Bargaining talks may start early; Rob Manfred denies balls are juiced

The baseball players’ association has outlined goals for the sport’s unprecedented midterm collective bargaining, objectives likely to meet resistance from management unless the union is willing to make trade-offs.

Baseball’s five-year labor contract expires in December 2021, but the sides agreed March 8 to open negotiations early. Commissioner Rob Manfred said management and the union have had only one preliminary meeting in the nearly 1 ½ years since management first discussed early bargaining.

“We are interested in re-establishing a competitive environment,” union head Tony Clark told the Baseball Writers’ Association of America on Tuesday. “We are interested in restoring meaningful free agency. We are interested in getting players something closer to their value as they are producing it. We are interested in ensuring that the best players are on the field at all times. We are interested in improving the dynamic for entry-level players.”

Following decades of growth, payrolls have remained in the $4.1 billion range since 2017, according to figures compiled by the commissioner’s office, and players have complained about two straight slow free-agent markets. The union accuses clubs of holding top prospects in the minor leagues to delay their eligibility for salary arbitration and free agency, and it ties rebuilding teams to non-competitiveness and four straight seasons of decreasing attendance.

Baseball’s three-tiered economic structure has been in place since 1976: players make at or close to the minimum salary for their first few seasons; they become eligible for salary arbitration at some point from two to three years of major-league service; and they can become free agents with six years of service.

Baseballs defended: Faced with a record onslaught of home runs that has convinced many pitchers that baseballs are juiced, Manfred says the sport has been unable to find any changes in the manufacturing process.

A May 2018 report to Major League Baseball by professors specializing in physics, mechanical engineering, statistics and mathematics concluded there was less drag on the ball, causing more home runs. MLB still has not figured out why, and Manfred denied accusations by AL All-Star starter Justin Verlander and other pitchers that baseballs deliberately had been altered.

“Baseball has done nothing, given no direction for an alteration in the baseball,” Manfred told the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. “The biggest flaw in that logic is that baseball somehow wants more home runs. If you sat in an owners’ meeting and listened to people talk about the way our game is being played, that is not the sentiment among the owners for whom I work. … To the contrary, they’re concerned about how many we have.”

Batters have hit 3,691 homers in 1,345 games, on pace for 6,668 over the full season. That would be 19% above last year’s 5,558 and 9% over the record 6,105 hit in 2017.

No deal on mascot: Manfred insists Major League Baseball did not make a deal with the Cleveland Indians about banning their contentious logo, Chief Wahoo.

The club agreed to remove the hotly debated, smiling caricature from its caps and jerseys starting this season, a decision that came after Cleveland was awarded the 2019 All-Star Game.

The timing was curious, but Manfred said there was no link between the two.

“The All-Star Game was awarded to Cleveland by Commissioner (Bud) Selig before I even had one conversation about Chief Wahoo,” Manfred said. “You can write that as fact.”

Though Wahoo, which has been around since the 1940s, is no longer on the field, fans continue to wear merchandise bearing his image.

Teams’ call on nets: Extending protective netting down foul lines is a ballpark-to-ballpark decision because of differing configurations, according to Manfred.

Following a series of foul balls that injured fans, Major League Baseball mandated ahead of the 2018 season that netting extend to the far end of each dugout.

Still, several fans have been hurt by foul balls this season.

Manfred says he thinks one reason the league has made “extensive progress” on netting is that it has not put clubs “in an impossible position by adopting a one-size-fits-all rule.”

Ex-Indians honored: Two Cleveland baseball mainstays, careers forever linked, were saluted before the game.

For CC Sabathia, a final bow. For Michael Brantley, welcome back.

Sabathia, who will retire at the end of this season, threw out the ceremonial first pitch, a fitting tribute for the 38-year-old Yankees left-hander who began with the Indians in 2001.

One of just 14 pitchers to record 250 career wins and 3,000 strikeouts, Sabathia, a Vallejo High grad, cried when he was traded by the Indians to Milwaukee in 2008 — for Brantley.

“I wanted to stay here,” Sabathia said. “It’s just one of those cities.”

Brantley received a loud ovation when the Houston outfielder was introduced with the other AL players. Brantley spent 10 seasons with the Indians, who elected not to re-sign him as a free agent last winter.

He later gave the AL a 1-0 lead with an RBI double in the second.

Brantley and Sabathia had not met until this week in Cleveland. “Crazy, right?” Sabathia said.

Tribute to Skaggs: Late Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs was honored at the All-Star Game by two grieving teammates — and all of baseball.

Outfielder Mike Trout and infielder Tommy La Stella both wore No. 45, Skaggs’ jersey number, in Tuesday’s game. Skaggs, 27, died July 1. He was found unresponsive in the team’s hotel in Texas, hours before a game against the Rangers.

“It’s been a difficult last couple of days for all of us,” Trout said. “Being at the field, at my home, really helps.”

A moment of silence was held before the game and players on both squads wore black patches with Skaggs’ number in white.

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