Three takeaways from an intrigue-filled Thursday in our national pastime, as Rob Manfred was named the 10th commissioner in Major League Baseball history:
1. Bud Selig’s political skills haven’t gone into retirement
Selig is a master at the art of consensus building, and he used his influence to achieve what might be his last major victory in two prosperous decades as commissioner: The election of Manfred, his preferred candidate and longtime top lieutenant.
Publicly, Selig had little choice but to maintain neutrality. But particularly once Manfred moved to within one vote of the required 23, Selig helped the sport avoid what would have been a disastrous stalemate.
Not long before the ballot that ultimately established Manfred as the victor, Selig stood outside the meeting room talking with Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt (who led the succession committee) and Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino (a strong advocate for Manfred’s top challenger, Red Sox chairman Tom Werner). Selig also spoke with White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who opposed Manfred.
The ultimate result? A 30-0 vote in Manfred’s favor. Once Werner’s supporters knew they couldn’t block Manfred, they accepted the outcome with dignity, in a manner that should minimize rancor as the sport moves forward.
“While Rob may not have been my initial choice for commissioner, the conclusion of a very good process was to name Rob as the person best positioned to help baseball endure and grow even stronger for the next generation of fans,” Reinsdorf said in a statement.
At the news conference to formalize Manfred’s appointment, Manfred spoke of wanting to perform in a way that perpetuates Selig’s “great legacy.” It would be hard to classify the day as anything other than a triumph for Selig.
2. Manfred was a wise choice
MLB could surpass $9 billion in revenues in 2014, furthering an industry record that seems to climb higher each year. Labor peace has been assured through 2016, a span of 22 seasons. MLB’s national television rights agreements won’t expire until after the 2021 season.
If ever an election favored an establishment candidate, it was this one.
As San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer stated after the vote, the owners were looking for a strong CEO in the mold of the NFL’s Roger Goodell and NBA’s Adam Silver. Manfred, the league’s lead negotiator in the last three collective bargaining sessions with the players union, best matched that description.
“He, over the years, has engendered a lot of trust and a lot of confidence from the clubs, because he’s worked very closely with all 30 clubs on a whole lot of issues,” Baer said of Manfred. “In recent years, as COO, he’s been the go-to guy on a whole range of things. It’s not just been labor, what he came up through the game doing …
“A lot of people saw him as a guy who … gets to the office at 7 o’clock in the morning, and doesn’t turn in until the last item’s crossed off his list at 11:30 at night. That’s the kind of person we need.”
3. To be as successful as Selig, Manfred will need to govern the sport differently
While Manfred is tasked with extending the game’s period of growth under Selig, he won’t be able to do so by maintaining the status quo.
Ultimately, the owners’ occasionally contentious discussions served a noble purpose: They forced the candidates — and themselves — to confront concerns about baseball among contemporary sports consumers.
The game often moves too slowly, and baseball has lost young fans to other sports — particularly soccer, which fits neatly into two-hour blocks on kid-friendly Saturday and Sunday mornings in the Eastern time zone.
The notion of a “pitch clock” was mentioned during the owners’ conversations this week; old-school types are certain to cringe, but that’s precisely the sort of thing that Manfred will need to consider to ensure baseball’s viability to future generations.
“Folks see Rob as a person who can take where we are and jump-start it into new dimensions with new ideas, fresh ideas,” Baer said. “We have to figure out ways to make (baseball) relevant to that 12-year-old … We want to make baseball as relevant as possible to them — with their handheld, on television, getting more people playing the sport.
“Those are all big challenges. I think Rob sees all of those in his purview, and I think he’s ready to attack. In his presentations, he talked a lot about that.”
Of course, MLB’s hoped-for innovations — expanded marketing efforts, changes to playing rules, a greater number of games played overseas — will require approval from the MLB Players Association. Manfred, the owners hope, is well positioned to secure that compliance because of his productive dealings with the union over time.
MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said in a statement issued Thursday that he’s known Manfred personally for more than 15 years and looks forward to working closely with him. It was another encouraging sign on a good day for the sport, considering all the important work that lies ahead.