Inside baseball: MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred ’83 on rules, rulings and marketing ‘the American pastime’

Manfred and Klarman

Credit: Lorin Granger Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred ’83 (left) visited HLS on February 2 for a conversation moderated by Professor Michael Klarman.

Major League Baseball Spring Training begins later this month, kicking off the second season that Rob Manfred ’83 will serve as MLB commissioner. Manfred, who became the 10th commissioner last year, graduated from HLS with magna cum laude honors and has kept his ties with the school, including staying involved with the Sports Law Clinic and earlier this month participating in a Q-and-A with Professor Michael Klarman (video below). Manfred spoke with Harvard Law Today reporter Jonathan Topaz ’18 about his time at HLS and some pressing issues facing the MLB, including pace-of-play rules, its brand-new domestic violence policy, and the upcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations.

Harvard Law Today: You graduated in 1983, and have stayed involved with the Sports Law Clinic, and the CSEL [Committee on Sports and Entertainment Law] Symposium. I’m curious what those experiences have meant to you, and what your time at Harvard Law meant to you.

Rob Manfred: Well, I feel that my time at Harvard Law School opened doors for me, from a career perspective, that turned out to be really, really important, in terms of my overall development. And I have tried over the years to stay involved with the law school because of the sort of debt that I feel, and the fondness that I have for the institution. I think it is a small thing to ask for alums to come back and speak to students about their careers and their experiences. And I feel it’s an important part of the overall education that you get at the law school.

Any particularly formative experiences at the law school, in terms of your ultimate career with Major League Baseball?

RM: I think probably the most memorable thing is, I did have the opportunity to take labor law from Archibald Cox. I thought I wanted to work in the labor relations area. By the time I had Professor Cox, he was well known, or better known as a constitutional scholar, but he had his roots in labor law, and I think it really convinced me that it was an area that I wanted to focus on.

The league is about to come out with its first rulings as part of its brand-new domestic violence policy. There are some big names [under MLB review]: Aroldis Chapman, Jose Reyes, Yasiel Puig. What are the league’s criteria for determining whether there will be suspensions, and when are those decisions going to come down?

RM: Let me take those one at a time. The policy provides that discipline has to be imposed pursuant to the standard just-cause provision that’s common in most labor agreements. Obviously, we’re going to look at a variety of issues, including whether or not there’s a criminal conviction, although that’s not outcome-determinative, the nature of the conduct involved, and all of the facts and circumstances surrounding each individual situation.

And in terms of the timing?

RM: I would hope to deal with all three cases before Opening Day. The fact of the matter is the timing in these cases is partially driven by the criminal process. Obviously, information is a lot easier to get from law-enforcement authorities once the criminal process has run its course. So we’re a little hamstrung. We’re a little at the mercy of the timing of the criminal process, in at least one of the cases.

Moving on to pace-of-play rules: I’ve seen reports that there are two particular proposals that are being batted around — decreasing the time during pitching changes, and 20 fewer seconds between innings. What do you think about the likelihood of those being implemented for the season? And will the league continue to look at solutions to reduce the time of games?

RM: Let me start backward on that one. I think time of game is the type of issue that we need to remain constantly vigilant on. Each year I think it’s important to examine where we are, and see whether additional measures can be undertaken to make sure that we have the type of pace of game that we’re looking for. We’re currently in discussions with the Players Association about what exactly the pace-of-game program’s going to look like for next year, so I don’t want to comment on specifics. I will tell you I fully expect that there will be new, additional measures undertaken this year.

I want to talk about the DH issue, which has come up a bit recently in the media. What’s your stance on the DH? And do you expect to see any changes being either proposed or undertaken as part of the upcoming CBA [collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union]?

RM: I have said throughout the last year that my view on the DH is that the current arrangement is actually a good one for baseball. It causes a lot of debate, and when people are talking about baseball I think it’s a good thing for the game. More importantly, the leagues are very important competitive devices for us, right? I mean, the whole structure of our competition leading up to the World Series is focused on the leagues. And now that we’ve eliminated the league offices, per se, and just have a single Major League Baseball, the principal differentiator between the American League and the National League is whether or not they have the DH. And I think that differentiator’s important to us, from a competitive perspective.

The new CBA expires in December. Is revenue sharing going to be the biggest issue in the upcoming negotiations? And how confident are you that there will not be a work stoppage?

RM: I don’t talk about collective bargaining issues—what’s going to be important, what’s going to not be important. I will say this: Our revenue-sharing is well embedded in our economics. I don’t think it’s going to be a particularly controversial topic. And I know that we’re going to work really hard, as we have the last three times around, to make sure that we get a deal without an interruption.

Major League Baseball is looking into whether to raise the strike zone. I’ve seen some data analysis that suggests that the lowering of the strike zone might be responsible for the increase in strikeouts that we’ve seen in recent years and some of the recent downturn in offense. Is that why the league is looking into potentially raising the strike zone?

RM: You know, it’s actually more empirical than that. The fact of the matter is that in response to the valuation system that we have today, the umpires are calling a more uniform, and actually correct strike zone, as the rules are written. As that trend has become more pronounced, the strike zone has actually moved down, and the discussion is whether we will make a correction in the way the rule is written.

Strikeouts have increased dramatically in recent years, whether because of the bigger strike zone, greater bullpen specialization, or increased velocity. Is the increased number of strikeouts in baseball something that you worry about?

