Manfred: Youth initiatives essential for game
Little League Classic a great chance for MLB players to interact with kids
CHICAGO -- Rob Manfred's first public appearance as Commissioner-elect in 2014 was at the Little League World Series -- a visit that symbolized the priority he planned to place on youth participation in baseball and softball.
Three years later, it's not just Manfred getting ready to head to Williamsport, Pa., but the entire active rosters of the Pirates and Cardinals, who will play Sunday night's MLB Little League Classic at Historic Bowman Field in front of a crowd made up primarily of Little Leaguers and their families. Prior to the game, the big leaguers will be greeted by the Little Leaguers upon their arrival at Williamsport Regional Airport, and the big leaguers will attend games and interact with their younger counterparts during a visit to the Little League International Complex and Lamade Stadium.
Manfred views Sunday's game, which will be broadcast nationally on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" and ESPN Radio at 7 p.m. ET, as a continuation of the effort to grow the sport among kids.
"I'm really excited to go back to Williamsport," Manfred said Thursday, at the conclusion of MLB's Owners Meetings. "I think Williamsport is a part of baseball. Broadly defined, it's a part of Americana. The opportunity to see our players interact with young people playing the game is going to be a great visual for Major League Baseball going forward."
The Little League Classic will be the first of many interesting visuals attached to the upcoming Players Weekend, where players will don nontraditional, youth league-inspired uniforms with brighter colors, nicknames on their backs and patches honoring those who assisted with their development.
• Players Weekend gear available at MLBShop.com
The Pirates and Cardinals will be the first two clubs to wear the special uniforms before every club wears them on the actual Players Weekend, which takes place Aug. 25-27.
"I think it is part of our effort to give fans more access, more insight into our players," Manfred said of Players Weekend. "A little informality for a weekend will provide fans with that sort of access. I think it's an important marketing initiative for us."
The Little League Classic and Players Weekend are an intertwined outcome of a broader goal, including the 2015 launch of the Play Ball initiative. The unified front attached to that goal will be on display in Williamsport. Manfred, MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark and chief baseball officer Joe Torre will be among the dignitaries in attendance for the Little League Classic. Additionally, the umpires working the game will visit Play Ball Park, with crew chief Gerry Davis even working the first two innings of a 2 p.m. game at Lamade Stadium.
Here are the other topics Manfred addressed as the quarterly Owners Meetings wrapped:
The Marlins sale
Manfred said the group led by Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter has presented the necessary documentation of the equity stack for the $1.2 billion purchase of the Marlins and that MLB is at the beginning of the approval process, which is expected to take several weeks. If approved, Jeter is expected to handle the day-to-day operations of the club.
"Derek has been absolutely determined in this process," Manfred said. "He's also been successful at anything he's tried to do."
Electronic strike zone
Though this has been a subject of increased conversation in light of some recent comments from the Cubs' Benjamin Zobrist, Manfred does not feel the technology is yet to the point of possible adoption. And he is leery of removing the human element even if/when the technology gets to that point.
"It would be a pretty fundamental change in the game to take away a function that has been performed by our umpiring staff, really with phenomenal accuracy," Manfred said. "The fact of the matter is they get them right well over 90 percent of the time. And there is a human aspect to that, a work aspect to it that's always been an important part of our game. I don't think you can just jump to the conclusion that if you have the technology to do it that's the right thing for your product."
Joe West's suspension
West was suspended for three games recently for comments he made to USA Today about Adrian Beltre being the game's "biggest complainer." The World Umpires Association protested the suspension. Manfred drew the line between suspending an umpire for public comments about a player and suspending a player for public comments about an umpire (such as Ian Kinsler's remarks about Angel Hernandez earlier this week).
"It is not unusual after a very competitive event for a player to say something we don't think is helpful over the long term," Manfred said. "We have always dealt with those by player discipline, fines. I see the umpire thing differently. Umpires have to be beyond reproach on the topic of impartiality. That's why there are really specific rules in the Basic Agreement about public comment."
Manfred said he was surprised by the reaction to the suspension from umpire's union because he and West had agreed to it as an "appropriate discipline."
Bryce Harper's injury last Saturday sparked conversations about the hard composition of the bases. Manfred said the league is looking into the matter.
"You have to look at the bigger picture before you make a decision," he said.
Pace of play
This remains a focal point for Manfred, and he met with Clark and a group of players to discuss it last week. Without revealing specifics, Manfred said he expects "significant" changes for 2018.
"We want to have changes in place [early in the offseason] so they can be processed with the normal offseason calendar," Manfred said.