As spring training heats up, MLB players hope for ‘more game positivity’ from commissioner Rob Manfred

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VENICE, Fla. — Rob Manfred made a startling admission when announcing the end of baseball’s bitter work battle last week: He’s failed in his role as a player diplomat.

The recognition was startling enough that Charlie Morton, the famously polished Atlanta Braves starter, almost laughed when it was mentioned.

“The commissioner said that?” Morton asked.

Indeed, he did. And that raises a trickier question: what can Manfred do to prove he’s sincere about fixing this resentful marriage?

“One of the things I’m supposed to do is promote a good relationship with our players,” Manfred said Thursday, after baseball’s 99-day lockout ended. “I tried to do it. I think I failed.”

This is perhaps the only point on which Manfred and the players agree.

“To put it bluntly, he doesn’t do anything for us,” St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright said. “I know how this is going to read, so Commissioner Manfred, don’t take it personally. It’s just how it looks from the players’ point of view.”

It may be hard for fans scarred by labor disputes to remember, but player relations was once Manfred’s specialty. He was elected commissioner by Major League Baseball’s 30 owners in 2014, in part because of his record of maintaining social peace for more than a decade as the league’s chief negotiator.

Cracks quickly appeared in this foundation. The sports collective agreement negotiated in 2016 led to a slowdown in free agency. A mysterious change to baseballs has caused an increase in home runs. Astros players escaped punishment after stealing signs en route to a 2017 World Series title, and in defense of his investigation, Manfred called the championship trophy a “piece of metal”. He apologized a few days later.

A clash over the terms of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season completely fractured the relationship. A work stoppage became inevitable and the teams agreed to end this winter’s lockout just in time to preserve a 162-game regular season.

Players have ideas about where Manfred can improve – starting with the way he speaks publicly, especially on the game.

“Maybe just all the comments and stuff,” Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow offered. “I would say there was a lot of anger towards, like, the ‘piece of metal’. There are little things like that.”

“I don’t think the Lombardi Trophy is a joke on anybody, or whatever they call the NBA trophy or the Stanley Cup,” Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “It’s no joke for these guys. I don’t hear their stewards say things like that.”

Just two weeks ago, Manfred pissed off players and fans alike by joking and laughing with reporters at a press conference to announce the cancellation of Opening Day due to the lockdown.

“We didn’t have a deal two weeks ago, and he’s kind of laughing or smiling,” Kiermaier said. “I didn’t think anything was funny or comedic about what happened.”

“I think for me it’s just more positivity towards the game and the players, and that’s really it,” said New York Yankees reliever Zack Britton, a member of the executive subcommittee. players association.

Some players were encouraged by Manfred’s admission, which came with a vow to prioritize strengthening the bond between management and players. Manfred said he would use small steps to begin the healing process, which began with a phone call to union leader Tony Clark shortly after a deal was struck on Thursday. A day later, Clark said he “responded accordingly and suggested to him that there was a lot of work to be done moving forward in terms of where our game is and where it needs to be. to manage”.

“Him coming out and saying something like that is really encouraging,” Rays outfielder Austin Meadows said of Manfred’s recognition. “I think transparency for both parties, whether it’s the union, the owners, Manfred, I think that will be a big step forward.”

Several players have even expressed their sympathy for Manfred’s position. The commissioner is expected to pose as a steward of the game, but Manfred’s real job is to represent the interests of 30 owners.

“To be fair to him, as commissioner, he has to make sure he’s looking out for these guys,” Wainwright said.

There is an understanding that no one always says the right thing.

“Some of the things he said, I think he probably regrets it, I think,” Kiermaier said. “But I’m also sitting here feeling like I’m talking, walking on eggshells, isn’t it? Like I’m going to say something I don’t mean to.”

And even an appreciation that in the end the lockout ended in time to preserve a full season.

“It’s his job to go ahead and make a deal,” Braves reliever Tyler Matzek said. “A deal was done. We didn’t miss a game, so you kind of gave him a thumbs up.”

“I think his job is probably very difficult,” Glasnow said. “It’s hard to get into these shoes.”

Morton echoed that sentiment. A former union team representative who played for five clubs entering his 15th season, Morton noted friction was inevitable amid the complicated dynamic between players, their union, Manfred and team owners.

He sees the latter as potentially essential in healing sports injuries. Morton has been part of teams where the owners are very involved and readily available. He’s also been to clubs where the boss is rarely seen. The time spent between owners and players makes the difference.

“It can normalize this relationship, can’t it?” Morton said. “And then that leads to dialogue, hopefully productive dialogue, and you don’t have those situations.”

In an interview with ESPN last week after the deal, Manfred took the conversation forward, focusing on the season and the road ahead.

“I don’t believe the relationship is dictated by what we negotiate about,” he said. “We have a lot to do. We have a huge opportunity for the game ahead of us. I want to take this opportunity.”

Morton, 38, was heartened by Manfred’s confession. He hopes there is a link there to save. But he sees the big picture enough – what he calls “a very dynamic relationship” with many sides – to believe there is a simple solution.

“If he feels that, I mean, the idea that somebody wants to be more communicative and open and have a better relationship with people, I don’t see how that’s a negative thing,” Morton said. . “But at the same time, I know it’s hard. So, I don’t know.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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