For more than 20 years, Bud Selig served as the commissioner of Major League Baseball. But this season, there’s a new sheriff in town. After working for MLB since 1987, New York-native Rob Manfred became MLB’s 10th commissioner in January. And going into his first season he has some big issues to address in his first season, from improving pace of play to integrating new technology in the game.
But his top priority? Make baseball more appealing to kids. Despite exciting young players like Andrew McCutchen, Mike Trout, and Yasiel Puig, young people aren’t watching or playing baseball like they used to. Commissioner Manfred wants to change that. Kid Reporter Amiri Tulloch sat down with the commish at MLB’s New York headquarters to talk about how Manfred hopes to bring kids back to baseball.
How have your first few weeks as commissioner been?
It’s been a really exciting time for me. I’ve had a chance to do some really interesting things. I visited the Washington Nationals Urban Youth Academy – really an impressive undertaking, a great spot for kids. I’ve been down to the Dominican Republic for the Latino Hall of Fame induction, which was also a great event. Five great players were inducted. And I got to go to Arizona for Spring Training on Monday and Tuesday, which is always a great way to start your week, so it’s been really fun.
You’ve worked with Major League Baseball before taking on the top job. Has anything taken you by surprise in your new role as commissioner?
I had a pretty good understanding of what the role would be like. The one thing I have been surprised by is the level of interest in what I’m doing and thinking about for the game. I think it’s a great endorsement for how strong our bond is with our fans. There’s no such thing as an off-hand comment. Whatever you say, someone has something to say about it.
What’s the best piece of advice that you received before your tenure began?
The best piece of advice I got was from my wife. She said you’re the commissioner now. You have to be your own man and do what you think is right. I’ve tried to think about that every morning in terms of what my priorities are for that day.
You’ve stated that one of your top priorities as commissioner was to bring kids back to the game of baseball. Was there a point in the past few years where Major League Baseball noticed that young people were not as interested in the game as they used to be?
This has been an evolving problem for us. It’s an issue the industry has discussed for some time. I’m looking for an umbrella approach to youth. I want to have inner-city programs. I want to have programs that reach out in the suburbs. I want to reach African American kids, I want to reach white kids. I want to reach boys and I want to reach girls. I want an umbrella approach to it, and I think that’s a shift in focus.
Are you interested in getting kids to play baseball or just watch it?
Both. It is important for our sport that kids play because that gets them interested in the game and they’re more likely to be fans. But it’s also important to get them in the ballpark. Our ballpark experience is a family-friendly experience that the sooner a young person engages in it, the more likely he is to be a fan for his whole life.
Why is getting kids more interested in baseball so important to you?
First, our product is compelling when you have the best athletes on the field. In order to have the best athletes on the field in the major leagues, you need to have a big pipeline at the 8-year-old level that narrows itself down as they work their way through the system. And then, on the fan side, our research shows the two biggest determinants of fan avidity are did you play as a kid? And how old were you when your parents took you to the ballpark for the first time?
What’s the biggest challenge to getting kids to play and enjoy baseball?
I think the biggest challenge is the options that are available to them today. When I was a kid, you played baseball. That’s what you did. It was the spring sport. But today, the fastest growing activity among young people is nothing. That’s a reflection of them being involved with electronics and non-sporting activities. That’s part of the biggest challenge.
How do to overcome that?
We’re looking at a variety of different programs. We have some that involve a variety of particular communities where the opportunity to play baseball is not readily available. Like our RBI program, which drives baseball in the inner cities. Urban Youth academies would also fall into that program. We’re also looking at more broad-based things that don’t necessarily involve nine players on each team and a full-sized baseball field. Smaller activities that engage with part of the game is a big deal. And then there is going to be an in-park component to the program in terms of ticket initiatives and subsidized tickets.
You mentioned the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program. What appeals the most to you about that?
I’s designed to serve communities where there are not a lot of baseball opportunities. I think we need to make a special effort in communities of that type because, given the history of our game, the significance of Jackie Robinson, not just to baseball but to the history of the United States, baseball, I think, has a special obligation in that area.
What are some of the ideas besides the RBI program that you’ve discussed or have thought of to develop infrastructure in those inner city or urban areas?
We have a joint initiative with the MLB Players Association called the Baseball Tomorrow Fund, and it focuses almost exclusively on infrastructure. We’ve spent more than $10 million on fields in areas mostly that are economically disadvantaged. At each and every All-Star Game, it’s become tradition that we build a field in one of the underprivileged areas [of the host city]. So we have a number of different programs to try to develop infrastructure to try to meet needs in that area.
Some people have argued that the reason why some kids may not be interested in playing baseball is that they have a better chance getting a college scholarship playing football or basketball. Is that something you’ve noticed?
We are concerned about the scholarship issues, not so much with respect to mass participation, but we are concerned about it in terms of making sure we’re attracting the very best athletes. We’ve had some conversations with the NCAA about strengthening baseball. We believe that as part of the overall initiative on young people participating, it’s important for us to fully engage with the NCAA and do everything we can to strengthen college baseball.
What encourages you the most about these kid-focused programs, not in the just inner city but across the nation?
First of all, the appeal of – there’s a natural appeal to working with young people. It’s an exciting opportunity for the sport. I think some of the initiatives we have literally have the potential to change young people’s lives – not just to get them playing baseball – but to change the type of people they become over the long haul. The potential for payback on a project of this type is massive. And it’s crucial to maintaining one of baseball’s most important traditions. Baseball has always been a generational game. I became a fan because my parents drove me down from upstate New York and took me to Yankee Stadium when I was 10 years old. We need to make sure with projects like we’ve been talking about that parents continue to pass the game on to young people.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Photos: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated (Manfred), Alex Goolett/Getty Images (fans)