Q & A: MANFRED ADDRESSES FANS AT TOWN HALL

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred met the fans and media on Monday at the annual town hall chat before Tuesday’s All-Star Game in Miami.

Manfred discussed the sale of the Marlins, the World Baseball Classic, the designated hitter, expansion, pace of play, retiring Roberto Clemente’s No. 21 and expansion.

RICH WALTZ: Hi, everybody. Welcome to Fanfest. Isn’t it great to see all the different jerseys, all the different colors. And it’s an honor to be with Rob Manfred, who I just realized is the first commissioner in baseball who mastered the art of the selfie. Very good over there. Now fans ask you to sign the ball. How close do you come to matching — your autograph is already on the ball.

ROB MANFRED: Right. A young man just asked me over here whether it was really my signature. So I signed right next to it for him and he agreed it was actually mine.

RICH WALTZ: That’s good. The keyword there is “young”. When you come to an event like this or work in baseball like we do and go to a ballpark, you realize that the future of this game is young. You see the kids coming around. I know the Play Ball Initiative for you has been big. Can you give us an update on where that is and how successful you’ve been?

ROB MANFRED: Play Ball remains really one of our primary focuses. We think the most important thing that we have to do is make sure that young people participate in our game, come to the ballpark. We really encourage — the Sports & Fitness Industry Association just put out their annual report. The only major sport, including sports that people think of as fast-growing like lacrosse and soccer, that had increases in youth participation last year were baseball and softball. We think that Play Ball had a little something to do with it. We’re continuing to focus our efforts on making sure we get kids playing the game.

RICH WALTZ: Kieran has this e-mail for you: “Your thoughts of Miami? How has it been so far and Miami hosting the All-Star Game?”

ROB MANFRED: Miami was a great choice. As an All-Star venue. I think Marlins Park is a great ballpark, modern. Really ideally suited to host an event like this. And I think the city of Miami so far, where the early events has really turned out. We had almost 4,000 people for our 5K the other night. Nearly 1,000 showed up for the Zumba class.

RICH WALTZ: Did you do the Zumba?

ROB MANFRED: No, I went and watched and I tell you it looked a little tough for me. Really rigorous. We had a nice crowd in the ballpark last night and I’m sure it will be packed tonight.

RICH WALTZ: There’s obviously surrounding the Marlin organization, the question about the sale of the ballclub. Is there any update on that?

ROB MANFRED: Well, you know, we always prefer a process whereby the buyer and the seller agree on price. There’s a period of time when they work through their financing and all the legal documentation, the diligence that needs to be done. And then we have a public announcement. Unfortunately, in this situation the bidders became known. There are actually three groups, all of whom are prepared to meet the Marlins’ price. All three of those groups are in the process of doing the legal work, the financing work, the diligence work that I referenced. And when that’s complete the Marlins, Mr. Loria, will have to decide which one of the three groups it’s going to be.

RICH WALTZ: The last time I saw you was in the lobby of a hotel in Japan, believe it or not, in the World Baseball Classic. This question has to do with international play. This is from Matthew: “What do you think Major League Baseball’s role is in growing the reach of the game? Would it involve playing pre-season or regular season games abroad, possibly in Europe or South America, even letting Major League players participate in future Olympic games?”

ROB MANFRED: Let me take those one at a time. We do believe that play remains a crucial part of our effort to internationalize the game. One of the best things about the new basic agreement, we have a very aggressive international play plan included in that. It includes playing in places like Mexico, Europe. We’ve already announced we’re playing in Puerto Rico next year. Really important for us to continue those efforts. We’ve also undertaken in Europe in particular smaller baseball events. We had a Home Run Derby in London just a couple of weeks ago with some former Major League players. It’s part of a continuing effort to get people familiar with our game where baseball is not part of the culture.

RICH WALTZ: World Baseball Classic was wildly successful. I’ve been lucky to be a part of three of them. What’s the future of that event?

ROB MANFRED: Well, we are really committed to the WBC. There’s certain scheduling logistical issues surrounding the Olympic games that makes it very, very difficult for us. Summer Olympics usually in the middle of our season. I can’t imagine a situation where we would take the kind of break that would be necessary to have our best players in the Olympics. As a result of that, we feel the WBC is crucial as a substitute, a premiere international tournament that allows our players to play for their countries. I think those of you who followed the event this spring, would agree that it really took a step forward. The ratings for the event were very positive. We had great crowds around the world. I was in both Korea. I saw you in Japan. Amazing crowds in those venues. And interestingly, our television audience was significantly younger and significantly more diverse than our normal audience.

