The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Unafraid of change, Rob Manfred steps to plate, faces pitches on pace of play, gambling

On Baseball

Major League Baseball’s new commissioner, Rob Manfred talks with the media during a visit to Washington, D.C., Wednesday. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Baseball hinges on so many black-and-white issues. The ball was fair or foul. The pitch was a ball or a strike. He’s safe or out. You win or lose. There are no ties, even if it takes 18 innings on a cold October night to determine a victor. Either/or.

This is the world Rob Manfred now runs. He is 56, a Harvard-trained lawyer hardened by baseball’s labor wars going back more than a quarter of a century, now entrusted with overseeing a $9 billion business that also happens to be a civic institution. While he’s still growing accustomed to the somewhat ridiculous honorific of “Mr. Commissioner” – “I’ve been Rob for a long time” – his word now carries weight it did not a year ago.

So when Manfred dives into baseball’s gray areas – Does the game need to speed up? How well does instant replay work? Should drastic defensive shifts be disallowed? – people listen. So, listen.

“Anything that stands still endangers itself,” Manfred said Wednesday.

He has been commissioner less than two weeks, and he said this during an interview in a small conference room at the impressive Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, a gleaming and sprawling facility developed by the Lerner family on the east side of the Anacostia River. It is clear in all his public proclamations since he took over for the retiring Bud Selig that Manfred will not stand still, even when the issues aren’t as simple as fair or foul, black or white.

Take, for instance, the pace of play. According to data provided by Baseball Prospectus, major league games took an average – an average – of 3.13 hours last season. A decade earlier, the average was 2.85 hours. That’s an increase of almost 17 minutes per game. So in the winter after the Arizona Fall League – a circuit where franchises send their top prospects to compete against one another – experimented with a 20-second “pitch clock,” Manfred isn’t shy about expressing that baseball has an issue. The batter steps in the box, the pitcher steps off the rubber, the batter steps back out, the pitcher climbs back on. Rinse, repeat.

This must change. Somehow.

“It’s important in terms of providing an entertainment product that is consonant with the kind of society in which we live,” Manfred said. “There’s a certain flow to the game that I think people appreciate, but we’ve developed some habits where we have down time that we just don’t need.

“Secondly, I think it’s symbolic. People talk about the length of the games, worry about the time of games, and I think it’s important for the institution to be responsive to those concerns and to show, ‘Yes, we hear you.’ Consistent with our history and traditions, we’re trying to be responsive to it.”

There’s the gray. No American sport respects and reveres its history more than baseball. Even ardent basketball junkies don’t know Michael Jordan scored 32,292 points, and it takes Steve Sabol-level football knowledge to know Joe Montana threw 273 touchdown passes. Baseball fans, though, just know that Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, that Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games, that Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. They just do.

When a history is so understood and treasured by those both inside and outside the game, letting it go can be more difficult. Manfred believes that Selig “taught the institution how to change,” and that’s true in the advent of the wild-card playoff berth, divisional realignment and interleague play. Now, Manfred seems willing to tweak not just the competitive format, but the on-field product as well. In his first day on the job, he gave an interview to ESPN’s Karl Ravech, in which he brought up the idea of eliminating extreme defensive shifts – embraced as advanced thinking by the sabermetric crowd – as a way to potentially boost offense, which has been in steady decline for a decade.

He didn’t say he would do it. He merely suggested thinking about it. The Internet’s instant reaction: He said what?!

“The reason those projects are difficult is you have to balance the need to move forward against the really significant history and traditions in the game,” Manfred said Wednesday. “For example: on instant replay, we took a little extra time to roll it out. I think it was time well-spent because most of that time focused on making sure we had that balance just right. Change it, but don’t interfere with the traditions.”

So expect more suggestions. Adam Silver, who has been the NBA’s commissioner just more than a year, has embraced the idea of legalizing sports gambling, and he has discussed that with his counterparts in baseball, football and hockey. Manfred characterized that conversation as “part of my process of getting ready to have a dialogue with the owners,” but said he wasn’t prepared to speak publicly on the matter. Still, he is aware that the NBA and NHL have partnered with daily fantasy sports sites – essentially, a version of legalized gambling – and he is not going to cede that territory.

“I think that you will see us have relationships in that fantasy space,” Manfred said. “Fantasy started with us, and we will continue to be involved in that space.”

The February sun was shining in through a window, and outside were two beautiful baseball diamonds. Manfred had spent time touring the facility with Tal Alter, its executive director, meeting the students that show up each afternoon to get a meal, do their homework and learn baseball and softball, not to mention some of the 90 mentors that work there. This was a staged tour, largely for the media. But when Manfred is asked what his top priority as commissioner is, there is no gray.

“No. 1 is the issue of youth and young fans,” Manfred said. “One of the reasons I’m here today is I think youth participation, getting youth in the ballpark is a huge part of maintaining the position of baseball and growing the game long-term.”

He isn’t yet a month into his tenure. Change is afoot. It will be change that respects and honors the past, because this is baseball. But little by little, it will come.