Robert Manfred took over for Bud Selig as commissioner of Major League Baseball on January 25, and, in just a few months in office, the one-time Yankees fan and longtime Tarrytown resident has already set the wheels of change in motion. In an interview with Westchester Magazine at MLB headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, Manfred dished on baseball’s biggest challenges and opportunities.
Q: What was the very first thing you did as commissioner of Major League Baseball?
A: The first thing that happened was someone came in with a stack of index cards to collect an appropriate signature to go on the baseball. It was August, and we needed to start making baseballs for this year.
Q: What is your No. 1 priority at this point in your tenure?
A: To more fully engage young people in the game. We’re very focused on making sure that baseball gets passed on to the next generation in the way that our parents passed it on to us. We’re working to encourage youth participation.
Q: How important is technology in the MLB’s pursuit of the sport’s young fans?
A: Technology is huge. We’ve got a new product called Statcast designed to increase the level of engagement of fans. I’ll give you an example: I was out in Arizona, and I did an inning on the radio with the Dodger broadcast team. The center fielder made a great catch, and the broadcaster explained that he made the catch because he took a perfect route to the baseball. Statcast actually shows what route the player picked and compares it to the optimum route. A trained eye sees a lot in the game that the average fan doesn’t, and to give the average fan that level of understanding, we think will increase engagement. Right now it’s easiest to show on a broadcast, but I think eventually you’ll see it available on handheld devices.
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Manfred posing with Mo’ne Davis, the first Little League player to be featured on a Sports Illustrated cover while still in the Little League.
Q: With that type of technology, do you worry that the experience at home outclasses the experience at the ballpark?
A: Every year, 74 million people go watch Major League Baseball games live, and another 41 million go to watch Minor League Baseball. That’s a lot of people engaging with a product live, suggesting that that live product has a lot of durability and strength.
Q: Before you became commissioner, you were intimately involved in the cases against Alex Rodriguez and other steroid abusers. Is baseball’s ‘steroid era’ in the past?
A: We remain really vigilant on that topic. We’re wired in with WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] and USADA [US Anti-Doping Agency] and staying on top of the newest developments. Performance-enhancing drugs are just something you have to stay on top of. You never win that fight.
Q: Did you learn anything from watching the scandals unfold in the NFL with Roger Goodell and Ray Rice and in the NBA with Adam Silver and Donald Sterling, and how your fellow commissioners handled those respective crises?
A: We pay attention to what goes on in other leagues. I think Commissioner Silver was masterful in the handling of the problem with Donald Sterling. People had rave reviews for the way he did it, so of course you hope to learn some lessons.
Q: Does Major League Baseball have a domestic violence policy?
A: During Spring Training, both major and minor league players received education in the area of domestic violence. We’re partnered with a number of groups to make sure that our players understand the seriousness of this issue and are given every tool possible to avoid having this type of incident. We’re still currently engaged with the MLB Players Association in some disciplinary aspects of the policy. We’re not quite done yet.
Q: The current collective bargaining agreement with the players ends after the 2016 season. What do you think the next round of negotiations is going to focus on?
A: It’s hard to predict because we only have one of the two oars in that boat. The concern that I’m hearing from the clubs right now is international amateur talent acquisition. There’s a certain appeal to the idea [of an international draft].
Q: What kind of opportunities does the United States’ normalizing relations with Cuba present?
A: Cuba is of interest to us for at least two reasons. Obviously, it’s a great source of talent. We’re hoping that the continued changes in federal policy will make it simpler and cleaner for players to come and play Major League Baseball. The immigration process right now remains complicated for players. There’s a lot of well-publicized allegations about trafficking and the involvement of less than savory people in getting people out of Cuba. Secondly, Cuba would be of interest to us from a business perspective. It’s a culture where baseball is deeply embedded, and those are the sorts of cultures where we do well. It’s an exciting development.
Q: Is the MLB looking to expand outside the lower 48 states and Canada?
A: I’d like to see more sustained international activity. And you’ve got to think about places proximate to the 48 and Canada, just because of travel and the way we play. Mexico would be a great target. But, at some point in our future, I would love to see that happen.