Seattle Mariners

Commissioner Rob Manfred visits Seattle, addresses possible expansion, changes in game play, fan safety

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred was on site at T-Mobile Park on Tuesday afternoon, and spoke with the local media about a variety of topics, including increasing netting in stadiums to protect fans, expansion plans, and the possibility of Seattle getting another All-Star game, among others. Here are some highlights from his press conference.

An ongoing conversation about fan safety was heightened again last week, when a foul ball hit by Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. struck a young fan sitting along the third-base line at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

Protective netting was extended to at least the end of the dugout in each of the 30 stadiums in 2018, but baseball fans have questioned whether that’s enough.

“In the last four years, we have changed our recommendations to the clubs over time, and to their credit, the clubs have met and exceeded those recommendations in terms of the amount of netting that’s in our ballparks today,” Manfred said. “It’s been a very significant change. Safety is a priority. Whenever you have an incident like the one mentioned, I do think it will spur additional conversation.”

Manfred said that conversation will largely take place during the offseason, due to the “structural issues” of trying to make changes to the netting during the season.

He said some teams have already opted to extend netting beyond the dugout in the past, but others have stopped there. Seattle’s netting cuts off at the end of the Mariners’ and visitor’s dugouts.

“There is a balance here,” Manfred said. “We do have fans that are vocal about the fact that they don’t want to sit behind nets. I think that we have struck the balance in favor of fan safety so far, and I think we will continue to do that going forward.”

Manfred was asked about how MLB is approaching the inactivity during games — with home runs, strikeouts and walks all trending up — and said it will be an “ongoing process” to continue to make improvements.

“We believe we have the greatest game in the world,” Manfred said. “But like every great institution, the game has changed. It’s changed in response to innovation by individual clubs in an effort to win more games. I think it’s our job at the league level to manage that change in a way we produce the best possible entertainment product for our fans.

“That’s going to be an ongoing process. I don’t think it detracts from the fact that people love our game. They love it in its various iterations. That’s not inconsistent with the idea we should continue to try to manage it to make it better.”

He said he doesn’t theink the lack of in-game activity is cyclical, and needs to be given the necessary attention.

“I think it’s incumbent upon us to manage the changes in the way the game is being played, with a goal toward producing a little more action on the field, and making sure the entertainment product we’re putting out there is as competitive as possible,” Manfred said.

He noted several of the experiments MLB is trying in the independent Atlantic League this season, which could alter pace of play and impact other characteristics of the game, are going well.

“Positive about a number of the early experiments that are going on,” Manfred said. “I think the automated strike zone, the way it’s been structured, is a positive as opposed to substituting for an umpire, assisting an umpire. I think that is a really good concept for us moving forward. The technology has formed really phenomenally well, as well as the technology. People told me it was going to, and probably better than I expected it to.”

Could an expansion be coming soon? Manfred told Baseball America last month he envisions baseball as a “growth industry,” that could one day hold 32 teams. But, before the league adds, Manfred noted the importance of needing to complete stadium projects in Oakland and Tampa Bay.

“Expansion is a topic that the owners will give consideration to at the point in time that the Oakland and Tampa situations have been resolved,” Manfred said. “It is a credit to the popularity of the sport and a positive that cities want Major League Baseball. We understand that. We appreciate that.

“When we’re in a position to consider seriously whether we want to go from 30 to 32, we will undertake that situation. Right now our focus is making sure we have 30 strong franchises.”

Manfred spoke to the situation involving both the A’s and Rays’ franchises.

“I think that Oakland has made a lot of progress,” he said. “I think the identification of the Howard Terminal site as their preferred site is an important step forward. I think the progress they’ve made with respect to the possibility of development at the Coliseum site is also important, given that the availability of public funding in the state of California is going to be very, very limited.

“There has to be a way finance what’s going to be a very expensive build. So I do think they’ve made progress. This is a difficult, difficult undertaking at this point in the history of the state of California. It’s very different than it was two decades ago. They’ve shown a true commitment to the city of Oakland in terms of trying to get it done.

“Tampa has also made some progress. I think there are cards to be played in Tampa still, in terms of deciding where in the Tampa Bay area is the very best place for a stadium to go. So, they’re probably a little behind where Oakland is.”

The league last expanded in 1998, when the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays became the 29th and 30th MLB teams.

Portland has been considered as a possible expansion market that would give the Pacific Northwest two franchises, and Manfred said the situation in Oregon is one he monitors.

“There are a variety of cities that have expressed interest in having Major League Baseball, and we monitor what’s going on,” he said. “We try to communicate with people when they reach out to us so that they have a realistic understanding of where we are in terms of the expansion process.”

Seattle hasn’t hosted an All-Star game since 2001. Could the city get another shot in the coming years?

“The way the process works is that the club expresses an interest, and actually submits a bid,” Manfred said. “Usually we have multiple bids for a particular year. Let me pick a random number, but once you are in the 18-plus-year category since you’ve had a game, when the club comes forward to make a bid, they would be in the category that gets active consideration.”

Manfred said Seattle has not made a bid for an upcoming All-Star game as of yet.

Cleveland will host this season’s game, Los Angeles will host in 2020, Atlanta in 2021 and Philadelphia in 2026.

Lauren Smith covers the Seattle Mariners for The News Tribune. She previously covered high school sports at TNT and The Olympian, beginning in 2015. She is a graduate of the University of Washington and Emerald Ridge High School.