RICH WALTZ: That’s good news. I imagine when you got the job you probably had people calling and saying congratulations. And then they asked you this question: “The designated hitter,” this is from Rafael, “with interleague games being played every day, will the National League add the designated hitter?”

ROB MANFRED: I know people feel a tension as a result of the difference of the rule in the two leagues. It’s not anything that’s ever bothered me. I think it’s actually an interesting facet of our game. I think the National League owners really like their brand of baseball, and I really don’t foresee the DH moving into the National League.

RICH WALTZ: Jose has a question about the Olympics. We already addressed the World Baseball Classic. “If Los Angeles gets the Olympics in 2024, what will baseball’s participation be?”

ROB MANFRED: We don’t even know interestingly exactly what the Olympic tournament in Japan is going to look like. We’ve met with the IOC officials. We try to remain open-minded on the topic of Olympic participation. In the past we’ve done our very best to make the best minor league players available for the tournament. But they haven’t settled on the 2020 event, so it’s hard to speculate about 2024.

RICH WALTZ: Danny wants to know, “What are your expectations in our nation’s capital for the All-Star Game next year?”

ROB MANFRED: Each and every year we try to pick a city that’s excited about having the All-Star Game. The entire Nationals organization as well as local government in Washington, very excited to have an All-Star Game. I think the opportunity to be in the nation’s capital is a unique one for us. And I’m sure it will be another good year for us.

RICH WALTZ: Pace of Play initiative for you was and is a big topic. Wayne wants to know, “Have you ever considered placing advertising logos on all four edges of the television in exchange for reducing the break between half innings down to a 1:15?”

ROB MANFRED: This actually is a really important question. A lot of debate about pace of play has surrounded things that we could do on the field. I think it’s important for people to understand that we’re serious enough about this issue that we are actually experimenting with shorter commercial breaks. It obviously has a revenue impact for us. And with some creative ideas to try to use advertising during the broadcast that may make up for that revenue. I think it’s important for fans to understand, however, that it’s not just the game, the game on the field that we’re looking at. We are also looking at our business practices in an effort to ensure that we have the kind of pace of game that we think is consummate with today’s society.

RICH WALTZ: All right, question No. 7. Pace of Play from David: “To achieve your objective as pace of play ideas regarding changes to extra innings, which we saw in the World Baseball Classic, offense, strike zone, potential for digitalized or robot umpires so to speak. How do you maintain in all of this change the pride and the tradition of the game?” I know that’s kind of two worlds calculating.

ROB MANFRED: I think there are kind of changes that were referenced in that question are pretty far down the continuum. I think for us our current focus is on dead time in the game. Things like limiting mound visits, pitch clock to make sure that pitchers deliver the ball quickly and keep the game moving. And we like those sorts of changes because we believe they don’t have a fundamental impact on the competition or on the history or tradition of the game. When you start talking about things like tie-breaker rules like we do in the WBC, I think those are more difficult and certainly further down the road. I think there’s enough to be done on the dead-time issues I referenced that we have plenty of work to do before we get to those issues.

FAN IN THE AUDIENCE: Yeah. Mr. Commissioner, will you consider retiring Roberto Clemente’s number?

ROB MANFRED: I know there’s been a lot of interest in what we do to honor Roberto Clemente. As I’m sure you know, there’s only one number that’s been retired throughout Major League Baseball; it’s Jackie Robinson’s number. I think that decision was made in recognition of his unique place in the history of baseball. And the history of the United States, quite frankly. Obviously Roberto Clemente, also a great player, a real ground-breaker in terms of our game. We’ve made an effort to honor Roberto in a way that’s appropriate to him. The award that we regard to be our highest award is the Roberto Clemente Award, that recognizes not only great play but service in the community because that was something that Roberto was well-known for.

