BY Art Thiel 09:49PM 04/08/2015

Thiel: Rob Manfred inherits good, if slow, times

In Seattle Wednesday, new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred talked of his good fortune in arriving at a time of no major threats. But drawing youth to the game remains a long-term problem.

Rob Manfred knows he slipped into the commissioner’s job at a fine time. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

Give Rob Manfred credit. He knows that when his biggest professional crisis is the amount of time spent by batters fooling with their batting gloves, it’s a good time to be the new baseball commissioner.

“After getting elected commissioner, I think the second luckiest thing (in his life) was the state of the game when I got here,” said Manfred during a press briefing at Safeco Field Wednesday before the Angels-Mariners game. Compared to the rolling controversies that pickled the 22-year tenure of his predecessor, Bud Selig — labor strife, PED proliferation, small-market woes and Alex Rodriguez — Manfred is surrounded by daisies, lambs and ice cream.

“We have a level of competitive balance in the game that is absolutely fantastic,” he said. “One of our smallest markets, Kansas City, went to Game 7 of the World Series. Some of our smaller markets, Oakland and Pittsburgh, are competitive year after year. I think that’s crucial.

“Our live attendance is strong and stable. The 10 best attended years in our history are in the past 10 years.”

That leaves Manfred free to tinker with what amounts to a minor nuisance — eliminating the dithering among hitters and pitchers, and the between-innings lollygagging, that helped extend the average game time the past season to a record three hours, two minutes.

The topic came up pre-interview when Manfred met players and took questions in the clubhouse.

“The Mariners lead the league in number of questions,” Manfred said, laughing. “They really did. I didn’t think I was going to get out of there.

“A lot of questions this spring (from all players) have focused on pace-of-game initiatives. How hard we’re going to press, how fast we’re going to go to implement changes.”

Manfred promised a gradual change.

“We will make incremental changes that will not be too disruptive to players’ routines,” he aid, “which we understand are important.”

Um, actually, no, they are not important. But if that is Manfred’s worst error in judgment, his seas are calm.

Manfred, 56, is a Cornell and Harvard Law School graduate who has been in MLB’s front office for more than 20 years. He was a unanimous choice by owners to be their front man, and has been around for all of Selig’s wrestling matches with the players union and assorted controversies.

But he didn’t sound convinced that there was a problem with the most talked-about story in baseball — the nearly decade-long decline in offense, mostly as a result of the growing strength, velocity and skill of pitchers. Hits and runs are at or near modern lows, and strikeouts are way up.  

“We’re studying the numbers,” he said. “We’re at that point where we asking whether we have an aberration or a trend that needs to be addressed. We’ve not made that decision yet.

“We have great athletes. It’s not clear to me they’re not going to make adjustments that turns what we’re seeing now (into) an aberration.”

Some, including Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon, don’t exactly see a problem.

“I kinda like it,” he said Wednesday pre-game, smiling. “Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I like 2-1 games — Mariners.”

Old-fashioned is enjoyable for some, but for many young people who are attracted to shinier objects, the shrinkage in offense corresponds with a shrinkage in the all-important youth demographic in the TV audience. 

“We know we are strong in the parent/grandparent groups,” he said. “We work very hard to make sure those groups do what our parents and grandparents did, which was taking their children and grandchilden to the park early on, to pass on the game.”

But MLB can’t seem to do that fast enough to stop the erosion in ratings for its marquee events of the postseason. The NFL’s Pro Bowl, an annual joke game, annually outdraws the World Series. Increasingly, MLB has become a regional sport, drawing large local audiences that don’t necessarily follow the sport into the playoffs without a local team.

“It’s an issue we’re aware of,” Manfred said. “When you go from a situation where you have national broadcasts and a few local ones (from the 1960s to the 1980s) to a situation in which every game in every market is broadcast, there’s bound to be changes. We have 11 markets in which the top-rated program in the local markets was baseball.

