Baseball’s new commissioner is bullish about the sport in South Florida, ready to give Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez a fresh start after his year-long drug suspension and open to someday deciding whether to lift Pete Rose’s lifetime ban.
Rod Manfred, only the 10th commissioner in MLB history, on Sunday begins his fourth week as the successor to Bud Selig, who served 22 years, second-longest behind Kennesaw Mountain Landis.
There’s a lot on Manfred’s plate. Though he takes over at a time of labor peace and rising revenue, he faces challenges keeping the sport appealing to the younger generation. An ESPN poll last spring found that among people ages 12 to 17, as many called themselves avid fans of Major League Soccer as Major League Baseball (18 percent), compared with 39 percent for the NFL and 23 percent for the NBA.
So it’s no surprise that Manfred has discussed innovating ways to speed up the game, including a pitch clock, and creative ways to increase scoring, including the possibility of eliminating defensive shifts.
The 8.14 runs per game last season were the lowest in the majors since 1981. And the 3-hour, 2-minute average length for nine-inning games was 27 minutes longer than 20 years ago.
Manfred, who has worked full-time for baseball since 1998 and was MLB’s chief operating officer since 2013, addressed those and other issues during his Friday visit to Marlins Park for the awarding of the 2017 All-Star Game:
▪ On the Marlins: “I’m optimistic about baseball in Miami. They’ve got a great facility. They’ve got a great young team and I think this market will support a winner.”
He said the Marlins’ All-Star bid “was compelling across the board. The facility is absolutely fantastic. They delivered a great [Miami Beach] Convention Center site for our Fanfest. It was time for baseball to recognize and pay back South Florida for what they did in building this stadium. … It was time for us to be in Florida.”
▪ On Rodriguez, with whom he met last month: “I’m very proud of the drug program that we have negotiated. One of the important aspects is there are very, very severe penalties. Mr. Rodriguez was out for an entire season as a result of his involvement.
“I think the flip side of those penalties is once a player has served out his time, baseball has to make every effort to allow him to resume his career. I have had a number of conversations and a meeting with Mr. Rodriguez in an effort to help him be in the best possible position to resume his career.”
Just 16 months ago, after Rodriguez criticized Selig, Manfred blasted Rodriguez, calling it the “latest, sad chapter in Mr. Rodriguez’s tarnished career [and] yet another example of this player trying to avoid taking responsibility for his poor choices.”
▪ On Rose: “I’m sure there will come a point in time when I’m going to have to make a decision with respect to Mr. Rose. It would be inappropriate for me to say anything about the substance other than that.” Manfred told ESPN recently: “I fully intend to decide it.”
Rose, who was banned from the sport for gambling on baseball, told USA Today last week that he has never met Manfred and wants to be on the writer’s ballot for Hall of Fame voting, which cannot happen under the Hall’s current rules unless he’s reinstated.
Asked about that Friday, Manfred said: “With respect to who votes for Mr. Rose being in the Hall of Fame, those rules are controlled by the Hall of Fame, not by Major League Baseball.”
▪ MLB experimented with a 20-second pitch clock in the Arizona Fall League a few months ago; any violation resulted in a ball call. Will the big leagues follow suit?
“I’m positive about the experiment in the Arizona Fall League, positive enough about it that we’re going to use it in Double A and Triple A this year,” Manfred said. “I think [it’s] too early to make a prediction about whether it will become in effect in the big leagues. … Pace of game is an issue for us. We’re working hard with the players’ association. I think we’ll have some changes that will be applicable for this year, but it’s going to be an ongoing topic.”
▪ Manfred said last month that banning defensive shifts could boost offense, and Yahoo reported Friday that the strike zone, which has seemingly expanded in recent years, could be constricted.
“I started quite a furor with the defensive shift comment,” Manfred said Friday. “This is a topic that we’ve had some internal conversation about. We have not made any decision if it’s something we want to pursue. We’re still looking at the data, trying to decide whether we’re going to make any change in order to increase the offense and whether this change makes sense. It’s way down the road. …
“We really haven’t been to the clubs on this issue. Baseball wants to be proactive in making sure it’s thinking about issues that may be emerging in the game, and this was one of those issues.”
▪ The United States and Cuba are moving toward normalizing relations, and Manfred said “we’re monitoring closely exactly what that change in policy is going to be, because we do have interest in getting the best possible talent from anywhere around the world. Cuba is a great source of talent.”
▪ Baseball has no international draft but Manfred said he believes there will be one “over the long haul. As of right now, Cuban players will be treated like other international players.”