NEW YORK — He was vilified and mocked from coast to coast.
Major League Baseball players openly reprimanded him. Frustrated fans just blamed him. He was a living piñata for the media.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred might have been the most hated man in all of sports during that 99-day lockout.
Here we are, with Opening Day arriving a week late on Thursday, and a day even later for the latest chapter in the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox rivalry. His season opener, with Manfred in attendance, was postponed until Friday at Yankee Stadium.
“I’ve never looked forward to a season like this,” Manfred told USA TODAY Sports in a wide-ranging interview. “I think given the last two seasons, the idea of having normal, unrestricted fans in the stadium is a really exciting thing for me.
“I can’t wait for this one to go live.”
It’s been a torturous three years for baseball, with the COVID pandemic cutting the 2020 season short. The season was limited to just 60 games after Manfred finally implemented it following a nasty labor dispute. No fans were allowed in ballparks during the regular season, with only restricted seating during the NLCS and World Series in Texas.
They played 162 games in 2021, but it wasn’t until the end of June that all 30 ballparks were open to capacity, with fans still living in fear of the unknown and only two teams seeing an increase in attendance.
This year, the 99-day lockout shut down the sport again, with spring training pushed back to March 13, and 3 1/2 weeks later, ready or not, Opening Day is here.
“I’m delighted that we can play a 162-game season,” Manfred said.
Manfred spoke to USA TODAY Sports this week from his New York office, addressing topics ranging from rule changes, private meetings with veteran players, television blackouts, ghost running backs, criticism and trying to grow the game to restore its image as America’s pastime.
The importance of a full season
“Look, I’m delighted that we’ve managed to come to an agreement so that we can play 162 games. I think given the way 2020 and 2021 have gone, with the adaptations that had to be made for COVID and the short season, the idea of having a full 162, with normal conditions, is really exciting for me. …
“I think it was very important to play 162. On the one hand, you say, ‘Well, you only miss five or 10 games.’
“It just isn’t a full season of baseball without 162. It causes competitive concerns, right? People wouldn’t have had ordinary opponents. Some series couldn’t be invented at all. People would be deprived of their interleague series. So, I think It was really important.”
Impact of the new CBA
“I am anxious, and I am also curious. I think we’re starting to see that some of the things we tried to do have already worked. It sounds like that’s a lot of high-end prospects on Opening Day rosters. I think that’s a good thing in terms of fandom, and the fans believe that people are doing everything they can to get the best players out.”
dealing with criticism
“Look, I’ve been in the game for a long time. I have seen several people in the role of commissioner and other sports. I think criticism comes with the job. I try to focus on doing the right thing for the fans and the players and not worry too much about it.”
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The return of the ghost runner in extras
“In general, the extra inning rule was popular with fans; that’s the first thing that comes to my mind. Fans like the extra inning rule. It’s not like you went to a hokey, it’s going to end up in a play or something. But it brings a sense of drama and heightened anticipation when the game is going to end, and that’s a good thing for the sport as a whole.
“Secondly, I think the rule promotes player safety and health in a way that is important. Getting people to pitch when they’re not pitching, that can be a problem, and leaving players on the field too long, especially if you’re going to play a split doubleheader that day. We are already asking athletes to play 162 games in 186 days in a normal season.”
Sitting down with veterans during spring training
“I have made five teams [the Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago White Sox, Colorado Rockies and Kansas City Royals] so far, and I’m going to try to keep it up as the season goes on.
“I don’t want to do the substance. I know some players have talked about it a bit, but I’d rather not. We talked about trying to grow the game together, I think it’s a shared goal and that’s really important. And really emphasize the importance of ongoing communication.”
Fans question if he even likes baseball.
“One of the fundamental moments of my childhood was the summer of 1968. My parents brought me from Rome [N.Y.]. We were big Yankees fans. We were big fans of Mickey Mantle. We saw the Twins and the Yankees two days in a row. The first day Mantle hit two home runs, two solo homers, one from each side. They beat them 3-2 but it was a phenomenal day. We came back on the second day, which was Veterans Day, and I figured the Yankees would win for sure that day. Mel Stottlemyre was pitching. Hard as two innings [1 ⅔ innings] and they beat them 11-2.