RICH WALTZ: One thing, though, if you ever get to Pittsburgh, any of you baseball fans, if you ever get to Pittsburgh, go to the Roberto Clemente Museum. There is a terrific small museum in Pittsburgh that honors Clemente, the history of his sacrifice and the impact on the game. Have you been there?

ROB MANFRED: I have. I think there’s two museums that — in addition to the one everybody thinks about, which is Cooperstown. The Negro League Museum in Kansas City also a stop really worth making.

RICH WALTZ: Yes. I was lucky enough early in my career to actually get a tour with Buck O’Neil when I was very young which was very special.

Steven has a question: “When will we see a balanced schedule for the teams in each league?”

ROB MANFRED: You know, balanced schedule has a certain intellectual appeal to it; everybody plays everybody the same number of times. The reason we haven’t done it and there are really two. Number one is travel. If everybody had to play east and west an equal number of times, it would really increase the amount of travel required in an already very difficult schedule. The second one really relates to the philosophy of divisional play. We have always felt that if divisional play is going to be significant, you should win your division within your division. And that’s how we ended up with the schedule that we have, the unbalanced schedule we have.

FAN IN THE AUDIENCE: I’ve been in the Tampa Bay community since ’07. We have come to a standstill it looks like on stadium options. And I wanted to know what your thoughts were and how you’re going to get involved, and how you’re going to help because we really don’t get very many fans there. A lot has to do with the location and how old the stadium is. If you could possibly reproduce the success of the Lightning, by putting it in the downtown Channelside area, I think you would get a lot more fans even when the team is not playing well.

ROB MANFRED: I’m not quite as pessimistic about the stadium affairs in Tampa as you are. I do think it’s really a positive sign that both the local governments on the St. Pete side and the Tampa side have said, let’s not worry whether it’s St. Pete or Tampa. Let’s find the best location and figure out a way to keep the Rays in the Tampa Bay broadly defined area, Tampa, St. Pete area. I take that as a positive step. We are committed to Tampa as a baseball market. We think it’s a good market for us. We want to be in Florida. I have told Mr. Sternberg that I will do anything and everything I can to help move that process along.

RICH WALTZ: When I was in Oakland David Kaval, the new energetic president of the Athletics, say they are close to announcing a site. That’s certainly a positive sign for that franchise.

ROB MANFRED: I agree with that. I think that in terms of positive developments, it’s not unlike Tampa. I think the renewed interest that John Fisher has shown in identifying a site in Oakland is a good thing. You know, baseball has had a long history of commitment to its communities. We have been the sport least likely to relocate. We would like to have Oakland be a success. And I think the identification of a single site in Oakland will be a step forward in that stadium process.

RICH WALTZ: We have Gus who has a question about bases: “What are your thoughts about lowering the bases to try to prevent injuries?”

ROB MANFRED: I am interested in any change in the rules that promotes player safety. Our players are such great athletes. The clubs invest large sums of money in the development of the players, in guaranteed contracts to make sure that they are available to the fans for long periods of time. And anything that promotes safety, like the second base rule, the catcher rule, I’m generally in favor of.

MARLON ANDERSON: Good to see you. My question, coming out of high school I didn’t have an opportunity to get drafted. Ended up I had one opportunity to go to college at the University of South Alabama. I went there. I got a 70% scholarship, and we had to kind of scuffle a little bit to get the rest for me to be able to make it to South Alabama. At South Alabama I grew two inches, became a college All-American, drafted in the second round by the Phillies in 1995. Then I was able to achieve my dream of playing in the Major Leagues with the Phillies and five other teams. What is Major League Baseball doing to connect with NCAA, trying to increase in scholarships, because only 11.7 scholarships, it makes it hard for a lot of young, especially young African-American kids, to have an opportunity to play baseball in college if there’s only 11.7. And I just wonder what can we do to start a conversation to try to get those amped up a little bit so more kids can have an opportunity to play baseball in college, instead of having to take the football and basketball scholarships to play those other sports.

