Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred took the podium at the Winter Meetings in San Diego on Thursday.
Baseball media peppered Manfred with a series of challenging questions about the state of the minor league game, the continuing investigation of the Houston Astros and the rumored pending sale of the New York Mets. The latter was not pretty, as Manfred lied his way around answering the media’s question about the timeline of the sale.
Below is a full transcript of the interview (Disclosure: The questions were asked by national media during a press conference at the annual Winter Meetings) …
Q. Could you speak to Major League Baseball’s decision to downsize Minor League teams?
ROB MANFRED: I’m not going to get into individual teams. Let me say this: this has been portrayed as a decision that has been made. The fact of the matter is at the point in time this became public, we had precisely three negotiating sessions. It is by no means a fait accompli as to what the agreement is going to look like. Major League Baseball has been and will remain flexible in its negotiating position. I hope that Minor League Baseball, which has taken the position that they’re not willing to discuss anything but the status quo or any changes that would provide for upgrades in adequate facilities, better working conditions for our players. That they move off the take-it-or-leave-it status quo approach and come to the table and try to make a deal.
Q. Can you talk about the addition of opioids to the drug agreement, and how much do you think the situation with Tyler Skaggs was the impetus to changing this?
ROB MANFRED: Look, a death of a Major League player is a devastating event for all of Major League Baseball. I think you saw it in terms of the reaction following that terrible event. I think that it was a motivating factor in the Commissioner’s office and the MLBPA getting together and addressing in the context of our industry what is really a societal problem in terms of opioids. Hats off to Tony for being forthcoming on the issue. I think they made an agreement that is realistic in terms of how you handle people with opioid problems, and I think it will be an improvement for the industry going forward.
Q. How far has the Astros investigation progressed in the interview stage? Do you have anymore idea of your time frame for decisions? Do you know yet whether it’s just the club you’re investigating for possible discipline, or are there individuals subject to possible discipline?
ROB MANFRED: In law school they would say that’s multiple questions, but let me do the best I can. I think that this is probably the most thorough investigation that the Commissioner’s office has ever undertaken. I think we’ve interviewed already nearly 60 witnesses, 76,000 e-mails, a whole additional trove of instant messages. That review has caused us to conclude that we have to do some follow-up interviewing. It is my hope to conclude the investigation just as promptly as possible, but it’s really hard to predict how long something like that is going to take. At this point in the investigation it would be wholly inappropriate for me to speculate about what types of discipline might be in play. I’m going to get all the facts in front of me and make a decision as promptly as possible on discipline, and obviously you all will know about it as soon as it happens.
Q. Are additional changes or rules contemplated for 2020?
ROB MANFRED: Every off-season we go through our baseball operations policies. Sign stealing was a big focus during the off-season last year, and I expect it will be this year as well.
Q. You were at the wildcard game, and it looked like you expressed concern about the lawsuit the City had filed against the A’s in their attempts to purchase the Coliseum site and the possibility of relocation. What is your level of confidence that the A’s will stay in Oakland, and where do you see the ballpark process at this point?
ROB MANFRED: I guess I would say this: I’m encouraged that the mayor and the city council found a way to put the lawsuit behind us. They made a commitment to a negotiation with the A’s on the coliseum site. It was, is, and remains my hope that the A’s stay in Oakland. I think one of the things that baseball has done well over decades is maintain its commitment to its current cities, and we would desperately like to maintain our commitment to the City of Oakland. I think the wild card game and the excitement surrounding it shows that there is a fan base there. But, you know, the clock is ticking. It’s time to get to it in terms of that stadium.
Q. Rob, couple of hours ago you had the press conference here with the baseball study and there seemed to be a lot of contentment with the variability of the hand-sewn baseball, and there is always going to be variability and we will work on it, but it is what it is. Are you at peace with the idea that this is going to continue to be a topic of discussion, and have you considered at all switching to synthetic baseballs, which would seemingly have less variability?
