DENVER — Banning the shift, eliminating seven-inning doubleheaders and playing extra innings without a runner starting on second base are all on the table as Major League Baseball continues its post-COVID-19 return to normalcy while also negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ association.
“When we adopted seven-inning doubleheaders for this year, we didn’t know the country was going to look like it does now,” commissioner Rob Manfred said in a state-of-the-sport address at the All-Star Game on Tuesday. “We were scared it was going to look very, very different.
“It was a COVID-related change. I don’t think that seven-inning doubleheaders are going to be part of our future going forward.”
Manfred indicated the same about the extra-innings rule, and he seemed to advocate for banning the shift. That ban is being experimented with at Double-A, where infielders must have their feet on the dirt, but more aggressive experimentation is coming.
“Let’s just say you regulated the shift by requiring two infielders on each side of second base,” Manfred said. “What does that do? It makes the game look like what it looked like when I was 12 years old …
“It’s not change, it’s kind of restoration. That’s why people are in favor of it. Front offices, in general, believe it will have a positive effect on the play of the game. … I’m hopeful 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 enjoy historically.”
The current CBA expires on Dec. 1, and the sides are quietly talking and have exchanged proposals. There’s been a mandate not to leak information about the negotiations, which was what happened last summer as the sides attempted to return to play during the pandemic. It eventually led the union to vote down the league’s proposal and forced Manfred to implement the season on his own accord, leading to friction between the sides.
“We have a very professional working relationship with the MLBPA,” Manfred said. “More generally, this whole relationship thing gets overplayed and misinterpreted.
“The fact that you have a period of time, which we admittedly had last spring, where we had serious disagreements which became public, I don’t think is an indicator of whether you’re going to get a new agreement.”
As part of the discussion — although it hasn’t come up yet — Manfred wouldn’t rule out negotiating for players to be fully vaccinated in order to play.
“We have a mandatory vaccination policy in the commissioner’s office, so it would be hard for me to rule it out today,” Manfred said. “Our conversations with the MLBPA haven’t gotten us to that. I wish everyone would get vaccinated.”
Tony Clark, executive director of the players’ association, addressed reporters before Manfred spoke and was asked whether his office is “pushing” players to get vaccinated.
“Push? No,” he answered. “Encourage. When guys ask, we put players directly in touch with [our] experts and make sure they have access to that information. We’ve seen the number [of vaccinations] continue to climb.”
Another topic of contention involves the All-Star Game. The league will examine why so many players opted out of playing. The Houston Astros, for example, have no representatives in the game.
“We have a basic agreement provision that with certain narrow exceptions, participation in the All-Star Game is mandatory,” Manfred said. “We will, post-All-Star Game, review with the union how all of the people that didn’t come fit within the exception to the rule. We bargained for that, and we intend on enforcing it.”
Clark pushed back on that notion, referencing the uniqueness of returning to play during the pandemic. He wasn’t specific about any mental health concerns but simply said it’s just a different year.
“One thing I’ve learned is not to question someone’s injuries,” Clark said. “As players navigate this season, both themselves personally and their families, there’s a realization that this is far from the norm. As a result, there are experiences, that against the backdrop of the norm, that X-Y-Z should happen, it’s not that simple.”