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For Love of the Game

Rob Manfred ’80—once a wide-eyed Little Leaguer who worshipped Mickey Mantle—is commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Field notes: Manfred speaks to the press during batting practice before Game 2 of the 2014 World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants.

Field notes: Manfred speaks to the press during batting practice before Game 2 of the 2014 World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants.

On Rob Manfred’s first trip to a Major League Baseball stadium, he didn’t just walk in; he sprinted. It was early August 1968. He was ten years old, and the Manfred family—mom, dad, three kids—piled into the Pontiac and drove 250 miles from their home in Rome, New York, to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. The moment when Manfred entered that baseball palace is etched into his memory: he pushed through the turnstile, ran ahead of his family, emerged from a tunnel, and caught his first glimpse of the diamond. “The green, the manicured field, the signage,” Manfred recalled in a recent chat with CAM. “It was like somebody opened a picture book.”

The fairy tale continued when Mickey Mantle—Manfred’s favorite player, limping through his final season—came to bat in the fourth inning. Mesmerized, the boy stared as Number 7 in pinstripes hobbled to the plate. Moments later Manfred heard the crack of the bat and watched a ball arc into the right- field bleachers—the 530th home run of Mantle’s career. For a wide-eyed kid, it was a movie moment—and it turned out to be a double feature. Five innings later, Mantle again dug his cleats into the batter’s box. This time, he hammered a pitch into the left-field grandstand for homer 531.

Manfred claims he feels much the same sense of wonder every time he sets foot in a big league ballpark. But nowadays, his visits often include a press conference. When the local media is done inquiring about the future of the game, a team representative will escort him to the Commissioner’s Box—usually front row seats next to the home dugout. And four dozen years after Manfred’s eyes followed the arc of his hero’s home runs, every official ball used in every game in every big league stadium is stamped with his signature: “Robert D. Manfred Jr.”

When Manfred took over as commissioner of baseball in January 2015, he joined an exclusive club. Only ten men have served as the game’s overseer since Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis accepted the newly created position in 1920, following the “Black Sox” scandal in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox were bribed to throw the World Series. Under the Major League Agreement that created Landis’s job, he was broadly empowered to “investigate, either upon complaint or upon his own initiative, an act, transaction, or practice, charged, alleged, or suspected to be detrimental to the best interest of the national game of baseball” and to take “any remedial, preventive, or punitive action” he deemed appropriate. His decisions would be final and could not be challenged by the teams in court.

Opening Day: Manfred (center) with Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond at the team's ballpark in April 2015.

Opening Day: Manfred (center) with Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond at the team’s ballpark in April 2015.

With the public having lost trust in baseball, the notion of a near-autocratic commissioner—tasked with cleaning up the game and providing sure-handed control—was largely celebrated in the media. The Kansas City Star called Landis, who would go on to serve twenty-four years, the “new dictator of baseball.” Baseball Magazine described him as having “the extraordinary prerogatives of a Czar, a Kaiser, and a Chinese Mandarin rolled into one.”

In the decades since, a commissioner’s legacy often has been tied to the most prominent decisions or events during his tenure. Happy Chandler opened the door, at long last, to racial integration. Bowie Kuhn presided over the arrival of free agency and subsequent skyrocketing salaries. Bart Giamatti banned all-time hit leader Pete Rose for violating the cardinal rule against betting on baseball. And Manfred’s predecessor and mentor, Bud Selig, will always be associated with the emergence of the steroid era.

Although the press and public often focus on dramatic long-term developments, the commissioner’s job actually consists of daily challenges. Chosen by a vote of the owners of Major League Baseball teams, the commissioner is chief executive of both MLB and Minor League Baseball. The Office of the Commissioner oversees everything from labor contract negotiation to the hiring of umpires. The role can require a delicate balancing act. As both judge and jury, the commissioner must recognize precedent while using contemporary context to determine punishment. As both guardian and guide, he keeps one eye on baseball’s much-touted tradition and the other on its much-needed transformation. Like a field manager, he must keep the peace (between multi-millionaire players and billionaire owners), formulate a leadership philosophy and a strategy to implement it, tweak when necessary, and react when the situation calls for it.

Consider, for instance, various events that unfolded during the months after Manfred signed a five-year commitment to serve as commissioner:

When Baltimore became mired in riots and racial conflict, the commissioner decided to shift a series between the Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays from Maryland to Florida. In a Major League first, to minimize safety concerns, he also allowed the Orioles to host a game against the White Sox in Baltimore’s Camden Yards—sans spectators. When two National League teams filled managerial positions with white men who lacked experience—without conducting formal interviews—Manfred stressed that MLB was committed to increasing minority hiring, particularly through a more comprehensive interviewing process. When a woman was struck in the head by a broken bat at Fenway Park, Manfred addressed issues of fan protection, including raising the possibility of installing additional netting in big league stadiums.

Play Ball!: Shortly after being elected commissioner, Manfred threw out the first pitch at the Little League Baseball World Series.

