NEW YORK — He was vilified and mocked from coast to coast.
Major League Baseball players openly chastised him. Frustrated fans solely 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 of the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox rivalry. Their season-opener, with Manfred scheduled to be in attendance, was postponed until Friday at Yankee Stadium.
“I have never anticipated a season as much as this one,’’ 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 ballpark is a really exciting thing for me.
“I can’t wait for this one to get going.’’
It has been a torturous three years for baseball, with the COVID pandemic shortening the 2020 season. The season was limited to just 60 games after Manfred finally implemented it after a nasty labor dispute. No fans were permitted in the 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 late June when all 30 ballparks were open to full capacity, with fans still living in fear of the unknown, and only two teams having an increase in attendance.
This year, the 99-day lockout shut down the sport again, with spring training delayed until March 13, and 3 ½ weeks later, ready or not, Opening Day is here.
“I’m thrilled we are going to be able to play a 162-game season,” Manfred said.
Manfred spoke to USA TODAY Sports this week from his New York office, addressing subjects on everything from rule changes, private meetings with veteran players, TV blackouts, ghost runners, criticism, and trying to grow the game to restore its image as America’s pastime.
The importance of a full season
“Look, I’m thrilled that we managed to get an agreement done so that we can play 162 games. I think given the way 2020 and 2021 went, with accommodations that had to be made for COVID and the short season, the notion of having a full 162 – with hopefully normal conditions – is really exciting for me. …
“I think it was really important to play 162. On one hand, you say, ‘Well, you only miss five or 10 games.’
“It’s just not a full baseball season without 162. It does cause competitive concerns, right? People wouldn’t have had common opponents. Some series couldn’t be made up at all. People would be deprived of their interleague series. So, I think it was really important.’’
Impact of the new CBA
“I’m anxious, and I’m curious as well. I think we’re starting to see that some of the things we tried to do worked already. It seems like they’re a lot of high-end prospects that are on Opening Day rosters. I think that’s a good thing in terms of fandom, and fans believing that people are doing everything they can to put the best players out there.’’
Dealing with criticism
“Look, I’ve been around the game for a long time. I’ve watched a number of people in the commissioner’s role and other sports. I think criticism comes with the job. I try to focus on doing the right things for the fans and the players and not worry about that too much.”
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Return of the ghost runner in extras
“In general, the extra-inning rule was popular with fans; that’s the first thing that pops in my head. Fans like the extra-inning rule. It’s not like you’ve gone to some hokey, it’s going to end on one play or something like that. But it does bring a sense of drama and a greater expectation when the game is going to end, and that’s a good thing for the sport overall.
“Secondly, I do believe the rule kind of promotes players’ safety and health in a way that’s important. Having people pitch when they’re not pitchers, that can be a problem, and leaving players out on the field too long, particularly if you happen to be playing a split doubleheader that day. We’re already asking athletes to play 162 games in 186 days in a normal season.’’
Sitdowns with veterans during spring training
“I’ve done 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 at it as the season goes along.
“I don’t want to do the substance. I know some players have talked about it a little bit, but I’d just as soon stay off that. We talked about trying to grow the game together, I think that’s a shared goal, and that’s really important. And really emphasize the significance of ongoing communication.’’
Fans questioning if he even likes baseball
“One of the seminal moments of my childhood was the summer of 1968. My parents brought me down from Rome [N.Y.]. We were big Yankee fans. We were big Mickey Mantle fans. We saw the Twins and the Yankees two days in a row. The first day Mantle hit two home runs, two solo shots, one from each side. They got beat 3-2 but it was a phenomenal day. We went back the second day, which was Old-Timers’ Day, and I figured the Yankees would win for sure that day. Mel Stottlemyre was pitching. He lasted like two innings [1 ⅔ innings] and they got beat 11-2.
“Thinking about my childhood years. That was the [Yankees’] Horace Clark, Jerry Kenney era, you know. If anyone doubts my fandom, they can look at some of those rosters, OK? Those family trips leave an impression on you. I remember my father telling me once we got into Yankee Stadium, we could have as many hot dogs as we wanted. My brother and I tried to make the best out of that, let me tell you. I don’t think my experience is all that unique, but it certainly made a big impression on me.’’
Injury concerns after a short spring training
“Obviously, we expanded the rosters [in April] to try to alleviate those concerns. I just think that on one hand, whenever you get players out of their routine, it’s a risk factor. …Whatever was going on from a bargaining perspective, I think it’s pretty clear that players did a hell of a job getting themselves ready to go.’’
Worries about attendance
“Look, all wide, entertainment options are curious about the bounce-back is going to be without any restrictions on attendance. But I think I have great faith in the product. People like going to live baseball and I think we’ll end up doing just fine.’’
Record free agent spending this winter
“I try not to focus on spending, whether it’s high or low. That’s a product of individual decisions that clubs make. I do think high-profile signings, with players like [Kris] Bryant being an example, going to smaller markets or clubs that haven’t historically been active in free agency is good for fans. It shows a commitment to try to win and generate some excitement in those markets.’’
“I think both payroll and revenue disparity are issues that we’re going to have to continue to work on as we move forward. The issues have been around long enough, I guess it’s unrealistic to think you’re going to fix them in any single round of bargaining. But they are issues that we’re going to need to continue to work on.’’
Rule changes for 2023
“I think the new rule provision is really important for the sport. I think we owe it to our fans to get the best form of the game on the field and in front of them as soon as we can get.
“Just two thoughts of perspective here. No. 1, other sports make rule changes and undo them, I don’t know why we have to be different. They make changes all of the time. No. 2, everything we talked about is directed and addressing organic changes that have taken place in the game, right?
“The game organically went from a 2 ½-hour game to being a 3:10 game. All we’re trying to do is put it back. Organically, the home run, the strikeout the walk, the three true outcomes, became much more dominant. The changes we’re talking about is reversing that trend. It’s like we’re talking about a radical alteration of the game for no reason.’’
How will shift restrictions work?
“We haven’t decided. Part of that is going to 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 on the skin [infield dirt], and the other one actually regulates people around second base. I’m not wedded to either one; I’m trying to get input and try to make the best changes.”
Balancing national, local TV streaming rights
“I do believe that we will. We see reach as our No. 1 priority. We want to deliver the game to as many fans as we possibly can. In some ways, if you keep your eye on the traditional linear model, and streaming as a way to expand your reach, you can do right by your fans.
“I can say to you unequivocally that our No. 1 focus is reach. We are spending a ton of time figuring out ways to break down barriers [particularly with the blackouts in Iowa and Nevada] and make sure that people can watch, what they want to watch, when they want to watch it.’’
Broadcast deal with Apple
“I think the way we see Apple TV is that it’s an entirely new platform where lots of people go as their primary entertainment option. It creates the potential for us to expand our reach over the long haul.’’
“It’s impossible for me to put a real timeframe on it because we do need to get Oakland and Tampa worked out first. But I remain of the view that getting to 32 [teams] would give us the ability to make really interesting changes in terms of schedule format that would be good for the fans and the players.’’
Potential for a neutral site World Series
“I just think it’s really hard 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’ve got to travel for several days, and seeing them in a neutral ballpark.’ It just seems unworkable to me.’’
His favorite opening day
“I went to St. Louis a couple of years ago, I thought opening day in St. Louis was pretty phenomenal, I got to tell you. When you’re driving in at 9 in the morning, and kegs and eggs are already in full swing, you know you’re in for a good day.’’
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB commissioner Rob Manfred ‘thrilled’ for 2022 after ugly offseason