Commish: Little League vital to MLB

Commish: Little League vital to MLB

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- The first trip Rob Manfred made after being elected Major League Baseball's 10th Commissioner two years ago was to the Little League World Series. It was an early signal that promoting the game to kids was going to be one of his top priorities.

Since then, MLB has dramatically increased its youth initiatives, and the results have been impressive. Last year, participation in baseball and softball increased an aggregate four percent.

Manfred watches New York win in LLWS

"There are lots of great organizations in the youth space," Manfred said Monday. "And we've tried to be good partners to many, if not all, of them."

Still, the fact that he made that remark during a return visit to Howard J. Lamade Stadium helps drive home the fact that Manfred, the first Commissioner to have played Little League, feels a special affinity for the organization. He demonstrated that with his words and, more important, by making the effort to attend a game between Tennessee and New York.

"We've had no better partner in [youth baseball] than Little League, and I think it's important that we show up at their biggest event," he said.

Steve Keener, president and chief executive officer of Little League International, said Manfred told him when he first visited that promoting the game to future generations was going to be one of his cornerstone policies.

"And I can tell you in the two years that have passed since, there has not been a Commissioner that has been more enthused and energized about us here at the grass-roots level of this great game," he said.

Signs of how that relationship is helping both sides are as obvious as the Play Ball initiative signs on the outfield walls here and as subtle as the fact that Keener was invited to go to Havana this spring as part of the official delegation when the Rays played an exhibition against the Cuban National Team.

Keener has been back since and said he's "cautiously optimistic" that Cuba could join the Little League program in the near future.

That dovetails with MLB's efforts to create a system in which players in Cuba can sign with big league teams. And having a thriving Little League program on the island helps complete the circle.

"I think it's important that we replenish the playing base in Cuba," Manfred said. "We want there to be baseball in Cuba. I think Little League and the quality of field coaching and instruction that goes along with Little League will help the Cubans maintain that base of local play that's so crucial."

Manfred spent time on the field with players from both teams before the game, shaking hands, talking, having his picture taken and dispensing good will and All-Star pins in equal abundance. The native of Rome, N.Y., couldn't resist rooting for the New York team.

"It was a good conversation," said New York manager Scott Rush. "It's not often you get to meet the Commissioner of one of the four major sports."

Manfred chatted with Karl Ravech and John Kruk during the ESPN telecast and with WRAK, the exclusive English-speaking radio station of the Little League World Series. He also held a news conference during which he touched on a variety of subjects.

His message to kids: "It's simple. We want them to engage with the game, to have fun with the game and keep playing. Not only do we want to get kids involved with the game, we want them playing as long as we can possibly keep them in the game."

Baseball's strength in the youth market: "We've talked so much about being competitive, but we have a lot of raw material to work with. More kids in the United States under the age of 12 play baseball and softball than any other sport. It's not like there's some fundamental weakness. We want to be better. But I think we have a really solid base of participation out there."

The importance of sports during trying times: "Baseball is a community activity. One of the things we've found is that baseball provides communities with an opportunity to come together. I'm a real believer in the idea that when you bring a community together, good things start to happen."

Manfred ended his trip with a tour of the Little League Museum, during which he signed a large photo of a baseball on the wall, marveled at several of the interactive exhibits, viewed artifacts such as the first home plate and saw Little League uniforms worn by future big league stars like Gary Carter, Mike Mussina, Steve Stone and Doug Drabek.

Asked what impressed him most during this visit, he didn't hesitate.

"The quality of play. Absolutely unbelievable," he said. "And the enthusiasm of the kids. It's fantastic."

This was Manfred's second trip to the Little League World Series. No way will it be his last.

Paul Hagen is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.