Rob Manfred has taken the baton from outgoing commissioner Bud Selig, becoming MLB’s 10th commissioner and earning the right to preside over the game during a time in which it is enjoying exceptional popularity. That is not to say that Manfred has inherited a position that will be easy, as there are many complex issues that he must address in his first season on the job. There are issues of competitive balance, pace of play and popularity that are central to the game’s ability to stay relevant for many years to come.
The position of MLB Commissioner is incredibly difficult, and Manfred has already ruffled some feathers with some of his most recent comments. How he chooses to navigate these early issues will shape this new era of baseball under his watch, but early missteps will certainly not define him. After all, Bud Selig is leaving the position and is being hailed as one of baseball’s greatest commissioners, with many conveniently forgetting that he oversaw an era that included a canceled World Series and incredibly rampant use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs.
The following 10 issues, however, deserve serious and immediate attention, as some will have an immediate impact on the game, while others will affect the game in the future if not properly addressed. How Commissioner Manfred decides to proceed with these issues will provide some important insight on how the game will look going forward, and it will also affect the popularity of the game and its continued status as America’s Pastime.
10 The Defensive Shift
Manfred has already succeeded in stimulating a great deal of debate, though it probably isn’t the type of attention he wanted to draw in his first days on the job. In an interview with ESPN’s Karl Ravech, Manfred said that, in the name of injecting more offense into the game, he would be open to the idea of banning defensive shifts. This drew the ire of the sabermetrically inclined, and ESPN’s Buster Olney compared it to baseball banning curveballs. To be fair, Manfred has not taken a position on the issue, as he said he was merely “open” to the idea, but how he chooses to move forward on this issue will certainly shape the initial opinion of him as commissioner.
9 Pace of Play and the Length of Games
Many in baseball believe that the game is far too long to hold the attention of a new and younger generation of fans. There are plenty of observers complaining about the “dead time” in baseball games, and MLB is already in the process of testing measures to speed up the pace of its games. A pitch clock will be implemented at both the Double-A and Triple-A levels of the game, and other pace-of-play initiatives will also be tested there as well. Manfred needs to strike a balance here, as many are not thrilled with the idea of adding a clock to the field of play, yet still agree that the game needs to be sped up in some way.
8 Reinstating Pete Rose
In the aforementioned ESPN interview, Manfred sidestepped the “Pete Rose issue,” saying that he would need more time to be properly informed on the nuances of Rose’s ban and what reasons or arguments there may be for reinstatement. Rose has been banished from the game for a quarter-century now, longer than it took him to accumulate the most hits ever in the long history of baseball. As the all-time leader in hits, Rose quite probably holds one of the game’s most unbreakable records and is widely acknowledged as one of the game’s greatest players. The extent of Rose’s ban has loosened in recent years, and in 2015 he will be allowed to appear on the field when Cincinnati hosts the All-Star game, which will bring the question of reinstatement even more widespread attention. Rose will be 74 in April, and perhaps Manfred will be the one to finally give him his reprieve.
7 Generating Interest Among a Younger Generation of Fans
There is a great deal of growing concern over the waning interest in the game among the younger generation. Manfred must find ways to get a new generation of fans interested in watching the game, whether it is live and in person or at home on television. The pace-of-play initiatives are a part of this issue, as study after study shows that attention spans are shortening significantly, a fact that will have a serious impact on a game that is played at a leisurely pace. Manfred must tread very carefully in this regard, in order to ensure that baseball is not forgotten among one of the most important demographics.
6 Integrating Technology
Even though MLB has had success with its “At Bat” application, the league needs to engage more fans through the use of technology. Manfred has already touched on this issue, saying that MLB needs to make technology a greater part of the game-watching experience so that fans feel closer to the game. Just like many fans used to keep score in their very own scorebook while at the park, MLB envisions fans using personal technologies to further fan engagement while at home and at the ballpark.
5 Making Players More Accessible
This is an issue that requires Manfred and MLB to look to its past for inspiration. On game days, Willie Mays of the New York Giants could be found outside of his apartment building playing stickball with the kids in his neighborhood. When Mays was ready to depart for the Polo Grounds, he would be escorted to the park by those same neighborhood kids. Some of the greatest moments off the field in recent seasons have come when players have surprised young fans by showing up at Little League fields unannounced to join in, something Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers has done with relative frequency in the last two seasons. This is not to say that every player should use their time in this way, but MLB simply needs to find ways to encourage players to foster a more personal relationship with fans, whether it is through social media or through real-life social interaction.
4 Properly Acknowledging the Game’s History
MLB has been excellent in this regard, and Manfred must ensure that he continues on in the trend that has seen Jackie Robinson’s number retired in every stadium and the annual celebration in his honor each April 15. With the recent passing of Ernie Banks, Manfred should see that the career of the game’s greatest ambassador is properly recognized across the whole of baseball. MLB Network’s Dan Plesac suggested that every MLB team wear a patch featuring Banks’ number 14 all season long, while Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke suggested a day in which every team plays a doubleheader in honor of Banks’ famous expression, “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two.” However MLB decides to proceed, it is clear that baseball’s illustrious past must continue to be properly recognized at every opportunity.
3 Maintaining Healthy Relations Between Players and MLB
There has been long-standing labor peace between MLB and the player’s union, and Manfred must work diligently to continue to strengthen the relationship between the two parties. Labor strife led to one of the game’s biggest black eyes in 1994 with the player’s strike and the subsequent cancelation of the World Series, and it took several years for the game to recover. Now that baseball is thriving and is a $9 billion industry, it is an opportune time to further strengthen the relations between the players and MLB.
2 Capitalizing on the Current Strength of the Game
With the continuing influx of revenue from local television deals, Major League Baseball teams are thriving and its players are seeing the benefit in terms of the value and length of their contracts. As a $9 billion industry, baseball must capitalize on the current strength of the game by continuing to promote the game while expanding its popularity across the world. This is a part of a larger issue, and Manfred and the rest of MLB can accomplish this by addressing the many issues that have already been noted here.
1 Getting Greater Youth Participation in Baseball at All Levels
The long-term health of the game is reliant on getting greater participation in youth baseball leagues, and Commissioner Manfred has already mentioned the importance of this in his first interviews. The popularity of the game is currently strong, but there is some concern that it is not popular enough among the younger generation and, if participation in youth leagues continues to wane, the quality and depth of available players in the future could hurt the game on a competitive level. Of particular concern is the lack of African-American players currently playing at the MLB level, which, as of 2014’s Opening Day, was just 8.3%. MLB has looked into various initiatives at addressing this issue, but greater attention is still needed to improve participation among not just African-Americans, but the younger generation as a whole.