ROB MANFRED: You know, I think on the spectrum of people who are prepared to fundamentally alter the game, I would be sort of on the in-favor-of-change end of the spectrum. I would not, am not now, and would not be in favor of moving away from the baseball that has traditionally been used to play what I regard to be the greatest game in the world. I think the variability in the baseball is a product of the fact that it is a man-made product with natural materials. I think that’s part of the charm of the game, and the reason that I’m prepared to live with that variability is both teams play with the same baseball. So in terms of the fairness and integrity of the competition, they got one ball that’s out there at a time and they’re both using the same one.
Q. Some pitchers have inferred or outright said the baseball has had a disproportionate impact on their own pitching, relative to others, so anything from like busted pitches to blisters, et cetera. Are there any plans to help those players adapt to the baseball that they may not know?
ROB MANFRED: Let me talk short term and longer term. Short term we have actually talked about involving players in a more rigorous study of what they feel when they hold the baseball, and, you know, what variation they’re feeling and whether they really — whether this is really the variation that they believe exists. I think that’s an important educational process. Longer term, we experiment all the time with different sorts of items that could be used on the field. We have experimented and attempted to produce, you know, stickier baseballs. There is a process that is used in Japan that some players like. We will continue to study those things over the long haul. Right now I’m going to stand by my answer. I think the Rawlings baseball is part of the charm of the game, and we are committed to that baseball. I think we understand the variability in the baseball better today than we did at any point in the history of the game. The fact that we understand the variability, I don’t really see as a motivator to do something drastic in terms of changing the way the game is played.
Q. How would you characterize the tenor of the current negotiations with Minor League Baseball over the proposed reorganization?
ROB MANFRED: Well, I think I would characterize it as a tale of two cities. I think as between the negotiating committees, the dialogue has gotten a little more positive in the most recent set of meetings. I think in contrast, I think some of the activities that have been undertaken by the leadership of Minor League Baseball have been polarizing in terms of the relationship with the owners. I think they’ve done damage to the relationship with Major League Baseball, and I’m hopeful that we will be able to work through that damage in the negotiating room and reach a new agreement. You know, when people publicly attack a long-time partner after they’ve committed to confidentiality in the negotiating process, usually people don’t feel so good about that.
Q. I’ve talked for years about big market versus small market, and free agent spending always resurfaces with the big teams getting the big contracts. What do you say and how do you feel about the small markets who say they cannot afford those type of contracts?
ROB MANFRED: Look, I think that we have an economic system that has produced a remarkable level of competitive balance over a very long period of time, big market, small market. We had a number of small markets last year who had really successful seasons, Tampa and Oakland among them. Do I deny that Tampa can’t sign a pitcher for $326 million? I don’t deny that; that’s a fact. Having said that, I think there are other areas in our system that allow those smaller markets to compete, and I think Tampa and Oakland, two good examples; Minnesota another good one who take advantage of those parts of the system and put very, very competitive teams on the field.
Q. In regards to the Minor League negotiations, one of their points has been that those leagues, especially the ones, the rookie leagues and short-season leagues that are in smaller communities, they serve as a conduit for a lot of fans to the game, to professional baseball, and for a lot of people that’s sort of their first entree into the game. Does Major League Baseball appreciate that role that the Minor Leagues play, and how much is it a priority to preserve that?
ROB MANFRED: I think that the answer to that question is yes. That’s why we subsidize to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars every single year the operations of Minor League Baseball. Having said that, our players deserve to play in facilities that are up to grade. They deserve to have reasonable travel limitations. They deserve to be paid fairly. Given that we are already subsidizing at the level that I’ve previously referred to, I think it is unreasonable to come to a bargaining table and say, Yeah, we got some facilities. We know they’re substandard. In fact, they may not be fixable, but we’re not willing to do anything about that. That’s unreasonable.