Play Ball!: Shortly after being elected commissioner, Manfred threw out the first pitch at the Little League Baseball World Series.

In 2013, as an MLB executive vice president, Manfred had played the lead role in determining that Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez should be suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs. As commissioner in spring 2015, he allowed Rodriguez’s return after a 162-game penalty, saying that everyone deserves a second chance. But redemption is a subjective notion, and Manfred has meted out punishments based on how much he believes the transgressor continues to represent a threat to the purity of the game. Most famously, when Pete Rose formally requested reinstatement, Manfred met with him and ultimately rejected his plea, saying he “has not presented credible evidence of a reconfigured life.”

Manfred is called upon to deal with a host of other issues as well. There are turf wars between franchises; the Oakland A’s need a new stadium and would like to move to San Jose, but the San Francisco Giants claim territorial rights. There are rumblings that MLB might expand beyond thirty franchises for the first time since 1998, with Manfred indicating the possibility of adding teams in Canada or Mexico. And there is the question of Cuba. Might normalized political relations lead to spring training games on the island nation?

Field of Dreams: Manfred with his childhood Little League team in Upstate New York; he's seated in the front row at the right edge of the bench, with a 'T' on his cap.

Field of Dreams: Manfred with his childhood Little League team in Upstate New York; he’s seated in the front row at the right edge of the bench, with a ‘T’ on his cap.

The commissioner must also address issues pertaining to the game on the field. The average number of runs scored per game is down dramatically in the majors, leading Manfred to consider boosting offense, perhaps by eliminating defensive shifts—in which a manager sets the infielders in non-

traditional positions according to where a specific batter tends to hit the ball—or by lowering the pitcher’s mound, which generally reduces a pitcher’s effectiveness. Meanwhile, games are longer than ever; in 2014, for the first time, they averaged more than three hours. New rules, including one mandating that hitters must keep one foot in the batter’s box between pitches, reduced game length slightly in 2015. But Manfred has talked of further speeding up the pace of play, possibly through the use of a pitch clock that’s already standard in some minor leagues.

At the top of Manfred’s to-do list, however, is the goal of growing the game through youth initiatives. As the first commissioner to have been a Little Leaguer himself, one of his first official acts was throwing out the opening pitch at its World Series. He created a new position—senior vice president for youth programs—and announced that MLB would dedicate $30 million to the development of youth baseball and softball in the U.S. He talked of making the game more accessible in underserved urban areas and of attracting young viewers by better integrating technology into the ballpark experience. “The mission before us is clear,” Manfred wrote in an open letter to fans upon assuming the top job. “To honor the game’s history while welcoming new people to our great sport—people who will one day pass their love of baseball down through the generations.”

When the new commissioner got his very first prototype MLB Rawlings baseball with “Robert D. Manfred Jr.” stamped on it, he presented it to his father on the occasion of his eighty-fifth birthday. Growing up, sports had been the fulcrum of the family, and Robert Senior—who had been a three-sport athlete in high school and had a passion for everything from playing cribbage to coaching basketball—set the tone. “We grew up in a house where it was always about competing in something,” says Manfred, who has been married to his wife, Colleen, for thirty-four years and has four grown kids of his own.

An executive for a copper and brass company that had been founded in 1801 by Paul Revere, Bob Manfred served as management negotiator during some particularly contentious labor strikes. The fathers of many of young Robbie Manfred’s classmates were among the millworkers on strike. “It was a tough union—and my mom was a unionized schoolteacher. So it was kind of a split house,” Manfred says with a laugh. It was also an early education about the balancing act—the push and pull of emotions and practicalities, relationships and priorities—that constitutes good-faith negotiation.

Duly inspired, Manfred enrolled in the ILR school as a junior after transferring from Le Moyne College in Syracuse. On the Hill, he was an immediate hit with Samuel Bacharach, a professor of labor management who still keeps in touch with him on a regular basis. In Manfred, Bacharach saw a sort of leadership version of what, in baseball, is known as a “five-tool player”—the rare person who can run, field, throw, maintain a high batting average, and hit home runs. “I train leaders all around the world, and he’s typical of some of the best I’ve seen,” says Bacharach. “He’s pragmatic; he’s politically savvy; he has people skills. And it’s all wrapped up with a good sense of values. I knew that he was going to succeed at something. Did I think he was going to be the commissioner of baseball? No. But I can see how he got there.”

Manfred earned a law degree at Harvard and joined a Manhattan firm that, in 1987, was hired to represent MLB during collective bargaining with the players’ union. For the league, it was a period of tremendous turmoil. In 1990, the owners agreed to compensate players $280 million after arbitrators concluded that they’d colluded to underpay stars and derail free agency. That same year, the players were locked out just before spring training—and Manfred was recruited to represent MLB in the negotiations that followed. Most dramatically, an August 1994 players’ strike led to the cancellation of the remainder of the season and the World Series. During the strike, Manfred served as outside counsel for the owners. In 1998, Manfred joined MLB full time as executive vice president of economics and league affairs. Over the next decade and a half, as Major League Baseball grew into a $9 billion industry, he played a role in negotiating deals on nearly every issue that shaped the game, from franchise sales and TV rights to revenue sharing and drug testing.

