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.