NEW YORK — Rob Manfred knows he’ll get pounded now that he’s baseball commissioner — his name is printed in blue script on the sweet spot between the seams of every big league ball.
“Probably good if I get hit hard,” he said, smiling and laughing, during an interview with The Associated Press. “A little more offense. We don’t have to deal with that issue.”
Manfred’s desk on the 31st floor of baseball’s Park Avenue offices was tidy on Monday morning, the first business day after he succeeded Bud Selig and started a five-year term as commissioner. Having worked for MLB since 1998 as an executive vice president and then as chief operating officer, he didn’t have to move into a new office.
The issues are piled up, perhaps not physically, but the to-do list is lengthy: Oakland and Tampa Bay want new ballparks; negotiations are ongoing with players over pace of play and domestic violence; Baltimore and Washington are fighting in court over broadcast revenue; there is widespread agreement initiatives must be undertaken to develop young fans and players.
A pitch clock must be considered and decreased offense scrutinized along with increased defensive shifts.
Tighter balls? Shorter fences? A lower mound? Banning defensive shifts?
Perhaps they can be talked about in the future.
“I do think it’s important for the game to continue to modernize,” he said. “That modernization has to proceed at a pace that allows us to be very respectful of the traditions of the game and keeps us from making a hasty error, as they say.”
He opened his regime Sunday by releasing an open letter to fans, promising development in urban areas and increased emphasis on partnering with high school, college and amateur ball.
He left his home early on a snowy Monday and took the commuter train from Tarrytown to Grand Central Terminal, as he has most days since he was hired by MLB after 11 years as an outside counsel with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.
Born Sept. 28, 1958, Manfred grew up in Rome, New York, and is thought to be the first commissioner to have played Little League Baseball. He started when he was seven and quit when he was 12 or 13 because it conflicted with tennis.
“It was a painful and not-particularly successful experience,” he said. “I played some shortstop, some second base.”
He attended his first big league game on Aug. 10, 1968, sitting in the lower deck between home plate and first base at Yankee Stadium for New York’s 3-2 loss to Minnesota. Mickey Mantle went deep twice in his last multihomer game.
“It was a big trip for us as a family,” Manfred said.
He wears conservative suits and has a gap-toothed smile and a receding hairline, looking every bit the corporate lawyer he was. His Cornell undergraduate and Harvard Law School diplomas are on the wall behind his desk, to the side of his computer. A flat-screen television on another wall broadcasts sports news.
The contrast between the 56-year-old Manfred and the 80-year-old Selig is clear. The longtime Brewers owner ruled baseball from Milwaukee with grandfatherly charm. Selig claims to have never sent an email during his 22-plus years in charge.
“Bud I and are actually very different,” Manfred said. “Bud’s not much of a technology guy. I am the original plugged-in technology guy. Bud is an expert at the politics of managing owners. He does it with an art of persuasion. I think I can effectively manage the owners as well, but my style will be more based on information, rational persuasion, argument, than just politics.”
Labor strife remains the biggest danger. Following five strikes and three lockouts from 1972-95, baseball negotiated three straight deals without a stoppage and is ensured labor peace through the 2016 season.
“A labor disruption would be a real setback for this game,” Manfred said. “I think that we’ve taught people to expect that we can solve our problems or issues with the players in a constructive way without disrupting the play of the game on the field, and I think a failure to be able to do that would be a step backwards for us, obviously.”
The ever-increasing speed of high-tech innovation is the No. 2 issue. Regional sports networks and national broadcasting contracts have helped pushed baseball’s revenue to nearly $9 billion last year, a more than fivefold increase under Selig’s reign.
“Obviously, the cable model has served us well,” Manfred explained. “We hope it lasts a very long time. But it’s something you have to be concerned about.”
One change could be a 20-second pitch clock. While Selig ruled it out for the big leagues this year, it will be experimented with at Double-A and Triple-A.
Manfred said MLB executive Joe Torre and Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz both approved after watching an experiment in the Arizona Fall League.
“I’m a fan of the pitch clock,” he said. “I think the best endorsement of it is that some of the people involved in the game that you would regard to be on the more traditional spectrum were converts.”
He also wants stricter interpretation of the rule-book strike zone, a process that began with computer evaluation of umpires’ ball-strike calls starting in 2001.
“A lack of strike zone uniformity is kind of like dandelions,” Manfred said. “If you don’t pay attention, it comes back.”
The big league batting average dropped to .251 last year, its lowest level since 1972. Manfred told ESPN in an interview released Sunday that he was open to banning defensive shifts.
“I said somewhere down the road it’s something I’d be prepared to have a conversation about. Nothing more,” he said Monday,
Still, MLB forwarded the players’ union a list of radical ideas, Fox reported Monday, such as tinkering with the ball, mound, fences and strike zone, and extending the DH to the NL. Manfred also says he doesn’t see a DH change happening, but the height of the mound could be open to debate. It was cut from 15 inches to 10 after the 1968 season.
“I don’t see that as a revolutionary idea,” he said.
He does want to push ahead with international play, saying “I’d like to play on a more sustained basis outside the United States if that’s possible.” But games in Asia and Europe are difficult because of travel.
“The Western Hemisphere is probably more realistic in that regard,” he said.
And baseball is monitoring the U.S. government’s opening to Cuba.
“It’s a great source of talent, and whenever you have a talent source, our people are very interested,” he said. “Obviously the president has announced an important policy change. What that means at the nuts-and-bolts level that we operate, we’re just not sure yet.”
On his first day at the office, New York prepared for a blizzard. Not exactly baseball weather.
Manfred beamed when discussing his plans. And when talking about the new baseballs with his name on them.
He sent the first one that arrived to his father.
“It really is a very interesting and exciting, tangible evidence that you are in fact the commissioner of baseball,” Manfred said.
Howard Smith, MLB’s senior vice president of licensing, made him sign “Robert D. Manfred Jr.” over and over and over with different pencils and pens. More than a million balls will be manufactured this year.
“I actually can write if I take the time to do it,” Manfred said proudly. “It turned out OK.”