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Exclusive: MLB chief Rob Manfred discusses a possible playoff bubble in L.A. and more

UPDATED: Fri., Aug. 28, 2020

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said a postseason bubble is still a possibility.  (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said a postseason bubble is still a possibility. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)
By Bill Shaikin Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Dodgers have the best record in the major leagues. In a normal year, that would earn them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. In this pandemic year, they might not play a single postseason home game.

To maximize the chances to complete four rounds of postseason play without a coronavirus outbreak or shutdown, the league office and the players’ union are discussing a playoff bubble.

With the warm October weather in Southern California, Dodger Stadium would be a natural part of a postseason bubble. Even in a season without fans, however, the league is wary of a scenario in which a team plays every game of a series in its home ballpark.

In the new first round – a best-of-three – the games were scheduled to be played at the home field of the higher seed. That plan might now be secondary to the priority for players to be isolated in one or more locations during postseason play.

“Safety is the paramount issue,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said in an exclusive interview with The Los Angeles Times. “We are very cognizant of the home-field advantage issue. We’re cognizant of it with respect to the new round of playoffs. And we’re cognizant of the need to avoid a league championship series site or a World Series site where one of the participating team gets to play all the games at home.”

Manfred said the league had not settled on whether the bubble would be used for the entirety of the postseason. He acknowledged that the league and union have discussed one bubble in Southern California and another in Texas, but he said no decisions on location have been finalized.

“It may turn out to be those two,” he said. “We haven’t decided yet. We’ve had government officials from other jurisdictions call and say, ‘Hey, we can do X, Y and Z for you if you do it here.’ ”

Manfred spoke about several issues, including the definition of success for the 2020 season, the length of the season, the lessons of playing through a pandemic, negotiations to eliminate more than three dozen minor league teams, blackout rules that frustrate fans, and his reputation among fans. Oh, and his emails.

The interview was conducted before NBA players – and later Major League Baseball players – chose not to play games Wednesday, in protest of continued police brutality and racial injustice. The interview has been lightly edited.

Q: On the eve of what was the originally scheduled opening day, you went on television and said, “We will be part of the recovery, the healing in this country, from this particular pandemic.” Now that you have been playing for a month, what have you seen and heard … about the role baseball has played in helping America recover from the pandemic?

Manfred: I have had literally thousands of emails from fans about the importance of baseball in their daily lives, given the circumstances that we continue to deal with in this country. I admit I have a transparent email, but you have to go look for it, at least. A lot of people have gone out of their way to express that view, an extraordinary number.

Q: If fans find your email, do you answer them?

M: I try to. I get a lot of requests to send signed things. The other ones, I try to respond to.

Q: What, at this point, is your definition of a successful 2020 season?

M: I think I would define a successful 2020 season if we make it all the way through the playoffs and manage to hand the World Series trophy to some lucky owner.

Q: In the interest of playing as many games as possible and giving fans something to watch all summer, the owners had proposed schedules of as many as 82 games. Yet, after you imposed a 60-game season, you told Dan Patrick, “The reality is, we weren’t going to play more than 60 games no matter how the negotiations with the players went.” Can you reconcile those statements?

M: Every proposal that we made on a number of games was made in good faith. We absolutely intended, had the proposal been accepted in a timely way, to try to play that number of games. Once I announced the season and made the comment that I did about 60 games, I was looking retrospectively. With the benefit of hindsight, it was absolutely clear that the course of the virus was such that we would not have been able to get started as quickly as we had hoped, and that we would have struggled with the play of games. That made it unrealistic to think we were going to play any more than 60 games.

Q: In hindsight, that makes sense. But there was concern from the union that the owners had spent two months trying to convince players that they were obligated to play for less than prorated salary.

M: We had a disagreement over what the appropriate economics to play were. That had nothing to do with looking back over the course of that, and being realistic about the virus. The virus had made clear we weren’t going to play more than 60 games. If you look back during that period of time, that was the craziest spike in infections that we’ve had so far.

Q: Did you at any point come close to shutting down the season?

M: No.

Q: Since America has not been through this kind of pandemic in 100 years, what have you learned now about playing through a pandemic that you could only have learned along the way, and that you wish you could have known at the time?

M: Every day is a learning experience with respect to the pandemic. I think the most important thing we have come to understand is that, when you have a positive test result, the most important consideration is not what you do that day, or getting in the game that day. The most important consideration is making sure it doesn’t spread to other people, and that health and responsible play stay paramount in your mind.

Q: In February, before everything shut down because of the pandemic, there were comments from a lot of players about the lack of punishment the Astros players suffered after your report about their sign stealing. You said that you needed to grant immunity in order to uncover the facts, and you said, “If you look at the faces of the Houston players … they have been hurt by this,” suggesting there would certainly be some shame that would go along with this. In light of the pandemic, and a season worth of empty ballparks in which the Astros are not incurring the wrath of any fans, do you have any different thoughts about whether shame is an appropriate measure for the Astros’ player punishment?

M: I’m not going to comment further on the Astros thing. I’ve said all that I have to say on that topic.

Q: In the interest of bringing the game to as many fans as possible in a year no one can get to the ballpark, we hear from lots of fans who wonder why the blackout restrictions could not have been lifted or eased this season. Can you explain what discussions you might have had with your television partners about that possibility?

M: We have not had meaningful discussions with our TV partners about that topic. Those blackout restrictions are embedded in the broadcast agreements of 30 individual clubs, and it would really be a monumental undertaking to try to lift those … restrictions in any meaningful way, even on a one-year basis.

Remember, all of the agreements with the (regional sports networks) obligate the clubs to provide a certain number of games to the RSN, which … we were not able to provide this year. So, when you’re already not performing under your contract, to go back to those same people and say we’d like to eliminate another of your rights – to exclusivity in a territory, in order to provide the games for free to additional people – that’s a very tough ask in this environment.

When you’re already in breach (of contract), and you’re trying to hold on to the only revenue source you have, given that we’re playing in empty ballparks, to go back to the other side and say we need another concession here, that’s pretty tough.

Q: Your governing agreement with the minor leagues expires in a month, and the league has proposed eliminating more than three dozen teams. Certainly, those reductions would help efficiency and cost savings for major league owners. But in terms of growing the game, which is one of your priorities, how would a reduction of minor league teams help?

M: Every plan we have put forward with the minor leagues involved preserving some sort of baseball in every single community that … has it. I don’t buy the premise of your question. We intend to play baseball in the communities where it exists, and we intend to play baseball in a way that it continues to grow the sport.

Q: So you think college summer leagues would be as effective?

M: … I think pro prospect leagues would be every bit as good, if not better and more interesting, than what exists there now.

Q: … I wanted to give the floor to you: What would you like fans to know about your feelings for their favorite sport?

M: There is no bigger baseball fan in the world than me. I watch games as my principal form of entertainment, whenever we’re playing. I think that, with the headlines some media people write, they assume that because I would like to continue to improve our product and would change it in certain ways, that somehow reflects a lack of affinity for the game. I see it quite to the contrary. I think my most important responsibility is to make the game I love as appealing as possible to fans today and fans of the future.

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