Commentary

Rob Manfred isn't Bud Selig

Five ways the incoming commissioner can put his own stamp on MLB

Updated: August 29, 2014, 3:00 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

The next commissioner of baseball isn't going to spend the next 20 years trying to imitate the current commissioner of baseball, Mr. Allan H. (Bud) Selig.

Not that that would even be possible, of course. Even if the next commissioner was going to be Frank Caliendo, as opposed to Robert D. (Rob) Manfred Jr.

"I think Bud has a unique leadership style," Manfred said this week, two weeks after being elected to this exalted gig but five months before he'll actually assume office.

"And that style is based on the level of trust and confidence these owners have in him. So by necessity, I'm going to have to lead in a different way."

Hmmm. Smart man.

What Rob Manfred is facing may not quite be up there with Mantle following DiMaggio. But Bud Selig is leaving an imprint on his sport that's approximately the size of the Grand Canyon. So his successor already understands that his ticket to success -- both for himself and for his sport -- is to take his own road, not the Bud Selig Highway.

And what might that road look like? Sorry. Manfred isn't ready to say yet. Not while the current commissioner is still in office, touring ballparks, wearing out his office telephone and acting as engaged in his commish work as ever.

So painting a portrait of the Manfred administration is just going to have to be our job. And we can assure you that the leadership style of the next commissioner has a chance to be not merely "different" from the style of Bud Selig, but dramatically different.

In what ways, you ask? In just about every way, to be honest.

[+] EnlargeRob Manfred
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesNewly elected MLB commissioner Rob Manfred made an appearance at the Little League World Series.

We know because we've spent the past week talking to a number of people in the game who are devoted Manfred allies, some of them on the record, some of them off the record. Now it's time to give you a sneak preview of what figures to lie ahead, once the next commissioner of baseball gets that new nameplate on his office door:

He won't be Mr. Unanimous

Is there any doubt that Bud Selig was the greatest consensus-builder in baseball history? For two decades, every vote his owners took on any issue has turned out 30-0, or 28-0, or 26-0, depending on how many teams happened to be in existence at the time. Incredible. This man had a greater winning percentage than Lefty Grove.

But those days of 30-0? Based on the fierce debate at the owners meeting at which Manfred was elected, that era just might be over. And "is that a bad thing?" mused Dodgers president and CEO Stan Kasten. "I think not."

Well, we're with him all the way. Selig's ability to work a room and work the phones was legendary. And his ability not just to lead by consensus, but to create that consensus, was positively superhuman -- and made him "the perfect guy for his era," said Kasten, who has worked in baseball since 1986.

"But now," Kasten said, "we're at the beginning of a different era. And I think Rob is well-suited to lead us through that era."

Getting that many baseball owners to agree on anything was Selig's most amazing talent. But think about how liberating it can be for the next commissioner if he understands it isn't mandatory to spend every waking second digging for every last vote.

It means the next commissioner can lead with vision and, just as importantly, with speed. No issue, said one team official who didn't want to be quoted, "should take four or five years to solve." And if Manfred is willing to settle for a 25-5 vote, if that's what it takes to get the sport moving, most issues shouldn't drag on interminably anymore, right?

On the other hand, the end of the age of unanimity also creates the potential for crisis and chaos. These owners are used to Selig's masterful ability to win them over, no matter what the issue. So how will they react -- and how much havoc might they wreak -- if they constantly find themselves on the "wrong" side of those votes?

According to people who attended this month's owners meeting, Manfred actually spoke to that very scenario in his official presentation. He told the room, according to sources, that "it doesn't need to be 30-0 to be a positive for the industry." And he promised to reach out to those on the "losing" side to assure them their voices were still being heard. Nevertheless, this change still feels as if it could turn messy at some point.

"Change always comes with pain at the beginning," said Marlins president David Samson. "But one thing Rob is so good at is, he understands when the juice is worth the squeeze."

Reaching a new generation

We've already seen, just in the two weeks since his election, that the next commissioner is going to be a little more freewheeling than the man he's succeeding.

Rob Manfred has taken the ice-bucket challenge. He has dropped by the Little League World Series and chatted it up with fans, the ESPN crew and Mo'ne Davis. So he is giving us hints already that he's in tune with the vibrations of a generation baseball needs to connect with in a whole different way than it ever has before.

"Rob is very savvy on the tech side," said one of his biggest proponents, Yankees president Randy Levine. "He has young kids. He gets it."

None of this is meant to imply that Bud Selig ignored that generation or, say, banned technology. And we can round up 10 million folks who have downloaded their MLB.com At Bat apps to prove it. But the demographics still tell us, loud and clear, that baseball is skewing older at a time when the culture is skewing younger. And Manfred seems to have a clear understanding that that has to change.

"When people were able to watch our games on their cell phones, that was the biggest change in the history of this sport," said another club official who didn't want to be quoted. "Bigger than the wild card. Bigger than interleague play. Bigger than any of it. It's a younger world, and baseball has to get younger. We've got to adjust to the times. And I think Rob understands we have to do some things that are going to be uncomfortable to the old guard."

Such as ...

