HOUSTON — Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred is deferring to the Native American community in and around Atlanta on whether it’s appropriate for the Braves to be encouraging the tomahawk chop gesture when the World Series is there for Games 3-5 this weekend.
“It’s important to understand we have 30 markets around the country,” Manfred said before Game 1 between the Braves and Astros on Tuesday evening. “They’re not all the same. The Braves have done a phenomenal job with the Native American community.”
Manfred said the Native American community in the Atlanta region “is wholly supportive of the Braves program, including the chop. For me, that’s the end of the story.”
However, opinions on the gesture have varied over the years within Native American communities, including some with ties to the region. The National Council of American Indians has called for the franchise to drop the chop as well as the team nickname.
The issues have taken on greater relevance this year as the Cleveland organization changed its longtime nickname from the Indians to the Guardians. Manfred’s answer on a possible nickname change for Atlanta was the same as it was for the chop: This is a local issue.
“Each market is different,” he reiterated. “Way before this became an issue, Atlanta cultivated a relationship with the Native American community which was very helpful in terms of making decisions like the two that have been raised.”
MLB players union head Tony Clark said he is interested in having a conversation about anything in baseball that impacts social issues. This is one of them.
“An issue that yields or excites the kind of commentary that you’re seeing in Atlanta is worthy of some dialogue,” Clark said. “I know that there are certain things that as a Black man resonate with me, and we’ll assume that there are instances that resonate with others as well. And to the extent that that’s one of them, then it’s worthy of some dialogue.”
Manfred was asked whether his opinion might change if Native American communities outside of the Atlanta market took issue with the gesture.
“We don’t market our game on a nationwide basis,” Manfred said. “Ours is an everyday game. You have to sell tickets every single day to fans in that market. And there are all sorts of differences among the clubs, among the regions as to how the game is marketed.”
In 2019, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee nation, complained about the chop while his team was taking on the Braves in the playoffs.
Atlanta took measures to reduce encouragement of it but has since reinstated it. It has been prevalent during the Braves’ home games this postseason.
Atlanta will host the middle games of the World Series just months after Manfred moved the All-Star Game from there to Denver due to voting rights issues in Georgia. He was worried some players might protest playing in the game, sources said at the time. The commissioner was asked Tuesday whether it’s getting harder for sports to stay out of political issues.
“Harder than it used to be,” he said. “We have always tried to be apolitical. There was a notable exception this year. Our desire is to try and avoid another exception to that general rule.
“We have a fan base that is diverse with different points of view. We’d like to keep the focus on the field.”
Another pregame topic was the upcoming end to the current collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players union. It is set to expire on Dec. 1. If a new deal isn’t reached, there’s a chance the owners will lock out the players.
“It’s our No. 1 priority,” Manfred said. “The win in collective bargaining is you make an agreement.”
Most of the important financial issues haven’t been decided on, according to sources close the negotiations, but both sides are putting up a front of optimism with five weeks to go.
“We have, at this point, taken advantage of the days that we had at the All-Star Game, and we anticipate taking advantage of the days that we have leading up to and through the expiration,” Clark said.
Manfred added: “The most important point is I know our clubs are 100 percent committed to the idea that they want an agreement by Dec. 1.”
Potential on-field rule changes will be a topic of discussion during CBA negotiations as well. The length of a game — up about three minutes this year to 3:10 — is foremost on the commissioner’s mind. A pitch clock, which is being tested at other levels of baseball, is becoming a real possibility.
“There’s going to come a point in time where the pressure to make change is going to be sufficient,” Manfred said. “I prefer to do it by reaching an agreement with the players.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.