In the final week of the regular season, as teams jockeyed for postseason invitations and playoff seedings, Rob Manfred headed to Mexico.
The commissioner is looking abroad to find baseball’s next great growth markets. In 2016, Major League Baseball will open an office in Mexico City and play World Baseball Classic games in Mexicali, with exhibition games in Culiacan next year or soon after. If all goes well, MLB could consider an expansion team for Mexico.
On Monday, Manfred was back in his office in New York, awaiting the first postseason in his tenure as commissioner. In an interview with Los Angeles Times national baseball reporter Bill Shaikin, Manfred discussed a variety of topics, including the postseason format, expansion, minority hiring, the Dodgers’ television blackout, and why the league considers fantasy sports integral to building its fan base.
This is a full transcript of the interview, slightly edited for clarity:
The Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs finished with the second-best and third-best records in MLB, and yet one of those teams will be eliminated from the postseason after one game. Since the wild card was introduced in 1995, never before have the second-place and third-place teams also had the second-best and third-best records in the league. Would you consider revising the playoff format to seed teams by their record, regardless of division, or do you view this season as a historical blip?
I think it is a mistake to set or adjust your playoff format based on the outcome in a particular year. I think you should establish your playoff format based on fundamental incentives that you want in your system. The fundamentals for us in the current format are No. 1, you’ve got to play your tail off to win your division because it’s a huge advantage; No. 2, the two wild-card spots keep more teams in contention right through the end of the season, and you saw that with Anaheim, Texas, Houston and the Yankees; and No. 3, I think the one-game play-in disadvantages wild cards appropriately, without putting division winners at a disadvantage of too long a layoff. Because I think those three fundamental incentives are good, I don’t worry too much about who won and who lost in particular numbers this year. I think the incentives in the system are really sound, fundamentally.
Many managers have said they would like to reconsider the rule that allows teams to have as many as 40 players active for every game in September, since not every team has the same number of players in every game. Would you?
I think that will be a topic with the players’ association in 2016. I don’t see a change pre-CBA. [The collective bargaining agreement expires Dec. 1, 2016.] Most people don’t know, but we did have really extensive conversations on this topic the last time around. We came closer to making a deal than you might imagine. We just didn’t quite get there, more because of uneven footing on our side than anything else. I expect that it will be a big topic. I do think there is a competitive issue, but I also think it’s a time-of-game issue for us. When you give the fraternity of managers more arms, it leads to more pitching changes, which leads to longer games.
You made it a priority to try to quicken games. How do you assess the first season?
I’m pleased with where we ended up on pace of game. Our game time was down six minutes. That’s a good outcome. Baby steps. I believe pace of game will be an ongoing challenge for this sport. We’re going to talk hard about some other changes. Obviously, we’ve got to deal with [union chief] Tony Clark and the players’ association, but those are conversations we will have in this off-season, and I’m sure it’s going to be a 2016 topic.
In double A and triple A, where the players’ association has no say, you used a 20-second pitch clock. Four Dodgers who played in the major leagues and minor leagues this season said the pitch clock worked well in the minors but probably would not work in the majors. Do you buy that?
I really don’t. We keep track of the time in between pitches, and that data suggests that it is a workable possibility at the major league level. Obviously, we’re going to have to deal with Tony and the players. I know there is some sentiment about it. But I also don’t think the 20-second clock is the be-all and end-all with respect to pace of game. There are other things that can be done as well. [He declined to discuss any of those things before he could do so with the union.]
On Aug. 13, you announced that MLB had retained an executive search firm to help candidates for “key baseball operations positions” prepare for their interviews. At the time, you said: “We are proudly a sport of inclusion, and we must continue to pursue and develop more opportunities for minorities and women.” Since then, the Angels, Milwaukee Brewers and Seattle Mariners have hired white men to be their general manager; the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians and Oakland Athletics have promoted white men; and the Boston Red Sox have hired two white men and promoted another. Are you concerned about what might appear to be a lack of response from the clubs?
I think clubs hire the individuals they feel are most qualified for the positions. I don’t regard that to be a blip in any system. With the exception of [the Red Sox hiring president of baseball operations] Dave Dombrowski – and I saw that as a unique set of circumstances – I think that the minority interviewing requirement has been fulfilled. We will continue to enforce that requirement. We are also working very hard to develop a strong pipeline of diverse candidates and to improve the interviewing skills of existing minority candidates so that, hopefully, clubs will make a decision in the future that someone of color is the best available candidate.
So is it proper to view this initiative as a long-term project as opposed to a this-year project?
Yeah. Let’s remember: there are certain legal restrictions on how you hire people. I don’t think, legally or in terms of the overall health of the business, we would want to be in any position other than telling the clubs to hire the best available candidates. We’re going to work hard to make sure we have a diverse group so that someone there can qualify as one of those best available candidates. I think you have to have some patience on this project, as far as looking to achieve a particular outcome, because the results in this area are the part of individual decisions by clubs. That is how it should be.
