Since January of 2015, Rob Manfred’s name has been printed on every baseball that’s appeared inside the 30 major league ballparks.
Printed in dark blue, the signature is smaller than the “Official Major League Baseball” text directly
above it, but it’s the job title directly below that tells the story.
There are storylines that define each of the nine men who preceded Manfred in the position. As a recent example, the mid-2000s featured the Mitchell Report, and the continuing controversy of performance-enhancing drugs. In 2007, when Bud Selig was in charge of Major League Baseball, it was Barry Bonds who would hit his 756th career home run, a new record. Suddenly, scandal and controversy were featured at the top of the rankings for the sport’s most recognizable statistic.
That was then.
Now, the controversies of performance-enhancing drugs and related issues no longer dominate baseball discussions. No, when headlines are drawn up suggesting improvements to the game, there’s another topic on the minds of many.
Improving Major League Baseball’s pace of play.
Every game in the 2018 World Series was over three hours long, with Game Three finishing up after 18 innings, seven hours and 20 minutes of gameplay. (That game was so long that ESPN Radio broadcaster Dan Shulman lost his voice and was forced to miss the fifth and final game of the series to recover.)
From a pace of play perspective, those times are a disaster. Ultimately though, there are many more views that are visible on social media than just that one. Even Rob Manfred’s view is somewhat down the middle. “As much as it gets written about, we don’t really think about the issue in terms of pace of play,” he said in an interview inside a New York City-based Major League Baseball conference room.
Even if it may not be the main focus for Manfred, he did praise the changes that were designed to speed up the game, particularly the ones implemented before the 2018 season.
“We had what we regard to be a successful effort on pace this year. We think the most important thing is, both the mound visit rule and the inning-break changes that we made went forward without any real disruption of play on the field. It’s not like people were saying ‘well if I had one more mound visit, I would have won.’ You didn’t hear any of that.”
Not everyone’s on board, however. There are many fans who are strongly against the modern efforts to speed the game up. Whether it’s to protect what they see as tradition or just a personal preference will always depend on the individual making the observation.
But Manfred doesn’t see pace of play as a conflict with the concept of preserving tradition. “I think when people talk about the romance of the game with no clock, it’s that the game ends when the game ends. Nobody’s talking about changing that. People get caught up in the sophistry of ‘Oh my god, you’re putting a clock in the game that’s never had a clock.’ What really matters is that the game plays out the way the game plays out.”
He then repeated the line that he emphasized most in that point.
“Nobody’s talking about changing that.”
It’s clear, talking to Rob Manfred, that in his mind, pace of play is only one part of his plan to expand the game to a wider, more modern audience.
“We want to make sure that both for the audience at the ballpark and the fans who are watching at home, we provide them with the best entertainment.” Manfred continued, listing the factors for that. “That involves being crisp, not having a lot of downtime, but it also involves things like action, and making sure that we fill whatever gaps there are in the game with interesting things to keep the fan, typically the broadcast fan, engaged.”
Throughout the discussion with the commissioner, Manfred also pointed out electronic games, social media, and digital television rights as factors that go into growing the game.
As the conversation continues, it becomes more and more clear that pace of play is only one aspect of the game for the commissioner, despite all of the headlines.
But the headlines come from somewhere, and rule changes like the aforementioned mound visit rule were implemented from the offices of Major League Baseball. How can game pace be both an overstatement and so prominent in headlines?
Manfred had an idea.
“It is, sort of, the way of change,” he noted. “Usually, when changes come in the offseason, other than maybe some player signings, sportswriters don’t have a lot to write about. It gives them the opportunity to write about something and not too many people read articles that say ‘Oh, gee – they made some rule changes and we think they’re really good.’”
Clearly, Manfred has ideas for the sport that are often unexpected for a casual fan to hear, but it’s also apparent that he doesn’t want to change the traditional aspects of the game. Fans won’t see a clock in the sport instead of a count of nine innings, but there may be other, smaller, alterations made.
And the commissioner of Major League Baseball is confident that fans will warm up to any changes they may see.
“I do think most of the changes – the catcher rule, the second base rule, the mound visit rule, you go back and look when they were put in, people were all worked up, and it just doesn’t change the game.”
Baseball may be looking a little different lately, but Manfred seemed to stress that although there may be change, the game featured in the legendary matches of yesterday will still be the game played in the exciting duels of tomorrow.