Picking up the pace

Friends of Manfred say he's determined to end baseball's most unfortunate streak: For the fifth straight season, the average major league game is going to take longer than it took the year before. Now it's time to do something about it.

It's impossible to predict every detail of how that's going to get fixed. But people within the game foresee measures like these:

• Enforcing rules that are already in the book: Don't bet on a formal pitch clock. But umpires can be empowered to keep pitchers working at a crisper pace, to push hitters to stay in the box and to combat excess dead time with no one on base.

• Toughening rules requiring hitters and pitchers to be ready to go following commercial breaks between innings. If the other sports can do that, why can't baseball?

• Tweaking the replay system to make it more efficient. It's a lock that we won't see another year of managers meandering around the infield, waiting for word on whether to challenge. It isn't certain, though, whether that means abandoning manager challenges altogether or just a new challenge system.

But beyond changes to address the time and pace of games, Manfred also seems motivated to address the whole ballpark experience. There are always going to be gaps between the action in baseball games, just the way there are always going to be huddles in football games. The challenge is filling those gaps in ways that will keep folks entertained and engaged.

Reach for the stars

If baseball wants to reverse its journey into the realm of "regional sports" and re-establish itself as America's game, it needs to let its stars shine -- the way Ruth and Mays and Mantle once did in this sport, the way Manning and Brady and LeBron do in other sports.

It can be done. But it's going to take a serious commitment -- from players, from coaching staffs, from front offices and from the commissioner's office -- to change this sport's culture and make it happen.

That means allowing more access. It means encouraging players to use social media in ways baseball players have rarely used it before. It means players stepping out of their comfort zones to immerse themselves in pop culture. And it means front offices softening their game-on, team-first, tunnel vision and permitting all that to happen.

To take those steps, it's going to require the commissioner's office and the players' union to work together and redefine both sides' definition of The Way It's Always Been. So "it doesn't hurt," said one club official, "that Rob is so well-respected by this union."

It's safe to say he's going to need all of that respect, if he's going to accomplish the things he most wants to accomplish, but most of all in the area of ...

Hard labor

We should never forget that Rob Manfred first got involved in baseball as a labor lawyer. But in his decade and a half as the owners' lead labor negotiator, he's demonstrated a quality that has served his sport well:

Deal-maker.

"I've worked in big markets, small markets and medium markets," Kasten said. "So I've had fights with Rob pretty much every week for 20 years. ... But one thing I've learned from that experience is that Rob is always focused on solutions. Rob is a really solution-oriented guy. And at the end of the day, his ability to put the game on a path to seek solutions is going to help a lot when the debate gets heated and unhappiness crops up [from those in the minority]."

Baseball's current labor deal expires in two years. It couldn't be more encouraging, if you're a fan of more labor peace, that the next commissioner has played such an essential role in baseball's two decades of current labor peace.

But if you were paying attention, you know the group of owners opposing Manfred's election was made up of hard-liners who want a tougher labor stance this time around. And some of the people who made up that group -- particularly Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox, Arte Moreno of the Angels and Paul Beeston of the Blue Jays -- have been among the game's most influential owners under Selig.

Under Selig, those voices were heard loud and clear -- not to mention often, because Selig seemed to draw on the same group of longtime owners over and over, on a wide variety of issues. But what's ahead is a very different era -- in which not just different voices, but all voices, are likely to be heard under the Manfred administration.

"I think Rob has three big strengths," said Levine, who, before joining the Yankees, worked alongside Manfred in negotiating baseball's 1996 labor deal. "One is that he's very smart. The second is that he's very patient, and open to listening to ideas from other people. And the third is that he's very good at fashioning solutions. So I think he'll be very democratic, in the sense that he'll listen to all the needs of all 30 clubs."

That won't happen only in crafting labor policy, obviously. It figures to mark Manfred's tenure in every way. He has expressed interest in engaging what Kasten described as "a whole new generation of owners who have ideas, who have a different perspective and who want to be included. And I think they will be included."

That word, "inclusive," has come up in many conversations about Manfred since his election. It isn't meant to imply that Selig wasn't inclusive, because any commissioner who could inspire that many 30-0 votes was clearly talking and listening to all his constituents.

But there's no doubt that many newer owners felt they didn't have the same influence that Selig's inner circle had. And under Manfred, at least initially, we'll see a commissioner who won't even have an inner circle.

In fact, owners quietly voted this month to disband the current "executive council" when Selig leaves office, and replace it with an entirely new group. Which frees Manfred to reorganize the commissioner's office, draw in more expertise from outside the game and empower a different level of debate than we've been used to under Selig.

"What Rob is especially good at," said Samson, "is understanding what has to happen, understanding ways to make it happen and understanding that he has to surround himself with people who can help make it happen. And I think that's very important to the future of the sport."

In 22 years under Bud Selig, baseball's business has boomed in a way it never had before. Wild cards, World Baseball Classics and spectacular new ballparks have sprung up all around us. And none of it could have happened without the leadership of the onetime owner of the Milwaukee Brewers.

But nothing lasts forever. Not even a Red Sox-Yankees game. So now we know there will be a new commissioner. And fortunately, Rob Manfred understands that while he can't promise life will be better when his time finally arrives, there is one thing he can absolutely guarantee:

It will never be the same.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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