ROB MANFRED: I think you raise an issue that’s really important for the future of the game. In order to compete for the best athletes in high school, it is important that college baseball be a viable, competitive alternative to football and basketball for the kid that plays all three sports. I also agree with you that the 11.7 — someday somebody is going to explain to me where 11.7 came from. But the 11.7 scholarship rule is a real limiting factor as far as college baseball goes. Almost nobody has a full ride to play college baseball. We have had an ongoing multi-year dialogue with the NCAA about trying to improve college baseball and have a closer relationship between Major League Baseball and college baseball. We tried sort of big thoughts originally. We’ve more recently tried to start building from the ground up, doing things like aligning our calendars so that our draft and the College World Series don’t conflict with each other. Things like that. But it is some place we will continue to have dialogue. The essential stumbling block is this: The NCAA — and I don’t mean this critically in any way — has a real focus on amateurism in its rules. And that focus on amateurism — and again I’m not being critical in any way — makes it very difficult for a professional sport to provide financial support into college programs. There’s just certain rules that they have that make that extremely difficult. Extremely difficult is not the same thing as impossible.

RICH WALTZ: That’s a great question. For those of you watching on the Internet, Andrew McCutchen, the star of the Pittsburgh Pirates wrote a terrific article himself about this. It’s in the Players’ Tribune. I’m sure you can find it online.

ROB MANFRED: I should say one more thing in response to Marlon’s question. One of the hallmarks of all of the elite programs that we run for young people, the Elite Development Invitationals, the MLB academies, is that we not only encourage professional scouts to come and see kids that are in our programs; we also encourage college coaches. And in addition to the success we’ve had in terms of high school-aged kids being drafted in the game professionally, we feel like we have done a better job of helping kids find college scholarships.

RICH WALTZ: Where were you when I needed you 30 years ago?

Let’s go to Mitchell: “Would it be possible to stagger playoff games so they are not all at the same time when you get into that postseason window of October?”

ROB MANFRED: Obviously the toughest days are the Division Series days where we often have four games. And we do the best we can to limit the overlap between our broadcast windows. But it’s math. There’s only so many hours where a broadcaster is going to take a game. And when you have four it gets very tight from the scheduling perspective.

FAN IN THE AUDIENCE: Mr. Commissioner, Chris from Chicago. I know Washington is hosting the All-Star Game next year. The renovations of Wrigley Field are nearly complete. Are you prepared to announce today or in the future Wrigley Field being the host of a future All-Star Game?

ROB MANFRED: Well, you know, you’re the second person who has wanted me to announce today that Chicago was getting an All-Star Game. It happened a few weeks ago. It was the mayor of Chicago. And you’re going to get the same answer he got. I’m not quite ready to do that yet, okay? All kidding aside, the city of Chicago and Wrigley Field, the renovated Wrigley Field in particular, would be a great site for an All-Star Game. There will be an All-Star Game in Wrigley Field in the relatively near future. Having said that, the caveat on that is we have a lot of cities really interested in having the game. And we’re going to make a sound decision on how to allocate those games in the fairly near future. And I think Chicago will be in that mix.

RICH WALTZ: I’m sure you’ve heard from other cities, not Major League cities, on this next one. And this is from Matthew. “Expansion. When do you think the next expansion will take place? What markets do you think are attractive to Major League Baseball?”

ROB MANFRED: Let me go back to a conversation we’ve had already. I think for us to expand we need to be resolved in Tampa and Oakland in terms of their stadium situations. As much as I hope that both Oakland and Tampa will get stadiums, I think it would be difficult to convince the owners to go forward with an expansion until those situations are resolved.

Once they’re done, I think we have some great candidates. I know the mayor of Montreal has been very vocal about bringing baseball back to Montreal. It was not great when the Expos left. The fact of the matter was baseball was successful in Montreal for a very long time. Charlotte is a possibility. And I would like to think that Mexico City or some place in Mexico would be another possibility.

FAN IN THE AUDIENCE: I was wondering if you were to choose a player or manager to be your assistant for a day, who would you choose and why?

ROB MANFRED: A player or a manager? Boy, I’ve got to think a little bit about that one. You know, I think if I was going to pick a manager, I might pick Joe Girardi of the Yankees. I’ve known Joe a very long time. He’s been a very insightful and productive member of our Competition Committee. Really understands how the game was played. Really involved in the Major League Baseball Players’ Association when he was a player. So I think he would bring a variety of sort of perspectives to our office that would be helpful to us.

RICH WALTZ: It’s a popular question in any sport, baseball as well. That question that they ask players or fans, if you were commissioner for a day what would you change?

