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Youth is served: Manfred encourages kids to Play Ball

A former Little League graduate, baseball's new commissioner Rob Manfred pledged his commitment to youth involvement in the game as soon as he took office in January. Since then, he's shown a passion for growing MLB's fanbase all over the world, and in June he launched the Play Ball initiative to get kids involved in the sport in all capacities.

"Kids have more options than ever before," Manfred said, "and we need to be competitive in the youth space. It is a great opportunity for us."

With his first season now in the books, Manfred spoke to about his new role, and the importance of making baseball accessible to everyone.

Youth baseball is one of your major initiatives. Why do you think encouraging young people to play is so important?
Our goals revolve around children and getting more of them involved in our game as players and as fans. If we get them to play the game and into our ballparks early, then there is a great likelihood that we will have lifelong fans. Our programs aim to facilitate those objectives. We have many initiatives that give kids the chance to play in their communities.

In the years ahead, I think we'll become more efficient at helping the major youth organizations that focus on baseball and softball. We are working with those organizations very closely because there needs to be a spirit of partnership between all of us.

How do you think new technology and social media have impacted youth involvement in recent years?
Social media is an important way in which people communicate and engage, and I think of this issue under the umbrella of accessibility. Fans want to get as close to our sport as possible, and that kind of interest is a great thing for us. I have emphasized to our clubs and players alike that we need to be accessible and meet the expectations of fans.

We can also have a lot of fun in this area. We have a world-class technology company in MLB Advanced Media, and through all the exciting initiatives they have undertaken, we have a great vehicle through which we can strengthen the bonds that fans -- particularly young fans -- feel with baseball.

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How much do you think fantasy baseball contributes to kids' involvement in the game, as well?
MLB is aiming to find more ways to inspire children's passion for baseball. If kids are interested in fantasy baseball and stats, they could be on track to becoming passionate, lifelong fans. That's exactly what we want to achieve. If tracking batting average or ERA helps kids build some fundamental skills, then we welcome all of those practical applications.

Many of MLB's biggest stars -- Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Andrew McCutchen, Paul Goldschmidt and Clayton Kershaw -- are under the age of 30. What does that say about the state of the game?
We have an incredible wave of young players in the game today. All of those players combine world-class athleticism with advanced baseball skills. What strikes me is that most of them have worn only one uniform during their careers and have signed long-term contracts, which is an outstanding development. On top of that, these are all young men who have been worthy of emulation. And I believe their best is yet to come.

You are the first Little League graduate to become commissioner. Did you ever dream of playing in the Majors rather than being MLB's Commissioner?
My idol as a kid was Mickey Mantle. Let's just say that I was always realistic about my chances of succeeding him in center field at Yankee Stadium. Even though I was aware of my limitations on the field, I still loved the game. I think many people are in that boat, and it is one of the great things about our sport.

Your Little League exploits are now well documented. Could you share with us the story about how you flipped over your bike's handlebars on the way to a game?
It was certainly my most memorable day as a Little Leaguer. On my way to the game, I fell from my bike and knocked my front teeth out. I had my cleats on the handlebars of the bike tied together. One of the cleats got caught in the front wheel, and I went over the top of the bike.

I was lucky that I had left for the game early, because I had enough time to get some stitches and go to the dentist to be patched up. Sure enough, I got to the game and played shortstop alongside my brother at third base. Our pitcher, who is still a good friend of mine, threw a perfect game, and I was lucky enough to catch the last out. It was an amazing set of circumstances. I won't ever forget it.

This year, the Little League World Series saw record attendance numbers and last year, you attended the game as Commissioner-elect. Tell us about that experience.
I had a fantastic time in Williamsport last August. That trip helped put into even better focus many of the goals that I wanted to set. The Little League World Series is such a fabric of that community. We were shown amazing hospitality, and I enjoyed seeing Little League's operation at work. It doesn't get better than seeing so many happy kids involved in our game.

What's your favorite part of attending a ballgame?
Baseball is the game of families. It's a game that my parents taught my siblings and me. It has been a game that my wife and I have shared with our four kids. A day at the ballpark is a great and timeless form of family entertainment. That's a powerful idea. Many things have changed, but the essence of baseball has not, and I think that is why our game endures and continues to thrive.

Mike McCormick is the editorial director for Major League Baseball Properties.