season. But there’s a clause in the collective-bargaining agreement that gives the commissioner the ability to do whatever he wants as long as he delivers a one-year notice.
While he wants to work with the players, Manfred stressed Tuesday, he’s determined to pick up the pace, whether they like it or not.
“Unfortunately, it now appears that there really won’t be any meaningful change for the 2017 season due to a lack of cooperation from the MLBPA,” Manfred said. “I’ve tried to be clear that our game is fundamentally sound, that it does not need to be fixed as some people have suggested, and I think last season was the kind of demonstration of the potential of our league to captivate the nation and of the game’s unique place in American culture.
“But I believe it’s a mistake to stick our head in the sand and ignore the fact our game has changed and continues to change.”
Limiting trips to the mound doesn’t sound like a big deal, and pitch clocks already are used in the minor leagues. If the clocks were an inconvenience to pitchers, we’d hear about it. But since they aren’t an inconvenience, we haven’t heard about it.
So why the “lack of cooperation” from the union? It’s how the MLBPA rolls, is why. The MLBPA’s problem isn’t with minimally significant rule changes. Its problem is somebody — in this case, the commissioner — asserting his aggressiveness.
The MLBPA was formed because owners enjoyed sole access to a one-way street. There was no such thing as a contract negotiation — “negotiations” were conducted in the spirit of take it or leave it. After what amounted to a disappointing 1959 season for the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle — he batted .285, with 31 homers and 75 RBIs, as his team failed to appear in the World Series a fifth consecutive time — owner George Weiss told Mantle was due a $15,000 pay cut from his $75,000 salary.
Mantle acknowledged that while he didn’t perform at a peak level in 1959, he thought a $15,000 pay cut to be excessive, and didn’t report for spring training.
By exercising the only leverage a player had in those days, Mantle enraged his boss.
“We have been pampering this boy for nine years,” Weiss said, “and I think it’s time he acted like a man. This is the year Mickey Mantle must learn the facts of life. He must learn he can’t bulldoze us into meeting his terms. He must come in and talk over everything reasonably.”
Mantle ended his holdout by agreeing to a $7,000 pay cut.
It was a farce of a negotiation, superstar vs. owner, and Marvin Miller embraced the challenge of giving the likes of Mickey Mantle some contract protection.
Baseball’s version of a labor union was necessary, and it remains necessary, but the MLBPA’s reluctance to consider modest rules changes fulfills any definition of arrogance.
Manfred is a Harvard Law School product who knows better than to pick a fight with the heavyweight champion of pro-sports labor organizations.
But a man confronting a squabble can sit on his hands for only so long. The MLBPA yawned at him, and he got mad, and wherever this is going, I’m on his side.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath