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Baseball’s money squabbles shouldn’t hide major on-field problems

While the parties bicker over economics, on-field changes to spark more action and improve pace of play are being pushed to the side even though they are essential to baseball's future.

A pitch clock, seen here in use during a Phillies spring training game in 2019 in Clearwater, Fla., is among the new rules changes that MLB will consider to improve the pace of play.
A pitch clock, seen here in use during a Phillies spring training game in 2019 in Clearwater, Fla., is among the new rules changes that MLB will consider to improve the pace of play.Read moreLynne Sladky / AP

A few weeks ago, Dave Dombrowski attended an Arizona Fall League game that featured 18 runs, 21 hits, 10 walks, and 11 pitching changes. It didn’t lack for action. Phillies shortstop prospect Bryson Stott stood at the center of it all, with a double, a sacrifice fly, and a run scored.

But here’s the kicker: The game lasted only 3 hours, 3 minutes.

“It was great,” said Dombrowski, the Phillies’ president of baseball operations. “I mean, the action — just boom, boom. There’s always something going on. I really like that.”

Fans appreciate it, too, more than ever. But despite consumers’ shrinking attention spans and a growing number of entertainment alternatives, Major League Baseball plods along with longer-than-ever games in which less and less actually happens, an existential threat to the sport.

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The average nine-inning regular-season major league game this year was played in an all-time high of 3 hours and 10 minutes, three minutes longer than last year and 19 minutes longer than in 2011. Meanwhile, hitters combined to bat .244, tied for the lowest average since 1968, and reach base at a .317 clip, the second-lowest mark since 1972. But at least games averaged a brisk 2:27 back then.

Something must be done for the sake of the sport’s long-term survival. An owner-initiated lockout in the midst of negotiations of a new collective bargaining agreement would seem like a prime opportunity to also improve the on-field product.

Yet commissioner Rob Manfred said in a news conference last week that negotiations with the MLB Players Association will be limited to economics, not improvements to the on-field product.

“Frankly,” Manfred said, “based on the discussions at the table, we saw it as another contentious issue and tried to put it to one side in an effort to get to an agreement on the theory that we could deal with it midterm of the next agreement.”

Well, then.

There’s no denying the chasm between the owners and players on economic issues — service-time minimums for salary arbitration and free agency, revenue sharing among owners, competitive integrity, and more — is wide enough that it may take longer than the 2 ½ months between now and spring training to reach an agreement. Introducing a debate about, say, a pitch clock or the electronic strike zone may not be particularly helpful.

At its core, though, this is about leverage. And money, of course.

Dombrowski isn’t the only team executive in favor of rules changes to improve pace of play. At last month’s general managers meetings in Carlsbad, Calif., several leading executives endorsed the 15-second pitch clock (17 seconds with a runner on base) that helped trim the average time of a nine-inning Arizona Fall League game to 2:46.

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Los Angeles Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said he “wasn’t sure what to expect” from the pitch clock. What he found was “a pace to things that I appreciated,” so much so that he said he forgot the clock was even there.

“I love it,” Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said. “I think the challenge with it is just the buy-in from the players and what it means for a hitter’s rhythm and routine. But I love the concept of thinking about how we can react to our fans’ desires and think about the health and vitality of this game and creating as much energy and excitement around it as possible.”

There’s likely similar support among players and owners.

Over the last few years, MLB used the minor leagues as a lab to experiment with a pitch clock, limits on defensive shifts, and other rules designed to reduce dead time. Some are closer to implementation than others. (The electronic strike zone, for instance, is a work in progress).

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Manfred, who works for the owners, has pushed pace-of-play improvements. MLB hired Theo Epstein to consult on potential rules changes. Players Association executive director Tony Clark, a former player, told reporters before Game 1 of the World Series that he’s open to talking about new rules “and that’s not going to change.”

So, what’s the problem?

With the players fighting for massive changes to the league’s economic structure, the owners argue that on-field improvements are separate from economics, mainly to prevent the players from using the pitch clock or other popular new rules as bargaining chips. But the players contend that economics and the on-field product are interrelated.

And so, both sides continue to whistle past the graveyard, ignoring the most serious threat to their future: the game itself.

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Manfred said last week the owners proposed forming a joint committee to discuss rules changes. The expired CBA also gave him power to implement on-field rules even if they were rejected by the players. Assuming he retains that authority under the new agreement, he could institute a pitch clock, or any other new rule favored by the owners, without a rubber stamp from the players.

“I’d prefer to do it by reaching an agreement with the players,” Manfred said during the World Series.

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One way or another, changes to the product must be made. Shorter, more action-packed games matter more to fans than whether players can become free agents before they accumulate six years of major league service time or how the owners share revenues.

“People like fast-paced events, more action,” Dombrowski said. “I think [the game] is screaming for a change in that regard. I think it’s fan-friendly, I think it’s player-friendly, I think it’s front office-friendly. However that’s created, that’s not my responsibility. But I think it would be helpful for the game. I do.”

Best that the owners and players don’t lose sight of that.