In January, when you took office, you said: “There has not been a lot of talk about expansion.” You have talked about it recently. What has changed?
My comments about expansion more recently relate to a long-term view that baseball is a growth sport. I talked about this topic in Mexico last week. I said we need to walk, have some successful spring-training exhibition games down here. We then need to run, we need to have some successful regular-season games down here. And then ultimately we need to sprint, which in my view would involve an expansion into that market. But that is a long-term proposition.
Do you want, or have the owners asked you, to do any kind of feasibility studies or solicitation of applications to see what expansion opportunities might be feasible?
The owners have not asked me to undertake any particular process with respect to the issue of expansion. I have, however, talked to them at some length about how I see expansion and why I am talking about it. And I believe them to be supportive of my comments.
On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear San Jose’s appeal of its lawsuit against MLB. You had said you would not hold any discussions with San Jose about its interest in building a ballpark for the Athletics so long as the city was suing the league. Now that the suit is done, would you talk with San Jose, or do you want the A’s to stay in Oakland?
I want the A’s to stay in Oakland. It’s a very fundamental policy of baseball. We favor franchise stability. I think it is possible to get a stadium done in Oakland, and that remains my preference.
For two full seasons now, a majority of Dodgers fans have not been able to see their team on television. You have said the league cannot do anything about the situation, but at what point does the league consider this a black eye for the franchise, especially given how successful the team has been?
I’m not sure I quite said there is nothing we can do about it. Fundamentally, this is a dispute between the owner of those rights – Time Warner, who has an obligation to get distribution – and the [cable and satellite operators]. We are really concerned about having an iconic franchise like the Dodgers, who happen to be playing very well, only available in, what, 30% of the market? We would like to get to full distribution and have expressed our views on this topic to all the relevant parties.
So is there something you can do it about it? MLB does business with DirecTV on league-wide broadcast packages. Could you offer DirecTV an incentive that might persuade them to carry the Dodgers?
No. I wouldn’t do that. I can’t horse-trade 30-club assets to help one team get distribution. It is fundamentally a dispute that is outside our control, but we certainly have weighed in, in terms of our desire to get this resolved.
At the root of the dispute – and the Dodgers are not the first team to have their games blacked out in this way – is that cable and satellite distributors are reluctant to raise rates for fear that subscribers will cancel their service entirely. You don’t need a cable or satellite subscription to watch TV any more. How worrisome is that for you, given the substantial percentage of revenue clubs get from the local cable television contracts?
I think the market in L.A. has been particularly difficult, with the fragmentation of the RSNs [regional sports networks]. I think the ability to pass on additional costs to consumers is a concern. But I think the RSN business is a fundamentally sound business. Occasionally, there are going to be blips in terms of getting distribution. This is not the first one, and it probably will not be the last one. But the fundamentals of the RSN business, the strength of live sports programming, remains solid.
You have said you are committed to making a decision on Pete Rose’s application for reinstatement by the end of the year. Your predecessor, Bud Selig, let the Rose matter linger for years without a decision. Why is it important to you to resolve this?
I just think it’s a good business practice that, when somebody puts something as formal as a request for reinstatement in front of you, that you deal with it in a timely fashion.
Are you committed to a public explanation of your decision?
Yes. Given the level of interest in this, the reality is that the decision will be made public.
The Rose situation is a reminder that gambling is baseball’s cardinal sin. For years, the league has disassociated itself from former players working on behalf of casinos. And yet the league has a prominent deal with DraftKings, with advertisements during games, even as you forbid players in those games from playing fantasy baseball. This looks like a huge disconnect. Why isn’t it?
With respect to the player rule, there is a difference between players and fans, on a whole variety of topics. It is a privilege to play Major League Baseball. With it comes certain responsibilities that are different than for the individual walking down the street. We do not believe that fantasy participation is gambling. We do believe that it is an important source of fan engagement, and has been for years and years. From our perspective, there is a huge difference between Fred Munch betting on the outcome of the Dodgers-Mets game, or the Dodgers-Mets series, and Fred Munch within the context of an artificial salary cap, picking nine guys from 22 different teams and seeing whether he can accumulate more points than some other person. It’s just different things. The latter creates a lot less risk with respect to the integrity of the game, and it is a way that fans can connect with the game.
In 22 years under Selig, baseball’s annual revenue rose from $1 billion to $9 billion. Is MLB going to hit $10 billion this year?
I think it’s going to be close. I don’t want to predict yes and not get there, but I think it’s going to be close.
Would the NHL deal [for MLB’s technology arm to run the NHL’s Internet operations] get you over the top?
The NHL deal won’t hit in the 2015 financials, so no. If we get there, it will be sans NHL.
So does it seem like a good time for the baseball business?
We feel good about where we are. We are very excited about the postseason. We think we’ve got a great mix of markets. There are worse things in the world than a Mets-Dodgers division series. We’re ready to go.
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter: @BillShaikin