“Thinking back to my childhood years. That was the [Yankees’] Horace Clark, the Jerry Kenney era, you know. If anyone doubts my hobby, you can look at some of those lists, okay? Those family trips leave a mark on you. I remember my father telling me that once we got to Yankee Stadium, we could eat as many hot dogs as we wanted. My brother and I try to make the best of it, let me tell you. I don’t think my experience is that unique, but it certainly made a big impression on me.”
Injury concerns after brief spring training
“Obviously, we expanded the lists [in April] to try to alleviate those concerns. I just think that on the one hand, any time you take players out of their routine, it’s a risk factor. … Whatever was going on from a negotiation perspective, I think it’s pretty clear that the players did a great job getting ready to play.”
“Look, all the entertainment options are curious that the recovery will be without restrictions on attendance. But I think I have a lot of faith in the product. People like to go to live baseball and I think we’ll finish well.”
Free agent spending record this winter
“I try not to focus on spending, whether it’s high or low. That is the product of individual decisions made by the clubs. I think high-profile signings, with players like [Kris] Bryant is an example, going to smaller markets or clubs that haven’t historically been active in free agency is good for the fans. It shows a commitment to trying to win and generating excitement in those markets.”
“I think both payroll and income disparity are issues that we’re going to have to continue to work on as we go forward. The problems have been around for long enough, I guess it’s unrealistic to think you’ll fix them in one round of negotiation. But these are issues that we are going to have to continue working on.”
Rule changes for 2023
“I think the provision of the new rule is really important for the sport. I think we owe it to our fans to get the best game form on the field and in front of them as soon as we can.
“Just two perspective thoughts here. No. 1, other sports make rule changes and undo them, I don’t know why we have to be any different. They make changes all the time. No. 2, everything we talk about is targeted and addresses organic changes that have taken place in the game, right?
“Organically, the game went from being a 2 1/2 hour game to being a 3:10 game. All we’re trying to do is put it back. Organically, the home run, strikeout and walk, the three true outcomes, became much more dominant. The changes we are talking about is reversing that trend. It’s like we’re talking about radically altering the game for no reason.”
How will shift restrictions work?
“We have not decided. Part of that will be the conversations that take place with the players and the context of the new competition committee. There are two versions of the rule: One foot in the skin [infield dirt], and the other actually regulates people around second base. I am not married to either of them; I’m trying to get information and try to make the best changes.”
Balancing local and national TV broadcast rights
“I think we will. We see outreach as our number one priority. We want to bring the game to as many fans as we can. Somehow, if you keep your eye on the traditional linear model and streaming as a way to expand your reach, you can do well with your fans.
“I can tell you unequivocally that our number one focus is outreach. We’re spending a lot of time figuring out ways to break down barriers. [particularly with the blackouts in Iowa and Nevada] and make sure people can see what they want to see, when they want to see it.”
Transmission agreement with Apple
“I think the way we look at Apple TV is that it’s a whole new platform that a lot of people are turning to as their main entertainment option. It creates the potential for us to expand our reach in the long term.”
“It’s impossible for me to put a real time frame because we need to figure out Oakland and Tampa first. But I’m still of the opinion that reaching 32 [teams] It would give us the possibility to make really interesting changes in terms of the calendar format that would be good for the fans and the players.”
Potential for a neutral World Series site
“I just think it’s very difficult in our sport to ask fans to come 81 times a year and then say, ‘If you want to see your team in the World Series, you have to travel several days and see them in a neutral ballpark. It just seems impractical to me.”
Your favorite opening day
“I went to St. Louis a couple of years ago, I thought opening day in St. Louis was pretty phenomenal, I have to tell you. When you’re driving by at 9am and the barrels and eggs are already in full swing, you know you’re in for a good day.”