New Commissioner ahead of baseball curve thanks to advanced 100-day plan
By Richard Justice
NEW YORK -- Rob Manfred's first day in the office as Major League Baseball's 10th Commissioner was, well, normal.
"It has been more routine than I would have expected, in the sense that I'm just dealing with the kind of everyday issues that come along," Manfred said on Monday afternoon.
Perhaps that's because this first day was four months in the making. In that time, Manfred came up with an agenda for his first 100 days.
1. Youth initiatives to get kids on playing fields and in ballparks
2. Using technology to make the game better in the ballpark and on TV
3. Examining ways to modernize the game, especially pace of play
4. Internationalization of baseball
5. Promoting baseball's players, especially its biggest stars
One of the advantages of a lengthy transition period was that Manfred had the opportunity to begin work on his agenda.
"Big pieces of my 100-day plan we've already rolled out," he said. "For example, we've completed the study of what the current youth market looks like. We've already developed a strategy on how we're going to try to engage in that space. We've already done some public things."
One of those was Manfred's appearance at an American Baseball Coaches Association convention earlier this month.
"I thought it was important for the Commissioner to show up," he said.
Now about the current players.
"[We must] continue to work with our players to make them accessible to our fans, because I think they're such a great asset in terms of growing the game," Manfred said.
Manfred was reminded of that fact on Saturday night at the New York Baseball Writers' Association of America Dinner.
"I think our players are a tremendously appealing group of human beings," he said. "If you listened and watched the speech that Clayton Kershaw gave, I mean, it just reminds you how great our guys are. Bright. Articulate. Well-intentioned. Family-oriented. You just can't say enough good words about the guy. I think the more we show our fans our players, the more popular the game's going to be."
"You watch him," Manfred said. "He's apologizing because his native language is not English. He couldn't be more humble. He couldn't have said more thoughtful things about the game and about his experience."
Manfred made headlines over the weekend when he said he might be open to banning defensive shifts during an interview with ESPN. On Monday, he emphasized that banning defensive shifts may never happen. That said, Manfred thought the comments sent a message he believes is important during his tenure as Commissioner.
"I don't mind the idea that this office is viewed as a place where people are thinking about the game every day," the Commissioner said. "We have not only the one or two things like pace-of-game changes we're focused on, but also a laundry list of things about which we are having conversations. Doesn't mean it's going to become part of the agenda. It means we're thinking about it."
Another priority will be to meet with baseball's broadcast partners over the next couple of weeks.
"I want the broadcasters to understand that we are interested in making our broadcast product on television as good as we can make it," Manfred said. "I also want them to understand that I don't see ratings as the be-all and end-all in terms of the popularity of the game or the demographic that's interested in the game.
"I'm not going to be carping at them about those issues. You can't lose sight of the fact that 5.7 million people open At Bat every day, and their average age is 30. There's more to how popular the game is today than ratings.
"But I want our broadcasters to understand that I intend to interact with them like partners. Together, I think we can do a lot for the game in terms of making our broadcasts more appealing to our fans."
Among other topics that Manfred touched on Monday afternoon:
• Improving the ballpark experience for fans.
"Of all the things I worry about -- and I do worry about a lot of things -- I still think our ballpark experience is unbelievable. I think it's a great experience for our fans. I think it's a lot better than other professional sports. A lot of it has to do with the venues and the things that clubs do locally to make that experience so great. Having said that, I do think, because I'm a believer in technology generally, that there are things that can be done with these devices for people in the ballpark that can help them understand and appreciate the game more than they do without that technology."
• Relations between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association with new leaders -- Manfred and Tony Clark -- at the helm of each organization.
"Change always makes the relationship just a little different. One thing we have done -- and I mean the MLBPA and Central Baseball -- we have developed very deep multilayered relationships. Things have gone very well for us -- collectively us -- the last three times around [in reaching an agreement without a work stoppage]. That was not just because Rob Manfred and [late executive director] Mike Weiner had a good relationship. It was because [MLB excecutive] Dan Halem had relationships with [union executive] Dave Prouty. [MLB executive] Chris Marinak had relationships with [union executive] Rick Shapiro. That depth helps you get through transitions at the top."
And on his first day in office, Manfred said he understood the responsibility of being in charge of an institution that has such a special place in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans.
Manfred grew up both a baseball fan and a player. Like his predecessor, Bud Selig, he watches hundreds of games a year. He long ago fell in love with the game itself and with how incredibly gifted the players are.
"It's an everyday consuming engagement between the game and the individual fan," Manfred said. "And the sense of responsibility I feel is to maintain baseball's place in our culture. I want to grow the game. I want to generate more revenue. I want to try to have a system that makes the game profitable for the owners and good for the players. But I also want to -- always, always, first and foremost -- maintain the special place that baseball has within our culture."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.