Q&A with baseball commissioner Rob Manfred
NFL fans almost uniformly despise commissioner Roger Goodell, a classic empty suit. NBA commissioner Adam Silver is so popular among fans of his sport that he has 403,000 Instagram followers.
Fans routinely boo NHL commissioner Gary Bettman because he presided over three lockouts and one missed season. But even his detractors would have to admit the sport has flourished competitively and financially on his watch.
Meanwhile, the public perception of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred hasn’t really been defined yet despite this being his fourth season on the job.
Baseball maintained a long run of labor peace with a new collective bargaining agreement in 2016. But the deal has turned free agency into a grind that this season took seven months to complete and angered players who felt the system had been turned against them.
Competitiveness is another issue with six teams on pace to lose 96 or more games this season. Tanking — aggressively losing to gain a better spot in the amateur draft — has become an accepted strategy.
Manfred has pushed to decrease the amount of wasted time in games while at the same time increasing the action. But attendance has dropped.
The next few years will form a better picture of Manfred’s stewardship as he works with what can be a recalcitrant Players Association to improve the product on the field and make free agency agreeable to both sides.
One of Manfred’s more successful initiatives has been expanding baseball’s footprint internationally. Games have been played in Japan and Mexico already this season and the Red Sox and Yankees are scheduled to play in London June 29-30.
That was the first topic in an exclusive Q&A with the Globe.
Question: Why is playing in London for the first time important to MLB?
Manfred: “We see London as kind of a gateway to Europe, and Europe is a really important growth opportunity for baseball. We have more [baseball] play going on in Europe than people realize. We’re going to have a really great elite youth tournament in conjunction with the games. I think we have 20 European players under contract to major league organizations. The next step is to take the game there live. It’s a natural progression from our perspective.”
Question: Did you feel it was important that the Red Sox and Yankees were the first two teams to play in Europe?
Manfred: “Yeah, I did. I think that because there is a significant economic opportunity in Europe. We already have a television deal with [BT Sport in the United Kingdom] and ESPN where we’re showing 12 games a week [in Europe], and we’d like to do more from a media perspective. If you’re going to get people excited about the game, particularly in a city like London, bringing two great rivals is about the best plan you can come up with.”
Question: Where do you think is the next place Major League Baseball can go internationally?
Manfred: “I’d like to answer that except for one thing. Our international play plan is something we bargain with the union about. I just don’t want to get in front of them on that. But there are other places around the world that have significant baseball cultures that I think it’s important for us to visit. South Korea, obviously, would be one of those. Assuming we can solve the facility issue, there are other places in Europe we’d like to go, as well.”
Question: Based on the ticket sales, are the games in London already a success to some degree?
Manfred: “I think that England will be a great success. I think that die is kind of cast on that one already based on the pre-sale tickets, the amount of buzz.”
Question: The Red Sox will be the home team for both of those games and lose two games at Fenway Park. How did that come about?
Manfred: “There was nothing difficult about the negotiations between the Yankees and Red Sox in London in the sense that both [Yankees owner] Hal Steinbrenner and [Red Sox owner] John Henry were firmly committed to the project. Those discussions really couldn’t have been easier, to tell you the truth.”
Question: It seems like the Red Sox have been proponents of playing internationally.
Manfred: “I would go further than that. I think John and Tom [Werner] have been unwavering supporters of every game-growth initiative that we put out there. Youth, international, you name it. They’ve been behind it with both shoulders.”
Question: Do you see the All-Star Game returning to Fenway Park in the next 10 years?
Manfred: “I’ll tell you two things: We have a lot of demand for All-Star Games, but we haven’t been in Boston since 1999 and my recollection is that ’99 was a hell of an event. I hope that we do have an opportunity to be in Boston before too many years go by.”
Question: NBA and NFL free agency are quick, exciting periods of the year and become good content for fans. Baseball free agency has dragged out the last few years. Can that be fixed?
Manfred: “Our players and their representatives have always wanted a market-based system. They have the freest free agency in the world. Right? No rights of first refusal. No franchise tags. No limits on contract lengths. I’m not quite sure how you would go about altering the results the market produced. The result was that the players didn’t accept offers that were made to them and decided to wait. I’m not quite sure what to do about that.”
Question: “But doesn’t it hurt the game? You had two prominent players [Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel] go seven months before they were signed.
Manfred: “In an ideal world, would I have all the free agency activity take place during the week that we were all together at the Winter Meetings? Yeah, I would.”
Question: You said in March that there would be ongoing talks with the MLBPA on the game’s broader economic issues. Has that occurred?
Manfred: “We will be having them. I don’t want to get into when that will be. We haven’t scheduled firmly yet. Candidly, I’m a believer that when it comes to labor relations, the less publicity we have the better.”
Question: Let me ask you this, then: Is the relationship between your office and the union a productive one at this point?
Manfred: “I believe that we fundamentally have a sound relationship with the MLBPA. Like all ongoing long relationships, we have our ups and downs. But I don’t think that alters the fact that fundamentally we have a good relationship.”
Question: There are a number of teams on pace to lose 95-100 games this season. How concerned are you about competitive balance?
Manfred: “Look, we’ve looked at the numbers in terms of dispersion of wins and losses. I think speculating on where teams are going to end up at this point this season is probably not productive. We’ll figure out where we are at the end of the year and what it looks like. I’ve got some people who actually believe we’re going to look a little better in terms of those issues than we did a year ago. It’s just too early to tell.”
Question: MLB has been experimenting with some potential rules changes in the Atlantic League. Is there anything so far that has been particularly interesting?
