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Manfred proud of game's balance, growth

Rise of clubs with savvy front offices among positive shifts in recent seasons

CHICAGO -- He presides over a game in which 11 American League teams are either in line to reach the postseason or within 4 1/2 games of a berth.

There's a dazzling rookie class -- Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant, Noah Syndergaard and a long list of others -- and an amazing generation of 25-and-under talent, from Mike Trout and Jason Heyward to Sonny Gray and Gerrit Cole, to name a few.

Major League Baseball attendance may top 75 million for just the fourth time in history. Meanwhile, local television ratings are booming.

Competitive balance? If the season ended today, six of the top nine teams as measured by payroll would miss the playoffs. The ability to spend money will always matter. But smarts and good decisions matter, too.

Four of the top 10 clubs in terms of payroll would make the playoffs if the season ended today. So would three teams from the bottom 10.

And that's the state of Major League Baseball that Commissioner Rob Manfred addressed on Thursday afternoon when the quarterly Owners Meetings ended.

"I could not be more positive about the state of the game," Manfred said. "We could not be more pleased."

Manfred took office in January with an ambitious agenda that included technological growth, additional youth initiatives and continued vigilance regarding diversity issues.

Manfred reshaped the Commissioner's Office to streamline the business operation under Bob Bowman, who helped build Major League Baseball Advanced Media into a game-changing success.

Manfred asked Tony Pettiti, formerly in charge of MLB Network, to focus on improving the product on the field. And so the venture that will be known as BAM Tech, one of Bowman's enterprises at MLBAM, has grown so meaningfully that it will be spun into a standalone company.

Meanwhile, Pettiti's changes to the Home Run Derby, focusing on the event's pace and format, drew widespread praise.

Once upon a time, the Owners Meetings needed to overcome tension as the game endured various issues. These days, baseball is enjoying an impressive era of peace and prosperity.

"The All-Star Game gave us a tremendous boost," Manfred said. "The activity surrounding the Trade Deadline was unbelievable. [MLB] Network had some of its highest-rated days ever. People really focused on the game and pushing to the end of the season.

"Our online activities at all-time highs. We're up over 1.5 points, in terms of attendance. We have one market getting 12 local ratings -- Kansas City. Just a phenomenal number.

"The state of the game is driven by the fact that we have really good competitive balance, excitement in a lot of markets. I would be remiss if I didn't say competitive balance in no small measure is due to the work that my predecessor did."

Creating an economic model that allowed every franchise to compete had been Bud Selig's first priority when he became Commissioner 23 years ago.

But Manfred arrived at the job with his own ambitious agenda to continue the growth and innovation.

"We've made tremendous change internally," Manfred said. "I think the unification of our business operations under Bob Bowman has made a tremendous difference in terms of how we interact sponsors, our broadcast partners.

"I think our game presentation [is thriving], really, largely, due to Tony Pettiti and his focus on how our game looks on our national platforms, with changes like the Home Run Derby, changes like starting the games at the same time on the last day of the season.

"We're trying to add luster to the face of our game, and I think we've made really good progress. And it's really only been seven months we're actually in charge."

To sum up, there has never been a better time to be a baseball fan. From close races to dynamic stars to the ability to enjoy the sport in an assortment of different ways, this is as good as it has been.

This week's Meetings were not a milestone of any kind. They were simply a chance to update and discuss -- and to reflect on how good we as fans have it.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.