VENICE, Fla. — Rob Manfred made a startling admission while announcing the end of baseball’s bitter labor battle last week: He’s failed in his role as a diplomat to players.
The acknowledgment was stunning enough that famously polite Atlanta Braves starter Charlie Morton nearly laughed when told about it.
« The commissioner said that? » Morton asked.
Indeed, he did. And it prompts a thornier question: What can Manfred do to prove he’s sincere about mending this rancorous marriage?
« One of the things that I’m supposed to do is promote a good relationship with our players, » Manfred said Thursday, after the end of baseball’s 99-day lockout. « I’ve tried to do that. I think that I have not been successful in that. »
It’s perhaps the one point on which Manfred and players agree.
« To just put it bluntly, he doesn’t do anything for us, » St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright said. « I know how that’s going to read, so Commissioner Manfred, don’t take it personal. That’s just how it looks from a player’s standpoint. »
It may be hard for fans scarred by labor strife to remember, but player relations was once Manfred’s specialty. He was elected commissioner by Major League Baseball’s 30 owners in 2014 partly because of his record of maintaining labor peace over more than a decade as the league’s lead negotiator.
Cracks quickly emerged in that foundation. The sport’s collective bargaining agreement negotiated in 2016 prompted a slowdown in free agency. A mysterious change to the baseballs spurred a spike in home runs. Astros players evaded punishment after stealing signs en route to a 2017 World Series title, and in defending his investigation, Manfred referred to the championship trophy as a « piece of metal. » He apologized days later.
A clash over the terms of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season fully fractured the relationship. A work stoppage became inevitable, and the sides agreed to end this winter’s lockout just in time to preserve a 162-game regular season.
Players have some ideas on where Manfred can improve — starting with the way he speaks publicly, especially about the game.
« Maybe just all the comments and stuff, » Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow offered. « I’d say there was a lot of anger towards, like, the ‘piece of metal.’ There are small things like that. »
« I don’t think the Lombardi Trophy is a joke to anyone, or whatever they call the NBA trophy, or the Stanley Cup, » Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. « That’s not a joke to those guys. I don’t hear their commissioners saying stuff like that. »
Just two weeks ago, Manfred laughed up players and fans by joking and laughing with reporters at a news conference to announce the cancellation of opening day due to the lockout.
« We didn’t get a deal done two weeks ago, and he’s like kind of laughing or smiling, » Kiermaier said. « I didn’t think anything was funny or comical about what happened. »
« I think for me it’s just more positivity toward the game and players, and that’s really it, » said New York Yankees reliever Zack Britton, a member of the players association’s executive subcommittee.
Some players were encouraged by Manfred’s admission, which accompanied a vow to prioritize strengthening the bond between management and players. Manfred said he’d use small steps to begin the healing process, which began with a phone call to union leader Tony Clark shortly after a deal was reached Thursday. A day later, Clark said he « responded accordingly and suggested to him that there’s a lot of work to do moving forward with respect to where our game is at and where it needs to head. »
« For him to come out and say something like that is definitely encouraging, » Rays outfielder Austin Meadows said of Manfred’s acknowledgment. « I think transparency for both sides, whether it’s union, owners, Manfred, I think that’s going to be a big step going forward. »
Several players even expressed sympathy for Manfred’s position. The commissioner is expected to present himself as a steward of the game, but Manfred’s actual job is to represent the interests of 30 owners.
« In fairness to him, being commissioner, he’s got to make sure he watches out for those guys, » Wainwright said.
There’s an understanding that nobody always says the right thing.
« Some of the things he said, I think he probably regrets that, I would think, » Kiermaier said. « But I’m also sitting here feeling like I’m talking, walking on eggshells, right? That I’ll say something I don’t want to. »
And there’s 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 get a deal done, » Braves reliever Tyler Matzek said. « A deal got done. We didn’t miss any games, so you kind of tip your cap to him. »
« I do think his job is probably very hard, » Glasnow said. « It’s hard to put yourself in those shoes. »
Morton echoed that feeling. A former union team representative who has played for five clubs entering his 15th season, Morton noted that friction was inevitable amid the complicated dynamic between players, their union, Manfred and team owners.
He sees the latter as potentially pivotal to healing the sport’s wounds. Morton has been with teams whose owners are highly involved and readily available. He’s also been on clubs where the boss is rarely seen. Face time between owners and players makes a difference.
« It can normalize that relationship, right? » Morton said. « And then that leads to dialogue, hopefully productive dialogue, and you don’t have these situations. »
In an interview with ESPN last week, after the agreement, Manfred pushed the conversation forward, focusing on the season and the road ahead.
« I don’t believe the relationship is dictated by what we’re bargaining about, » he said. « We have a lot to do. We have a huge opportunity for the game in front of us. I want to seize that opportunity. »
The 38-year-old Morton was encouraged by Manfred’s confession. He hopes there’s a connection there to salvage. But he sees enough of the larger picture — what he calls « a very dynamic relationship » with many sides — to believe there’s a straightforward solution.
« If he feels that way, I mean, the idea that someone wants to be more communicative and open and have a better relationship with people, I don’t see how that how that’s a negative thing, » Morton said. « But at the same time, I know it’s tough. So, I don’t know. »
The Associated Press contributed to this report.