Joe Kelly and Rob Manfred Find Common Ground on Baseball’s Future

GLENDALE, Ariz. — When a middle reliever published a candid book in 1970, the commissioner of baseball ordered him to his office to formally express dismay. When a middle reliever was writing a book that was published this year, the commissioner granted an interview for it.

Joe Kelly is not Jim Bouton, whose “Ball Four” sold millions of copies by perfecting (and all but inventing) the genre of inside-the-clubhouse memoir. Kelly’s “A Damn Near Perfect Game,” with Rob Bradford, is both a defense of baseball, an explanation of its evolution and a suggestion manual for how to improve it.

For the last part, Kelly turned to Rob Manfred, the current commissioner of Major League Baseball, who had long drawn his ire. From his disciplinary office to his handling of the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal to his role in the 2022 lockout, Manfred was Kelly’s perceived enemy.

Then Manfred visited the Chicago White Sox’ spring training camp last March to begin to repair his relationship with players. That impressed Kelly, and the phone interview for the book convinced him: The commissioner may not be so bad.

Credit…Diversion Books

“I was like, ‘This guy’s just acting to save face,’ so when I called to interview him, I still didn’t trust him,” Kelly said this spring. “And then when I was able to talk to him and he got more open, that’s when I had a change of heart. I mean, we’re all people, right? I think the flow of the conversation got him to be more open, and I understood him as a person.”

As commissioner, Manfred must promote the sport while also trying to improve it, a task that often veers into criticism. His exasperation with the game’s recent trends — more dead time between pitches, fewer stolen bases, exaggerated infield shifts — seemed to reflect a leader who didn’t particularly like the sport he was leading.

After the lockout, a 99-day slog that wiped out much of spring training last year, Manfred acknowledged the need for better communication with players. So when Kelly called to ask for an interview, Manfred obliged.

“We had a back-and-forth in the meeting, and that was fine; you get a little better feel for each other,” Manfred said. “So then he called and said, ‘Would you do this?’ And I’m pitching the idea that I’m happy to talk to you whenever, so it’s hard to say no. But he was great, he really was.”

Manfred told Kelly that baseball’s “business model is broken,” largely because of blackout rules that prevent fans without cable television from watching their local teams. Teams benefit from blackout rules through lucrative cable rights deals, but Manfred fears the long-term damage of future customers — that is, children — never getting hooked on the game.

“None of it will happen if they don’t see it at home, and because it is so limited, we are missing that generation,” Manfred told Kelly. “We’re completely missing it.”

When Kelly pointed out that the N.F.L. and the N.B.A. do a better job of reaching more fans, Manfred did not dispute it.

“Their business is better,” he told him, “and we have to fix ours.”

The encouraging thing, Manfred said, is that baseball’s live product is the best in sports. The challenge was to “make sure we’re putting forth the best form of baseball,” he said, and the new rules should help achieve that goal.

Kelly has a lot of ideas to radically change the sport: one inning per game in which the manager can restart the lineup, a designated player to pinch-run three times per game and so on. But, for now, Kelly is enthusiastically supportive of Manfred’s three main innovations for 2023: the pitch clock to quicken the pace of play; the ban on infield shifts to generate more hits and promote athleticism; and bigger bases to encourage stealing.

“The rule changes aren’t doing anything different than what I grew up watching on TV,” said Kelly, who is 34. “Think about it: The games were faster, guys stole more bases, pitchers didn’t take forever on the mound.”

To Kelly, the interests of league officials and players are naturally aligned: A more appealing, accessible product would earn more money for all. When Manfred made his rounds here this spring training, he didn’t get skepticism from Kelly. He got a gift.

“At the end of the meeting he ran out and had an inscribed copy of the book for me,” Manfred said. “It was really nice.”

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