Q&A: MLB commissioner Rob Manfred

·MLB columnist

Monday marks the one-year anniversary of Rob Manfred taking over as commissioner of Major League Baseball. In a Q&A over the weekend with Yahoo Sports, Manfred reflected on the big issues of his first year (Pete Rose and recapturing the youth market), looked at the game’s future (expansion, relocation and the DH in the National League) and explored the questions most pertinent now (MLB’s domestic-violence policy, a potential work stoppage and cord-cutting).

Monday marks one year that Rob Manfred has served as MLB commissioner. (AP)
Monday marks one year that Rob Manfred has served as MLB commissioner. (AP)

The NFL damaged itself in how it handled the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson cases. What did you take away from the response and reaction, and how will that shape your domestic-violence punishment?

When the domestic-violence issue moved to the forefront, we did a really careful review of how people handled domestic-violence problems in a variety of industries. For us, we concluded the most important thing for us to do was have a collectively bargained policy, and we thought that for two reasons. Only through collective bargaining can you have a complete approach to the issue – education, counseling, discipline. If you don’t have the representative of the employees on board, you’re not going to get that complete, well-rounded approach. And point two: We think collectively bargained policies in disciplinary areas generally have more acceptance among the players because they provide them with certain safeguards that our players have been used to over time.

What other industries aside from sports did you look at?

We looked at all of the other leagues. But we made a broad inquiry into the handling of domestic-violence problems completely outside of sports.

Did you learn more from those outside of sports than those within?

It’s a different kind of learning. With respect to the leagues, there are lessons in dealing with unions and athletes, and when you look outside, the range of expertise in terms of the problem itself, with counseling and education and how you handle these issues, is probably a little more in-depth and developed because it’s a bigger area.

The policy is written in very broad language. When you’re meting out punishment for the first time, how do you strike a proper balance?

Compare it to the drug policy. It’s a heck of a lot easier when you have a policy that says the first time you test positive, you sit down for 80 games. That’s easy, right? I think the reality of these cases, and both the bargaining parties realize this, is that you can’t have a formulaic approach. Through the labor-relations process, we’re going to develop some precedent for dealing with cases that can have some pretty wide variations.

In your first year, you made one choice that stirred significant emotion: not reinstating Pete Rose. How difficult a decision was that?

Pete Rose will always be a topic for Manfred. (AP)
Pete Rose will always be a topic for Manfred. (AP)

I felt that it was important to focus on the specific issue in front of me – that is, can I remove Mr. Rose from the permanently ineligible list and open the door to the possibility that he would be directly involved with the play of the game on the field? Once you focus on that issue, I think it was not that difficult to write the opinion that was written. In a broader context, the process was extremely difficult. I’ll give you two things that, given what I said already, weigh on the other side. One is that the guy was one of the greatest players of all-time. And No. 2 is obviously this penalty has been in place a long time. Those factors made it more difficult. But at the end of the day, it’s important to remember what my responsibility is under the major league constitution, and I tried to discharge that responsibility.

What are you proudest of in your first year?

The thing I’m most excited about is how much traction our effort in the youth space got. The Play Ball initiative, the partnership with the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Getting Cal Ripken to join us as an adviser, given what a great job he does in the youth space. I feel really good about the start we got there.

How is One Baseball going to work? Are you more confident in it after this first year than you might’ve been otherwise?

Yes. Let’s take the two sides of the house first. I think the business side has been an immediate improvement for us. Our partners have been overwhelmingly positive about the ability to do business with us online, offline, all in one spot. And I think the bigger job is on the real play-of-the-game side. I’ve had some nice conversations with Mark Emmert. We have work to do on the NCAA relationship, and a continuing effort to create greater unity below the college level in terms of play.

With the NCAA’s grip on college athletics more and more tenuous, does that open up opportunities for MLB to fund college baseball scholarships and fill the vacuum that exists and can cause athletes to opt for football instead?

I think the NCAA will continue as a force in the college ranks, so [I don’t necessarily agree with] the premise of the question. I do think it’s possible in working with the NCAA to make college baseball more competitive in terms of attracting the very best athletes. Whether that’s funding or flexibility in terms of summer play or a better calendar, there are a whole bunch of ways. We need to get on those topics and make baseball as competitive as we possibly can.

I’m sure you saw the story on Antwaan Randle El in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in which he said concussions sustained in football make him wish he had played baseball instead.

I did.

How does baseball respond to football’s concussion issues without looking like ambulance chasers? Because those are the sort of kids you want playing baseball, but nobody feels good profiting off a tragedy.

I have a rule: I don’t talk about other sports. I don’t compare ourselves to other sports. But what I will say is that I think it’s very important in the youth space for us to be emphasizing the positives of our game. It’s a very safe game for the very best athletes that presents the very, very best economic opportunity in terms of dollars, guaranteed dollars, length of career. And that’s a big deal. For us, it’s about accentuating our positives.

How big of a disruption are cord-cutters going to be to a business that is so dependent on large local television contracts?

Cord-cutting is a concern for us. The biggest concern with it is we don’t know exactly – nobody knows – how big and persistent this phenomenon is going to be. The cable model has served this industry really well. Anything that interrupts that model is something we have to worry about. Having said that, I do think our over-the-top capacity at BAM (MLB Advanced Media) and BAM Tech gives us downside protection that is a little more robust than other businesses.