RM: We pay a lot of attention to trends in the game—how much offense we have, how dominant our pitchers are. These things tend to ebb and flow. We are very reluctant to make adjustments in the game based on a limited amount of data, but we do pay very close attention to those trends.

You played a key role in the [New York Yankees DH] Alex Rodriguez [performance-enhancing drugs] investigation that led to his yearlong suspension. Obviously, he came back last year, and had a successful season. Are you happy with the precedent being set regarding his yearlong suspension?

RM: I think that the Rodriguez case was important, from a precedent perspective, in that we demonstrated that even without a positive drug test, we had the investigative capacity to impose discipline, and serious discipline, and defend that discipline in an arbitration. So, yeah, I do feel it’s a good precedent.

He’s 13 home runs away from 700 for his career. He hit 33 last year. So it seems, possible—likely—that he might reach 700 this season, assuming he stays healthy. Is Major League Baseball planning anything to commemorate that, if and when it happens?

RM: What I would say to you about that is in general we have recognized record-setting performances. We don’t have anything special for a milestone like 700. Where we have focused is when you’ve had a player that actually breaks a record.

The Cubs last year were criticized by some in the media for keeping Kris Bryant down at Triple-A for a couple weeks, to keep him under team control. That spurred debate about manipulation of service time rules. I’m curious what your thoughts are on that debate—whether you think it’s a fair one to have, and Major League Baseball’s role in that debate.  

RM: Look, certainly, people are free to raise the issue. The fact of the matter is we have certain rules in the basic agreement that are collectively bargained. And, clubs all recognize, everybody understands that clubs have the right to manage service time. It’s been going on for years. I don’t think there’s anything particularly different about the Kris Bryant situation. But, as I said, we have a seniority-based system, and clubs manage that system in order to maximize their ability to field a competitive club over the long haul.

There’s so much young talent around baseball right now—Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Carlos Correa, Bryant, and others. It does seem, at least anecdotally, that Major League Baseball is lagging a bit behind the NBA, which does so well in marketing people like Steph Curry and LeBron James, who’s probably the most famous athlete in the world. Do you agree with that assessment, and if so, how is Major League Baseball trying to catch up in terms of marketing of those young players?

RM: Well, I think baseball does face a challenge with respect to marketing and we also have some great assets. On the asset side, you’re correct. There has never been—certainly in the time I’ve been involved in baseball, so a long time—a group of young players as dynamic and exciting as the guys we have coming in. They really are an amazing group, and it presents a great opportunity. I think the challenge that baseball faces is that our sport does not leave a lot of time for marketing activities during the playing season. We play 162 times in 183 days. A lot of those 21 days are consumed by travel, so they’re not really off days. And with that schedule, it is difficult for players to devote the kind of time to either social media or traditional marketing efforts. We are working hard with players in order to help them engage in these activities in the most efficient and scalable manner so that we build their brand and build our brand in the process.

The TV numbers suggest that baseball is behind both the NFL and the NBA nationally, but really successful in local markets. It has led to some in the media suggesting that baseball has become something of a regional sport, where people follow their own teams very closely but don’t follow the league as a whole. Do you agree with that? And is that something you are worried about, or is that something you’re proud of?

RM: I think that our strength in the individual local markets is a testament to the value that baseball is still the American pastime. I think it’s really hard to compare—let me take the extremes—a sport where teams play once a week to a sport where teams play six times a week. By definition, the engagement of fans with those two wildly different products is going to look different. In terms of reach, I think that it’s a mistake to focus just on television ratings. Remember, 74 million people a year come to see Major League Baseball live, another 41 million go to see Minor League Baseball live; and that’s more than football, basketball, and hockey put together. Seven million times a day during the season, fans open [the Major League Baseball app] At Bat, and engage with our product through our online activities. It’s difficult to compare across sports because the products are different. And just focusing on television ratings, I think, is really just a part of the picture.

A few rapid-fire questions. We’ll see if you can answer any of these. I know some might be more difficult than others. Do you have a favorite stadium?

RM: If I had to pick one, I’d probably pick PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

What’s more fun as commissioner, World Series or Opening Day?

RM: Oh, different kinds of fun. That’s a tough one. I would say World Series just because it’s a culmination of what I regard to be a great season-long competition, test of endurance. And [winning] remains one of the greatest accomplishments in sports; winning the World Series.

Do you have a favorite game that you have attended?

RM: Oh, my favorite game remains my first one. August 1968 in Yankee Stadium. Mickey Mantle hit two homeruns, one from each side of the plate. It’s the last time he did it in his career. The Yankees lost 3-2.

And your favorite game as commissioner?

RM: Oh, gosh, you know, I would have to say the Kansas City [Royals] comeback in the playoffs [2014 American League Wild Card game, when the Royals won the game in 12 innings after being down four runs in the 8th inning.] That was a pretty good one. I had been elected, I wasn’t commissioner yet, though. You know, that’s a tough one. I’m going to pass on that one. [Laughs]

Can you give us any early favorites for Cy Young, MVP, or pennant winners?

RM: I think predictions by commissioners are unseemly. I’m going to pass on that one as well. [Laughs]

I figured you would. A one-sentence piece of advice to Harvard Law students?

RM: I think the best advice that I can give Harvard Law students is to become the best, and most technically competent lawyer that you can possibly become, because that competence will open great doors for you as you move forward.


VIDEO: On Tuesday February 2, Manfred visited HLS for a wide-ranging conversation and Q&A, moderated by Professor Michael Klarman.