Manfred: “I think that people have been positive about the way that they decided to deploy the electronic strike zone. And what I mean by that is that, it’s an assist to the umpire, a tool available to the home plate umpire. I think people have been positive about that piece of it. But again, we’re just getting going on that.”
Question: I’d be remiss not to ask your thoughts about what happened with David Ortiz in the Dominican Republic.
Manfred: “What happened to David is a tragedy. There’s no other word for it. We never like to see something like this happen to one of our players. Obviously, he’s been a very important player to us for a very long time. Obviously, we hope he has a speedy recovery.”
HERE’S THE PITCH
Red Sox in need of some bullpen help
Not to be too dramatic, but the Red Sox season hinges on whether Dave Dombrowski can trade for a reliable reliever. Preferably two.
The Sox entered Saturday six games behind the Yankees in the division and one game behind the Rangers for the second wild card.
This is a team built to win, if it can get back to the postseason. The rotation is deep and the lineup still potent. But the bullpen is an obvious weakness that can be addressed via trade.
Brandon Workman is on a pace to appear in 77 games — 34 more than his previous high. The Sox also are concerned about Matt Barnes being worn down by all the high-stress innings he has had to pitch.
Who else do you trust to hold a lead against a contender?
Dombrowski told colleague Alex Speier that he believes the return of Steven Wright will improve the bullpen. That’s a hope at this point. But it’s absolutely true the Sox have no idea if his surgically repaired left knee can hold up.
Beyond that, Wright is not eligible for the postseason because of his PED suspension.
Dombrowski acted quickly last season when he traded for Steve Pearce on June 28 to improve the bench. The same should be true for the bullpen this season.
The Sox don’t necessarily need a closer, just relievers they can rely on late in the game.
A few other observations on the Sox:
■ Marco Hernandez had three doubles in his first four games. That’s as many as Eduardo Nunez had over 42 games and one fewer than Michael Chavis had over 49 games.
■ Coach Craig Bjornson covers his mouth when he talks to pitchers out in the bullpen because he’s worried the opposing team will have a camera trained on him. He even does it at home games.
MLB has mandated clubhouse televisions show games on a delay to cut down on sign stealing and lip-reading. But paranoia still runs deep.
■ The Sox have used a spot starter 13 times this season, most of the time in place of Nathan Eovaldi. Hector Velazquez has started seven times with Ryan Weber (3), Josh Smith (2), and Darwinzon Hernandez (1) getting the others. That group has a 7.62 ERA with the Sox going 6-7.
Putting the ball in play a fading art
The Rangers beat the Red Sox, 9-5, on Tuesday night at Fenway Park. Sounds like an exciting game, right? But 39 of the 84 batters either struck out or walked, a whopping 46 percent. The game took 3 hours and 40 minutes. It was a slog and many of the fans were long gone by the seventh inning.
So many hitters now have an all-or-nothing approach, trading bushels of strikeouts for an occasional home run instead of grounding into a shift. Meanwhile, bullpens are loaded with borderline major leaguers who are swapped back and forth from Triple A at a dizzying pace.
Even high-payroll teams such as the Red Sox and Yankees do it, manipulating their rosters to keep a constant flow of fresh arms, rather than allow starting pitchers to face a lineup a third time.
Changing how the game is played has never seemed like an appealing option. It’s usually best to be patient and see how it plays out. Two years is a blip in the long term, not a trend.
But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to argue against the idea that something has to be done. That could be mandating relievers face a certain number of hitters or limiting to what extent teams can shift.
As somebody who has made a career out of watching baseball and loves the nuances, it would be nice to see than an occasional hit-and-run or a well-placed opposite-field single with a man in scoring position instead of lumberjack swings at high fastballs.
Shohei Ohtani won’t pitch this season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. But he hit .281 with an .862 OPS, 7 home runs, and 26 RBIs through 31 games as a designated hitter. Ohtani, who hit for the cycle against the Rays on Thursday, would be fun to see in the Home Run Derby next month . . . One impression after watching the Texas Rangers in person: 36-year-old Hunter Pence still has a lot to offer and plays hard. Pence runs the bases full tilt and is again hitting for power after two down, injury-filled seasons with the San Francisco Giants . . . Ice Cube is producing a movie about the late Dock Ellis, who pitched in the majors from 1968-79 and won 138 games but is perhaps best known for pitching a no-hitter for the Pirates in 1970 while on LSD. O’Shea Jackson Jr., Cube’s son, will play Ellis . . . Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto came into the season with a career OPS of .957. It has fallen to .739 this season. Votto has been trending up in recent weeks but has struggled against pitches high in the strike zone. “It’s how everybody is trying to pitch now and it’s not good for him,” a National League executive said . . . Giants rookie outfielder Mike Yastrzemski may not end up in Cooperstown. But he has already done something his grandfather somehow never did in 23 seasons: hit leadoff. Mike Yaz batted first against the Dodgers on June 8. Captain Carl Yastrzemski started 3,228 games and hit in every spot in the order except first and ninth . . . Happy birthday to Calvin Schiraldi, who is 57. He was with the Red Sox in 1986 and ’87 and pitched in 87 games for the Sox. Schiraldi allowed one run over seven innings in his first five games of the 1986 postseason. Then came Games 6 and 7 of the World Series. Feel free to look up what happened but I’d advise against it if you’re a Red Sox fan. Schiraldi has been head coach at St. Michael’s Catholic Academy in Austin, Texas, since 1997 and has won two state titles. His son, Lukas, is a righthanded pitcher in the Marlins organization. Happy birthday as well to Justin Haley, who is 28. He was drafted in 2012 and pitched 14 games in the majors for the Sox and Twins before going to play in Korea.