ROB MANFRED: I really don’t get tired of that question. I like to read — I don’t agree with a lot of things that get written or people say, but I like to read about what people are thinking about the game. You do get good ideas. You have to cull through a lot of information that’s out there. And sometimes people have opinions that may not actually be supported by the facts or the data. But I think it’s important to be open and aware of what people are saying about the game.

RICH WALTZ: Let’s go back to the questions from fans. Robert wants to know, and it’s an All-Star question, “Dodger Stadium, when will the All-Star Game come back to Dodger Stadium?”

ROB MANFRED: I think that Dodger Stadium is the longest-existing facility that we haven’t had an All-Star Game in. I regard Dodger Stadium to be in the same category as Fenway, Wrigley in terms of our iconic long-term historic ballparks. And L.A. is another place I would like to see us go.

RICH WALTZ: Let’s stay with the Internet. This is from Ted. “What can Major League Baseball do to encourage girls and young women to play high school and college baseball in an effort to develop potential future women players in Major League Baseball?”

ROB MANFRED: Well, you know, we did something this year that has actually attracted some interest and was a real learning experience for us. For the first time out in California we sponsored a girls or women’s baseball tournament. Obviously we do a ton of activity in the softball area. The buzz in the game was really quite interesting. People were very, very impressed with how athletic, how high the quality of baseball play was. And I think in today’s society there’s something appealing about men and women playing exactly the same game. No knock on softball, but it is an appealing additional way to attract people to the game. And I think sponsoring tournaments, when Major League Baseball puts it’s imprint on a tournament and goes ahead sponsors it for women or girls, it’s a sign of support for that kind of activity and I think important for the future of the game.

FAN IN THE AUDIENCE: I want to know if Major League Baseball, there’s some parents who may agree with me, is there any plans in the future to put a program in place to help drive out cost? I have a seven-year-old son getting into the game now. As you you know that can be very expensive in his years as he moves along and also to keep him away from other sports by the time he’s 13 or 14 or 15 or that timeframe to lose interest or the fact that it’s so expensive for us to continue down that draft.

ROB MANFRED: Our Play Ball Initiative is fundamentally about making baseball competitive in the youth participation space. To make sure that our programs – and when I say “our”, I mean the sport not just Major League Baseball’s, but our partners, Little League, Cal Ripken Baseball, all of those youth groups that are doing great work out there – are as competitive in terms of attracting athletes to our game as possible. Some of that we have done through like our academy programs where we make elite play available for free to kids that can’t afford that kind of play. Same thing with the Elite Development Invitational. Those are free activities. Major League Baseball foots the bill for the best players. One of the things we have just started to do is fund or scholarship other Elite Play programs as part of the Play Ball Initiative. We realize what we’re doing for free is not big enough to actually make a real impact in the space. We realize we have to pick the right programs, we have to be careful about it. But scholarshipinto those programs is something we’re really interested and just getting going on.

RICH WALTZ: Commissioner, Wayne has this question, it’s the All-Star Game format: “Are there any thoughts to change the All-Star Game to World versus U.S.A. or World versus North America?”

ROB MANFRED: It’s the format that we use for the Futures Game, obviously. We do understand the power of nationalism. I think that’s what drove the competition during the WBC and what makes the WBC different than the 2,400 different games we play every year. In terms of the All-Star Game itself, I have to say — you don’t get these words from me very often — I am a traditionalist. I cannot see us getting away from the American versus National format.

RICH WALTZ: My partner Buck Martinez and I talked about this in Japan, why not give two spots in the Home Run Derby to an international player? Let Otani come over here, let Tsutsugo come over here. Let one of the great Korean hitters or one of the great Cuban sluggers in.

ROB MANFRED: Listen, we would love to do that. I think that’s a scheduling issue. Just like we’re not crazy about the idea of sending our players to play somewhere else during the middle of our season, I suspect that there would be at least one owner in Japan who wouldn’t be that crazy about Mr. Otani coming here for the Home Run Derby.

RICH WALTZ: Maybe he’s here next year. We’ll see.

This is from Tim: “Can you figure out a way to bring baseball down to South America and make it as popular as it is in the United States in Latin America?”