His law background has proved to be useful training. And indeed, of the four current major team sports commissioners, three—including the NHL’s Gary Bettman ’74—are lawyers. However, Manfred cites his ILR experience as a key to his success, particularly while serving as the league’s point man for a series of collective bargaining agreements. “I was well trained in how to get ready to bargain—not only collectively bargain, but negotiate generally, and I am very rigorous to this day about that kind of preparation,” Manfred explained in a 2013 interview with the ILR school. “Previously, the clubs viewed each contract negotiation as an opportunity to solve all their problems. My goal was to impart to the clubs that collective bargaining is an incremental process.” MLB hasn’t had a labor disruption in two decades—which many attribute, in large part, to Manfred’s acumen. As Pittsburgh Pirates president Frank Coonelly has said: “I told anyone who asked me—and even people who didn’t—that Rob was the creative mind behind changing the labor relations history of Major League Baseball. We went from having the poorest labor relations of any sport to a sport that has a very productive, professional relationship with its players’ association. And much of the credit for that goes to Rob.”

Still, when it came time to choose a new commissioner, there was disagreement within baseball’s inner circle—the thirty franchise owners who voted on the successor to Selig, who’d held the job since 1992. In August 2014, Manfred had to sweat out the first contested commissioner election since the Sixties. After two ballots, Boston Red Sox chairman Tom Werner withdrew his candidacy. On the third, Manfred was a unanimous choice.

Now, one of his principal jobs is to keep those owners happy. Just hours after Manfred’s election, Jesse Spector of the Sporting News reminded readers that the role of commissioner has evolved from its original concept. “The fact is, commissioners aren’t what they used to be. Judge Landis ain’t walking through that door,” he wrote. “The commissioner still has plenty of power, but only so long as he acts in accordance with the desires of his bosses, the owners.” And if the ownership groups aren’t satisfied with the person whom they’ve elected as their representative—as they weren’t with commissioner Fay Vincent in 1992—they can replace him. After a no-confidence vote from the owners, Vincent was forced to resign.

Early on, Manfred made some decisions to shake things up a bit, on issues of varying gravity—from reorganizing baseball’s various ownership committees to switching the Manhattan restaurant where ownership meetings were held. And while the latter may sound picayune, even the most minor change can be fraught: Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports has compared overseeing thirty egocentric owners to “tethering grade-schoolers on a field trip to the planetarium.” The now-defunct ESPN sports blog “Grantland,” by contrast, offered a considerably less whimsical vision of Manfred’s role: it observed that he “specializes in the Machiavellian aspects of running an organization that relies on uneasy alliances between powerful bosses.” So one might be tempted to describe the job as part consigliere and part Kindergarten Cop—but Manfred shrugs off both characterizations. “I’m not saying [the owners] agree with each other or with me on every topic,” he says, “but the overall dynamic in this group has been cooperative and supportive.”

Manfred has been described—by team owners, law colleagues, and sportswriters—as creative and brilliant, patient when the situation calls for it and tenacious when he has to be. He prides himself on cultivating relationships that move his agenda forward. And that agenda is largely focused on maintaining what Manfred believes is a special connection between American culture and baseball—the narrative of the national pastime, told in nine-inning increments. “I think each and every game of ours is a story of its own,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons why baseball is so captivating.”

One of those tales is illustrated by a photo hanging on the wall in Manfred’s midtown Manhattan office, showing a group of grinning kids in Little League uniforms. It’s Manfred’s favorite story, and he usually begins it with a bit of foreshadowing: “Did you ever notice I don’t have the greatest teeth in the world?”

On the fateful day in question nearly a half-century ago, Manfred was riding his bike toward his hometown’s Little League field. Suddenly, one of his cleats, which were draped over the bike’s handlebars, lodged in the spokes of the front wheel. The wheel jammed, the bike pitched forward, and Manfred went flying. The accident knocked out his two front teeth. He raced home, and his mother rushed him to the dentist for some emergency repair. She was concerned about his mangled mouth; he was worried about making it to the game on time—and somehow, he did.

From his position at shortstop, Manfred watched his team’s pitcher confound batter after batter. By the time the final opposing player stepped up to the plate, not a single runner had been allowed on base; no hits, no walks, no errors. History—at least in the annals of Rome Little League—was on the line. When the batter lofted a fly ball above the infield, Manfred peered skyward, revealing a fresh gash on his chin, and waited for the ball to land in his glove. When it did, and the umpire called the final out, a scrum of twelve-year-olds piled atop each other in jubilation. It was the moment when Manfred experienced, first-hand, baseball’s potential to be—quite literally—a perfect game.

Next to the photo in Manfred’s office is a framed piece of paper—the team roster from that game all those years ago. The commissioner of baseball notes that even now, he can rattle off the names by heart.