Manfred, Clark offer widely different views of state of baseball

Monday night’s Home Run Derby, with Nationals slugger Bryce Harper front and center in his home ballpark, was a rousing success. On that point, Rob Manfred and Tony Clark are in complete agreement.

“Bryce Harper put on one unbelievable show,” Manfred said today in the Major League Baseball commissioner’s annual Q&A session with members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. “Amazing how he engaged the fans here in his hometown.”

“Last night was phenomenal,” Clark, head of the MLB Players’ Association, said to the same group during his Q&A session. “And if for nothing else reminded myself - reminded a lot of folks - as much as we talk about the moving pieces in our game, the truth is the players that we have, the ones that perform night in and night out, the reason that fans come to the ballpark and the reason that the game is doing as well as it is, the reason that kids dream was on full display last night.”

Thus concluded the sole portion of today’s BBWAA lunch in which the two men agreed on something.

Both Manfred and Clark spent the remainder of their time offering up a strikingly different view of the state of the sport, whether discussing last winter’s sluggish free agency, the likelihood of baseball instituting significant rule changes including a universal designated hitter, the reason behind an attendance drop this year and whether or not owners are now working together to depress salaries.

The most contentious dispute between the commissioner and the union chief was over the reason for last winter’s depressed free agent market. Dozens of established veterans remained unemployed well into February and beyond, and though most did eventually sign, they wound up taking significant pay cuts.

Clark didn’t go so far as to use the word “collusion” today, but he still threw some haymakers in the owners’ direction.

“What we experienced last offseason was a direct attack on free agency, which has been the bedrock of our economic system,” Clark said. “And if that is going to be different, then we have some very difficult decisions to make.”

Manfred YBA pose.jpgManfred, not surprisingly, flat-out disputed that notion and offered his side’s explanation for last winter’s unusual market.

“‘Direct attack’ involves or connotes some sort of purposeful behavior,” the commissioner said. “The only purposeful behavior that took place in the free agent market last year was that our clubs carefully analyzed the available players and made individual decisions as to what they felt those players were worth. I think if you look back at the end of the year, you’ll look at the performance of those players, and I’m pretty sure - based on what’s already in the books - you’re going to make the judgment that the clubs made sound decisions as to how those players should be valued. That’s how markets operate.”

The players’ union filed a grievance in February over the lack of offseason spending by four small-market clubs - the A’s, Rays, Pirates and Marlins - saying they did not appropriately spend the money they received in revenue sharing on major league payroll.

As it turns out, the A’s and Rays both have winning records while the Pirates sit just one game under .500 at the All-Star break. Clark insisted that doesn’t alter the union’s stance on how those clubs operated over the winter, but Manfred took the opposite view.

“I categorically - categorically - reject the notion that payroll should be the measure of whether somebody’s trying to win in our game today,” the commissioner said. “I reject that, not because I prefer low payrolls to high payrolls. I reject that because I know that the correlation between payroll and winning in baseball is extraordinarily weak. You do not guarantee yourself wins by having a high payroll. And as the Oakland A’s have shown, you can win with a low payroll.”

As for potential changes to the way the game is played, despite Clark saying he and the players are “willing to have a conversation” about pitch clocks, automated strike zones and restrictions on defensive shifts, Manfred claimed he has offered several opportunities to meet and has thus far been rebuffed.

How disparate are the two sides right now? Clark mentioned that the idea of instituting the DH in the National League “is gaining momentum. Players are talking about it more than they have in the past.” Manfred: “I think the most likely outcome at this point remains the status quo.”

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