Chicago Trib: Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred inspires confidence in future of game

By David Haugh — Not that Chicagoans would blame him, but Commissioner Rob Manfred didn’t spend Thursday in town working out logistics for a potential Red Line World Series.

“If I told you that hadn’t crossed my mind, you’d say they need to get somebody else to do this job,” Manfred kidded at U.S. Cellular Field before the White Sox-Red Sox game on a beautiful, historic night for baseball.

With the Cubs playing host to the Nationals eight miles north at Wrigley Field, it marked the first time four first-place teams had played in the same city on the same day, according to STATS. Manfred made no secret how thrilled he would be if the Cubs and Sox stayed atop the standings so he can return in October to witness more history.

“There is no doubt our largest markets, when they’re successful, are good for our overall business,” he said.

Baseball fantasy aside, Manfred addressed the reality of baseball’s aggressive drugtesting program that already has suspended six offenders in 2016, most notably Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon. An ESPN report that the league will suspend a player after detecting Turinabol, a steroid linked to 1970s East German athletes, suggests how sophisticated MLB’s system has become.

“We have made improvements in terms of lengthening the windows of detection (and) the science is getting a little better,” Manfred said.

Here’s the rub for Manfred, a common-sense communicator: The more advanced baseball’s testing for performance-enhancing drugs gets, the more embarrassment his sport risks as players learn the hard way. But Manfred understood the road to deterrence will contain its share of bumps.

“We’re always disappointed when a player makes a bad decision,” Manfred said. “Having said that, we think we’re doing the right thing by protecting the integrity of the sport.”

In his second season replacing Bud Selig, Manfred came across as a guy you want to buy a beer in the bleachers. His words possessed more candor than pretense. Unlike commissioner counterparts Gary Bettman in the NHL and Roger Goodell in the NFL, Manfred showed an ability to relate to how real people think, such as when he claimed baseball fans care about PED violations more than fans in other sports.

“Quite frankly, I embrace that higher standard,” Manfred said. “It drives me. It drives us to be the best we possibly can be to prevent the use of performance-enhancing drugs.”

Asked about Jake Arrieta openly addressing rumors of PED use, Manfred felt driven to take a swing at supporting the Cubs’ ace. And he connected.

“A player being put in a position where he has to defend himself against allegations that have absolutely no basis is a real unfortunate circumstance,” Manfred said. “What I’ve learned about PEDs, you can’t tell who’s using based on personal appearance or outstanding performance. They’re just not accurate predictors. If somebody is using (PEDs), our testing program is one sure way of knowing that’s happening.”

Regarding other happenings in baseball, Manfred anticipated a Friday announcement on the status of the upcoming Pirates-Marlins series in Puerto Rico in jeopardy because of the Zika virus. Manfred proudly called the spring-training game in Cuba “baseball at its best,” and reiterated hope Cuban players eventually can come to the United States freely and without damaging their country’s baseball-obsessed culture.

The commissioner chuckled dismissing the tanking issue, pointing out that two of the “alleged tankers” woke up Thursday with records above .500. He applauded league recommended changes made in protective netting fueled by “fundamental concern about fan safety” but acknowledged hearing more from fans who prefer the game without the nets.

What came most refreshing was Manfred’s willingness to see the need for improvement and compromise in certain aspects of his game, an open mind never assumed in sports executives so powerful. On the need for MLB to catch up to other leagues in social media to engage young fans — which is why the commissioner posted a live Facebook video Tuesday and sponsored Snapchat day in spring training — Manfred welcomed the nudge.

“You can criticize us for being a little slow in that regard,” he said.

On improving the pace of the play, which improved by six minutes per game last season, Manfred sounded unwilling to offer bad weather as an excuse.

“We’d like to see it a little better than it has been,” he said of the pace.

But the moment Manfred most humanized himself came when he admitted enjoying Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista’s bat flip in Game 5 of last year’s Divisional Series. It came up in the context of Manfred agreeing, generally, with Nationals star Bryce Harper’s stated desire to let baseball’s new wave of brash young players freely determine what is and isn’t acceptable.

“This generation of players, just like generations before, are going to define what the unwritten rules are on the field,” Manfred said. “This generation should have the right to do that and probably going to make a little different judgment … but I’m 100 percent confident that whatever judgment they make will be respectful of the game.”

With respect to the game, Manfred has given the league reason to have just as much confidence in his own judgment.

You can read this online here.