ROB MANFRED: You know, we have a lot of programs that essentially have moved south through Latin America into South America. There’s a fair amount of baseball played in Brazil. And we will continue to try to expand the footprint of baseball into countries where it’s not part of its culture. Obviously, the step backward in that regard has been Venezuela. We still get a lot of players out of Venezuela, but unlike a decade ago, most of those players are now being developed in the Dominican Republic as opposed to in Venezuela just because of the political difficulties. Frankly, it’s safety issues related to play in Venezuela. That’s been a bit of a step backwards in terms of South America.

RICH WALTZ: Lots of questions from the crowd. What’s your name?

FAN FROM THE AUDIENCE: Salmon Garcia. My question deals with pace of play. You touched upon but from a different angle. In the ’60s, Gibson and the like used to have a higher pitcher’s mound. They used to have a much more generous strike zone. What about raising or tinkering as far as raising the pitcher’s mound or expanding the strike zone, things that would add more pop?

ROB MANFRED: Interesting — let me answer them in two different parts. The strike zone we have talked about extensively in terms of moving it up, moving it down, making it bigger. A lot of difference of opinion among baseball people as to what you get when you do that. The outcome of a change in the strike zone is one of the more unpredictable changes that you could make. When you sit where I sit, unpredictable changes are probably not the first place that you want to go. With respect to to the height of the mound, health of pitchers is one of the most pressing issues in our game today. We’ve had so many of our great young pitchers have lost time due to injury. Some teams literally their whole year this year has been kind of set back as a result of that. So changes in the height of the mound I think people would be concerned about that exacerbating arm issues. We have to understand the biomechanics of that before we went down that path.

RICH WALTZ: You talk about changing rules and changing the game. I know in the last bargaining agreement there were some changes and some people said, I wish they would have tweaked this, I wish they would have tweaked that. It feels like the reality is you’re able to — whether it’s a home-plate collision whether it’s the play at second base, whether it’s instant replay, you’re able to effect change when you’re between agreements.

ROB MANFRED: Yeah, one of the benefits of the era of labor peace and improved relationship in the MLBPA has been the ability to make changes, particularly playing-rule type changes in between collective bargaining agreements. When it’s time to negotiate a basic agreement, all the fans want to hear is, they did it. It’s over. There’s not going to be a strike. We’re going to keep playing. But it is a very complicated negotiation. The agreement is about that thick. It’s a very complicated negotiation. Lots of economic issues involved. Sometimes it’s difficult to get to playing-rule changes in the context of all those other issues that need to be resolved. So we have been having conversations with Tony Clark. We hope the pace of those conversations will pick up here during the course of this season and offseason. And we’re hopeful we’ll get some more changes.

RICH WALTZ: Is there ever any talk about not the rules of baseball but the unwritten rules of baseball? Because I hear from kids and I hear from young players coming up that, I want to celebrate a little bit. I want to show some emotion on the field. There seems to be a faction that says, play the game the right way, which is don’t show that emotion. And the other side is hey, I just hit the biggest home run in Toronto Blue Jays’ history. I can flip my bat and round the bases. How do you balance that?

ROB MANFRED: Well, this is one of the few issues where I really think the right answer is abdication. Let me tell you what I mean by that. The unwritten rules have always been something that were developed and generally enforced by our players. As our workforce has become younger and more diverse, there has started a conversation about whether all these unwritten rules, at least the ones we’ve traditionally had, make sense. And I really do believe that that conversation is going to result in some changes in those unwritten rules. And you know, I have great confidence that our players will alter those unwritten rules in a way that’s good for the game and respects the history and tradition of the game.

RICH WALTZ: Let me amend that, the second biggest home run in Blue Jays’ history. Joe Carter might have a different view of that, and a lot of Blue Jay fans. So Home Run Derby tonight. As the Commissioner of the sport, obviously you’re administrating this entire event. When you sit down as a fan tonight, what are you looking for and what will you enjoy most?

ROB MANFRED: I think that the Home Run Derby is kind of a unique event for Major League Baseball. You think about it, our game is the quintessential team game. Everything that our great players do over the course of the regular season and the playoffs is about making their team win. I think what’s so interesting about the Home Run Derby is it’s the rare opportunity for a player to be out there just for himself. I love the showmanship of the Home Run Derby. I think you’re going to see one or more players put on a show that will make people remember them tonight.

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