Q. When you look at the way that off-season has gone with a lot of teams being aggressive and spending more money particularly earlier than the last two winters, what do you think that says about the system and the viability of the existing CBA system?
ROB MANFRED: Look, I think the existing market system has served Major League Baseball and the players tremendously well for a long period of time. You know, markets — I’ve said this — markets are going to be up and down. That’s what happens in markets. It depends on what players are out there, what financial constraints clubs are under in a particular season. But over time it’s important to drop back and remember we have the freest free agency in professional sports. No rights of first refusal no salary cap; no franchise tags; none of that. It has produced the largest amount of guaranteed dollars for players in any professional sport. I think if you look back — I admit the activity was later in the market but you go back Harper, Trout, Machado, Arenado and the activity we have had this year, that’s a really robust market. You know, the fact that you have markets up and down over a short period of time, I don’t, again, think is an indication that somehow we need to throw out something that’s worked for 30 years and make really fundamental changes in the system.
Q. What’s your take overall on the long-term viability of baseball in Baltimore? With the MASN, do you have any sense of what’s going on there?
ROB MANFRED: Look, I think Baltimore is a viable baseball market. It’s got a great facility. I think that the uncertainty surrounding the MASN situation is on the road to resolution. We have an RSD decision that’s been confirmed. That decision should move the process along in terms of getting MASN into a more stable situation. I’m sure as the team becomes more competitive, which I think it will with the great baseball operations people they’ve hired, that, you know, the attendance in Baltimore will pick up.
Q. A year or two ago when you came through Toronto you talked about the needs that the Blue Jays had for the upgrades required, and I wonder if there has been enough commitment from Rog’s communications to get something done?
ROB MANFRED: I’m going to have to pass on that one. I think really in the first instance the description of where they are on upgrades to the facility is something the Blue Jay’s — I don’t want to get in front of them on that. They do keep me apprised, but I think it’s inappropriate for me to get more public than they have been.
Q. What’s the status of the proposed rule changes, the three-batter minimum, the roster option limits, the IL limits, things like that?
ROB MANFRED: Yeah, all of those rule changes that you just referenced are in the agreement that we made with the Players Association last year at the owners’ meeting. They were approved by the owners, and I fully expect all those rules will be operational in the 2020 season.
Q. Has the proposed Mets traction of ownership been run by you? And your thoughts, could it — given the history back to Fred and Nelson, could there be any potential for difficulty if you have one person who is the controlling owner of the team and the other is the control person for baseball purposes?
ROB MANFRED: The way that the ownership guidelines work, I have to be notified before they begin the process of even marketing the team, and then kept apprised as they make progress in that sale process. Those guidelines were followed to a tee. With respect to the Mets I’ve been closely following the progress of this activity for a while. We have had situations where particularly in path-to-control cases like this, where someone who owns more is not actually the control person for a period of time. Steve Cohen and Fred Wilpon have known each other for a long time. Steve has been an element in the club for a long time. I do not expect that there will be any governance issues associated with the plan that they have in place for the transition of the Mets. It’s a pretty standard-looking transaction in terms of path-to-control and transition.
Q. Regarding the Mets sale, when did they first let you know that they were exploring this?
ROB MANFRED: I can’t tell you a date off the top of my head. I wish I could keep that amount of detail in my head, but I just can’t. A sale like this doesn’t happen in 24 hours. It’s been a period of time is the best I can do for you.
Q. Early season? Last off-season?
ROB MANFRED: Honestly, I would have to go back and look at my notes. I just don’t remember.
Q. Rob, mentioning the Minor League negotiations, cutting some of these teams might be a way to improve Minor League salaries. I’m wondering is there a better way?
ROB MANFRED: I didn’t say what you said I said. I said those were issues that needed to be addressed and should be addressed in the negotiating room. And, you know, obviously there is a way to pay people more without reducing the number of franchises. I think the question there becomes who should bear all of the costs associated with the player-related improvements that we think need to be made in the Minor League system.