“The trend for us that we develop story lines that are interesting and compelling, so when a team doesn’t make it to the playoffs, those fans stay interested in the postseason. National ratings in postseason are important to us. The Kansas City story, after such a long drought (first playoff appearance since 1985), was good for ratings in those markets. It captured people’s imagination.”

For baseball fans, the Royals’ resurgence was a delightful story. For non-baseball fans, it’s doubtful the story convinced many to abandon their resistance to precious minutes lost to the cumulative dreariness of tightening batting gloves.

But that is where Manfred steps in, with a stopwatch and a scowl, taking on the demons of his era.


  • Bayview Herb

    Rather than pick on slow issues, I’d rather see them outlaw chewing tobacco. Kids tend to emulate their favorite players. I would favor outlawing this habit on the field and in the dugout.

    • jafabian

      Agreed. It’s tobacco. They wouldn’t let players smoke on the field.

      • Bayview Herb

        Tobacco is prohibited in the minor leagues. It just pisses me off to see the king’s court waving their yellow flags while their hero has a golf ball size wad in his mouth.

        • jafabian

          Bleacher Report has a story today where Curt Schilling writes about the dangers of chewing tobacco.

          • Bayview Herb

            I’m not so worried about the players as I am the kids that try to copy them.

  • jafabian

    Why do they even elect a commissioner? The commish is basically the owner’s rep. They should just have one of the owners be commish the way Howard Lincoln represents the M’s owners. The office of the commish really doesn’t hold much power if the owners disagree with them. All the office does is hand out punishments to players, speak for the owners during various scandals and make recommendations when asked.

    • art thiel

      Well, all of those tasks need doing, and the owners are too busy with vacations. At least you’re aware that the commish is rarely interested in the best interests of the game, because he is the valet for owners.

    • RadioGuy

      That’s kind of how it was when Bud Selig first became “interim” commish. He handed the Brewers to his daughter Wendy to run but I don’t think anyone was fooled into thinking they were anyone but Bud’s team all the way to their sale in 2004.

  • Long-Time Mariners Fan

    Art, I would take issue with one on your points above. To quote:

    Manfred: “We will make incremental changes that will not be too disruptive to
    players’ routines,” he said, “which we understand are important.”

    Art: “Um, actually, no, they are not important. But if that is Manfred’s worst error in judgment, his seas are calm.”

    I would challenge you to approach Nomar Garciaparra in his day and tell him that his routines are not important. Watch what he does – he taps his foot, he adjusts his batting gloves, he ignores you. Nomar knew what was important.

    • jafabian

      IMO, Nomar’s routine was as much to disrupt the pitcher as it was to prepare for an AB.

      • art thiel

        Why not tell jokes or show the pitcher porn?

    • art thiel

      My argument is indulging individual habits at the expense of the game’s pace is a bit much. If someone shows up to work and then brushes teeth and shaves before logging in, my suggestion would be to do that stuff on one’s own time, and not slow down everyone else. Nomar needed to show up in the batter’s box ready to hit.

      • RadioGuy

        And do we even need to go into why Mike Hargrove’s nickname was “The Human Rain Delay?”

        I’ve called games from the NBC World Series in Wichita, where there’s a 30-second clock right next to the scoreboard at Lawrence-Dumont. They did go faster and I don’t recall any violations in the four games I worked.

      • Long-Time Mariners Fan

        Fair enough. I happen to like the pace of baseball – the fiddling in the batter’s box, the pitcher’s shake-off and step-off, the throw-over to first. the (now illegal) fake-to-third-throw-to-first, the calling of time, the catcher trotting out to the mound to talk about chicken heads and candlesticks. You get my point – if it adds to another minute or two, well…. that’s another minute or two I’m at the ballpark enjoying a ball game.

        • art thiel

          Baseball is thrilled to have you. And I’m not bothered by most of these things. But an increasingly impatient world is apparently bothered.

          I don’t mind contemplation. Dithering is something else.

  • Kirkland

    Market the players as much as the NBA and NFL do. The sport has to have a few charismatic athletes besides David Ortiz, let them get a chance to endear themselves to the sports fans (as well as the general public).