MLBA head not seeking major rule changes to speed up game

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Tony Clark hears all the complaints that baseball is too slow. He is aware of the criticism that games drag on endlessly. And he's mindful of the fact that young fans are tuning out, if they ever even tuned in.

Still, Clark isn't ready to consider rules changes that would radically alter the sport.

"I love our game," said Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, after meeting Tuesday with the Boston Red Sox, the first stop in his tour of Florida spring training sites. "I could talk baseball all day. Call me a romantic, call me what you want. But I look forward to opportunities moving forward to share our game in a way to have some other folks fall in love with it, either again or for the first time. I'm always interested in trying to hear ways to make improvements, but I think the game itself is pretty sexy the way it is despite its challenges."

Clark, 44, played for six teams and hit 251 home runs in a 15-year major-league career before taking over as leader of the players' union in 2013. He is a baseball purist, plain and simple, even though the average time of a major-league game last season was 3 hours and 4 minutes.

While commissioner Rob Manfred and owners of several teams, including Red Sox chairman Tom Werner, are bullish about finding ways to quicken the pace of play -- from instituting a pitch clock to starting the 10th inning with a runner at second base to prevent long extra-inning games -- the players' union under Clark's leadership isn't ready to embrace any of them.

If any changes to the rules are implemented for 2017, it would be only the elimination of having to throw the ball to home plate four times during an intentional walk. With the season set to begin in about six weeks, Clark said there isn't enough time to have a discussion about more significant changes, such as the definition of the strike zone.

"It's going to be very difficult to try and implement something like that," Clark said. "That's not a spur-of-the-moment consideration. I think everyone here can appreciate that adjusting the strike zone is something that can majorly affect the game, negatively or positively. Doing so after guys come in (for spring training), to simply adjust that is a tough sell."

Manfred was resigned to not having rule changes enacted this season. "I have great respect for the labor relations process and I have a pretty good track record of getting things done with the MLBPA. I have to admit, however, that I am disappointed that we could not even get the MLBPA to agree to modest rule changes, like limits on trips to the mound, that have little effect on the competitive character of the game," he told reporters in Phoenix Tuesday.

Clark insisted he has "no problem with ideas" and said players are progressive enough to listen to potential rules changes that would help to grow the game. But he's also concerned about protecting the integrity of the game.

Red Sox manager John Farrell, also a former player, is more resigned to the reality that changes are coming to baseball, at least gradually.

"I think we've done a good job of not trying to change too many things at once. There's been incremental changes along the way," Farrell said, referring to video replay and the rules governing collisions at home plate. "Just because we are talking (about) strike zone, pace of play, clocks, I don't think we'll see five or six things change at once.

"But I think it's on the forefront of Commissioner Manfred's mind. And as we try to create new markets, increase our fan base, I think you'll see all these discussions we're talking about as a way to keep the game active and more attractive to the video age and making it as interactive as possible, but yet keeping the pace of the game inside the ballpark one that keeps the attention of everyone in the stands."