MLB commissioner Rob Manfred: ‘More challenging’ dealing with Trump administration

The commissioner also discussed how he views baseball free agency, and the tampering allegations against Bryce Harper.

Sam Kennedy and Rob Manfred in Boston.
Red Sox President and CEO Sam Kennedy, left, and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, right, at the Boston College Chief Executives Club luncheon, March 6, 2019, in Boston. –AP Photo/Steven Senne

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred was in Boston on Wednesday to speak at the Boston College Chief Executives Club luncheon, offering his thoughts on a variety of issues in a discussion moderated by Red Sox president and CEO Sam Kennedy.

Early in the 45-minute session, Manfred gave a candid response when comparing MLB’s experience working with the current and previous presidential administrations. He cited Cuba, which he visited with president Barack Obama in 2016, as an example.

“We found the Obama administration, particularly in the Cuba setting, to be very disciplined and unified in terms of the messaging,’’ Manfred explained. “It has been more challenging in terms of working with the Trump administration.’’

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Manfred noted how a recent agreement regarding Cuban baseball players was put in jeopardy by last-minute uncertainty from US officials.

“We actually made an agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation that was very important to us,’’ said Manfred, “because it created the prospect that a Cuban national could get released from the Cuban system, come to the United States, play in Major League Baseball, and then return to Cuba if he wanted to in the offseason. We thought we had the administration on board with that agreement. We were briefing them pretty regularly, and late in the process, it appeared that they were not so positive about the agreement. So, it has been challenging.’’

Manfred did cite working with Trump officials “positively’’ on tax legislation, adding, “We’ve done some great things with them, as well.’’

Later in the discussion, Kennedy and Manfred talked about baseball’s labor situation, and specifically the recent issue of free agents remaining on the market even as spring training begins. Manfred tried to outline the problem as he sees it from the players’ perspective.

“In our current situation, I think that the players are frustrated by certain developments that they have seen under this agreement,’’ said Manfred. “And I think of those developments this way: We’re spending the same percentage of our revenue on players that we’ve been spending for a decade and a half, so the money that’s going to them on aggregate is the same.

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“In case you missed it, we did spend $630 million on two players last week, set some new records in terms of highest annual salary and total value. Players are still getting these mega-contracts, so the dissatisfaction relates to individuals that are getting into the free agent market that may not be those premier guys, and what they’re getting in that market.’’

The money split between players and owners, in Manfred’s view, is not the issue. As the commissioner sees it, it’s a disparity problem.

“I mean, we basically run a break-even business, the owners reinvest in their clubs,’’ said Manfred. “I’ve tried to make that point to the players, and explain to them that, look, you have a distributional problem. It may be that you think some guys are getting too much, some guys are getting too little, you’d like to create additional opportunities, it’s on you to explain to us what you’re looking for in terms of distribution of those dollars.’’

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The collective bargaining agreement runs until 2021, but Manfred said he’s open to discussing the situation immediately.

“[I’m] happy to have that conversation, happy to have it now, not even near expiration, but you have to identify for us what it is that you see as the problem with the system,’’ said Manfred.

After the discussion moderated by Kennedy ended, Manfred spoke to the media. When asked about Bryce Harper’s recent comments regarding his intent to recruit Mike Trout — a free agent after the 2020 season — the commissioner said MLB is “in the process of gathering information about the comments.’’

“We’re talking to both clubs,’’ added Manfred. When asked how he felt about players openly recruiting other players, Manfred cited the league’s policy.

“Given our rules, players recruiting other players who are still under contract or under reserve to another club is a rule violation, so obviously [I’m] not anxious to see that,’’ he said.