How can baseball leverage its success with BAM into greater growth?

I think you saw the beginning of it this year. I don’t think there’s any mystery. We have a very robust and effective distribution platform. We think if, in addition to becoming a distribution platform, we can become an aggregator of content maybe with the right partner it could be a really fantastic business development for us.

How does baseball benefit from preventing people in Las Vegas and Iowa from watching up to 40 percent of games on an average weeknight with blackouts?

It doesn’t. It just plain doesn’t.

So now that the Garber vs. MLB lawsuit is settled, is there actually something that’s going to be done about it?

I think Garber was helpful in terms of focusing us on the underserved areas and blackouts. I think you will see continuing efforts in this area. But I want to be realistic about it. One of the problems here is whether or not there is distribution in a particular area, someone bought the rights to distribute in that area. I think people think, ‘Gee, Bud Selig should’ve just thrown the switch and that was the end of it.’ The fact of the matter is you have clubs that sold rights to [regional sports networks] that have rights in certain areas, and so it’s going to be a complicated process. But one of the side benefits of Garber is we’re really focused on the topic.

What is preventing you at this point from stepping in with Los Angeles and allowing everyone there to watch Vin Scully in his final season?

The distribution problem in L.A. is the product of a negotiation at a table where we don’t have a seat. You can rest assured that we are continuing to have dialogue with the Dodgers, who desperately want that distribution. And also with distributors that we have relationships with in order to get that resolved.

Do you have any plans for expansion?

We’re a growth business. Sooner or later, growth businesses expand. Having said that, I do not have a timetable. It’s not a short-term project for us.

Two NFL teams are about to move. Baseball is the sport that has gone the longest since a franchise relocated. Are you nearing that situation with Tampa Bay or Oakland?

The Oakland A's and O.co Coliseum remain major issues. (AP)
The Oakland A's and O.co Coliseum remain major issues. (AP)

It remains my strong preference, because I think it’s a policy that has served baseball really well over time, to stay in the markets where we’re located. We’re going to exhaust every possibility to get stadiums done in Tampa Bay and Oakland. But clearly you would think I was sort of la-la if I didn’t recognize at some point in time it may be necessary to consider alternatives.

How soon?

Tampa just opened a chapter that could be really positive in that process, so I think it’s going to be some time there. I would say sort of the same thing on Oakland. I think the A’s are focused on Oakland as opposed to someplace outside of the immediate area. And as a result, it’s going to take some time for the process to play out.

Public reaction is such a big factor with social media, do you ever send test balloons out to see how an idea is gauged? I’m thinking in particular of you suggesting defensive shifts be banned.

I wish I could tell you I was smart enough that it was a test balloon. That was a mistake. And it’s a mistake I’ve tried not to repeat. Somebody took me down the hypothetical-question trail long enough that I said something I shouldn’t have. It’s a lesson learned. And to me the lesson is that our fans are passionate, and where they are the most passionate and are going to react the strongest isn’t if you say something about labor or broadcasting or cord-cutters. It’s about something that has to do with the play of the game on the field.

In that case, what do you think about the push from some corners for the designated hitter in the National League?

I was very surprised, the stories that were written. All I did was respond to a question about advantages and disadvantages and respond to a comment [Cardinals GM John Mozeliak] had made. My summation on that was: I don’t even know if it’s going to be a topic in bargaining. We seem to forget about this piece.

The current collective-bargaining agreement expires in December. Is there going to be a labor stoppage before the 2017 season?

I’m going to answer that one this way: I’m going to do everything humanly possible to make sure that doesn’t happen.

With the grand disparity that exists between the highest- and lowest-earning clubs, how does the league foster competitive balance?

It’s a continuing battle. What I’d say is the balance we’re seeing right now is a product of the fact that we made progress on the amateur-talent acquisition system last time at a point when young talent was becoming more and more important in the game. That’s not a panacea. You need another act. So we’re going to have to continue to be creative to find ways to accomplish that result.

Are you still as bullish on the international draft as you once were, even with the logistical nightmare people who work internationally think will come of it?

I am. One hundred percent. I just think you’ve got to follow the fundamentals on this one. Getting into a single method of entry into the industry will be the most effective in terms of promoting competitive balance.

Rachel Robinson [Jackie Robinson’s widow] said this week that more can be done in terms of “hiring” and “promotion” of minorities. Do you agree, and how, specifically, can you address that?

We have demonstrated, over time, a really strong commitment to making progress on this topic. We just announced a hiring in the commissioner’s office of Tyrone Brooks, who’s going to be focused full-time on this. And it’s like any other project: put some resources against it and keep after it.

With intellectual capital the greatest asset in the game these days, how large of a sin is it for one team to break into another’s computer and access its information?

I’m going to beg off on that one. I’ve got to make a decision there, so I’m going to pass on that one.

I have a Hall of Fame vote, and I vote for PED users. If you had a Hall of Fame vote, would you vote for PED users?

Like I said, I got in trouble with hypothetical questions Day 1, and I’m not going to do it again. The only thing that I will say – I have said this before and will continue to say it – is that the key in that question is PED users. Writers make their own judgments about people who have been proven to use PEDs. I think it is inordinately unfair for people to assume that those who were never proven to have used or tested positive were PED users because of silly things like the way they look. Because you and I both know you can’t decide who’s a user based on how someone looks.