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DENVER — Each year, hours before the All-Star Game occurs, the commissioner and the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association hold dueling news conferences for the benefit of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Sitting through these often can leave one with the same sensation as watching the divorce film “Marriage Story.”
On Tuesday, though, Rob Manfred and Tony Clark — with the deadline to complete a new basic agreement only months away — both dialed down the acrimony. When it comes to the future of the game itself, and the way baseball gets played on the field, the two men sounded surprisingly similar: They want it to look more like the past.
“Players are willing to talk about best ways to move the game forward. Players are also interested in protecting the integrity of what the game has always been,” said Clark, the union’s executive director, who spent 15 years playing in the big leagues. “That’s what they fell in love with. That’s what I fell in love with. Protecting what the game has been and advancing it for those who are excited to be a part of it is far more, is far deeper, than just a rule change.”
Manfred, who followed Clark, phrased it this way: “I’m hopeful, without going into the specifics of rule by rule, that we will have productive conversations with the MLBPA about non-radical changes to the game that will restore it to being played in a way that is closer to what many of us enjoyed historically. The game evolves, right? What we play today doesn’t look much like 1971. The question is, which version would you like to get to? That’s the way I think about it, at least.”
As the two men stand on this common ground, I’d offer this free counsel: Don’t yearn too much for what preceded us. Appreciate and respect the game’s evolution and that, as should occur in any healthy industry, smart, energetic people are challenging established mores and seeking better methods of productivity.
Because, The Post has learned, the game that captured Clark’s heart is not the same game that existed in, say, 1933, when the very first All-Star Game took place at Comiskey Park.
Clark’s and Manfred’s comments emanated from questions about the eternally controversial infield shift, an alignment that first gained popularity when opponents deployed it against Red Sox legend Ted Williams — the 6-foot-8 Clark noted that 6-foot-4 Hall of Famer Willie McCovey also served as a recipient of it — and of course is far more prominent nowadays. I’ve never understood the hatred of this. How is it any different than playing the infield in, or utilizing the wheel play on a bunt?
To ban the shift altogether would be intellectually criminal. At the least, how about considering Bobby Valentine’s proposal to limit shifts to turn it into a strategic dilemma? How about three per team per game? It’d give fans something else to first- and second-guess.
What further complicates matters is there are many innovations and cultural transformations that neither side wants to revoke. If a push exists to rely less on analytical byproducts like the shift, that won’t lessen the appetite for modern metrics like exit velocity, spin rate and catch probability, which have created an exciting entryway for many nerds (like myself) to quantify the game’s best. And let’s hope there’s no internal movement to temper the game’s more animated celebrations after a big hit or pitch, or the magnetism of someone like two-time Home Run Derby champion Pete Alonso and his widely embraced #LFGM slogan.
It’s a tightrope, right? Understood why people want more action and fewer strikeouts, which is why the crackdown on sticky stuff made sense (and allowed for the great theatrics of Max Scherzer and Joe Girardi going at it). Yet you don’t want to stifle creativity or research and development, either.
A huge offseason awaits baseball, the top priority simply keeping the doors open. Here’s hoping the two sides don’t rely too heavily on events that already happened to ensure short-term goodwill.
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