PHOENIX, Arizona -- The first thing MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said when I told him I had a question about TV blackouts was: "I hate blackouts."
Well, that's a step in the right direction, anyway.
After a general news conference where Manfred was asked quite a number of questions about the new pace-of-play initiatives, I was able to ask him one-on-one about the possibility that up to 70 Cubs games could be blacked out in various areas in Illinois, Iowa and Indiana. He said that the Commissioner's office "cannot unilaterally lift those blackouts" due to contractual rights, but added: "We're aware of the situation and are having conversations with the club and with the rights holders." This is good news for a possible positive resolution for those of you who live in those blackout areas to be able to see the over-the-air games that, at the present time, can't be seen in those areas.
Most of the questioning of Manfred, who I found much more personable after having met him in person than he has seemed in various televised interviews, was about the pace-of-play changes that are going to be instituted in baseball this year. One thing he noted was that they hope to make these changes without changing the basic way the game is played, and I think that enforcing the rules already on the books, particularly involving hitters stepping in and out of the box, will help. Manfred said he hoped that when the average time of game is calculated for 2015, it will have a "2" in front of it instead of a "3."
He was asked about the question he received on an ESPN interview the day he took office which resulted in an answer about banning defensive shifts. After a bit of a nervous chuckle, Manfred said that he was at least pleased that the comment had prompted a great deal of discussion and dialogue on the issue. Based on his reaction, I'm pretty sure he's not going to push that particular "solution," which of course really isn't one at all.
More pertinent to Cubs fans was a query about the Joe Maddon tampering investigation, which Manfred said the league "hopes" to have completed by Opening Day. He said the reason it's taken so long is that they want to be "thorough." He didn't hint as to what that resolution might be, but based on what we've heard thus far, it's my feeling that the Cubs won't get any sort of major punishment, if any. From most of the evidence presented so far it appears that Theo & Co. are in the clear.
The rest of the afternoon, major-league managers and general managers from all the Cactus League teams sat in a ballroom answering questions from assembled media. There were quite a few national reporters around because of Manfred's presence, but mostly there were beat writers and TV crews from the Arizona spring-training teams and also from the Phoenix-area TV stations and newspapers. They worked in two shifts, and Joe Maddon and Jed Hoyer were in the second group. In the first group, perhaps surprisingly, the biggest media crowd was around Royals manager Ned Yost. Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who's done more of these than anyone as he's the second-longest-tenured current manager, seemed mostly left alone.
You might be surprised to hear, then, that Maddon had far fewer people around his table than Hoyer. It was me and some local reporters from the Phoenix area. The locals asked him about the Chicago winter, which he said he hadn't experienced much since he's just been in town for the November news conference when he was hired and then back for the Cubs Convention (which he called "Cubfest"). He said the convention was outstanding, and until he was there, "I didn't know how much Cubs fans were into the Cubs." He said he met Cubs fans at the Lafayette-Lehigh college football game (which was played in New York City last fall), in the Tampa area, and just about everywhere he went all winter.
He mentioned he'd lived in the Phoenix area for quite some time, remembered Cubs games at HoHoKam Park, and spent a bit of time talking to the local media about the Arizona Cardinals, of whom he's a fan, and was hoping to meet Bruce Arians soon.
Asked about the pace-of-play rules, Maddon said he'd spoken to his pitchers about it and said that he wants them to put the ball in play more quickly. He also praised Jon Lester as among the best pitchers he's ever been associated with and said that although he and Andrew Friedman had a great relationship in Tampa, he was very happy to be involved with a team where more money was available to get players last offseason. At one point he had just said, "I think you win when you have better pitchers than the other team; teams with better players will win," when I heard a large man come up behind us and say, "Do you really believe that?" I looked around -- it was Scioscia, and Maddon replied, "I just made that up, Sosh!"
Maddon called Kris Bryant "very mature for his age" and "very, very impressive." (We knew that already, right?) He said he'll play some outfield this spring.
He had high praise for Theo & Jed for "creating a culture of winning," and also had praise for Miguel Montero and his pitch-framing ability and has had some good conversations with him since he came to the Cubs. He said Montero "uses adverbs, which you don't hear that much from Spanish-speaking players. Plus, how many guys catch 130-plus games every year these days?"
He spoke of the day-game-heavy schedule being a "challenge," but also said he hoped the team would use it to their advantage. He said he might having players come to the ballpark later, to try to be creative. He said he "hates" team meetings and would have as few of them as possible, probably one at the beginning of the season, one at the All-Star break and another at the end of the season: "As long as you're consistent with your message, things will work themselves out."
I asked him about riding his bike to Wrigley Field, which he said he'd do, "weather permitting," but he also has a "Chevelle" he wants to bring to Chicago and drive around -- so watch for it! Then I asked him how he thought he'd feel stepping out onto Wrigley for the first time as Cubs manager. The word he said he thought he'd feel was "grateful," both for the opportunity to do the job and to manage in "that historic building." He has a strong feeling about keeping Wrigley Field preserved (with the modern amenities it's getting) for many years to come, calling it a "baseball cathedral."
Finally, I asked him what one thing he'd like Cubs fans to know about his managing style and what we can expect from a Maddon-managed team. He said, "We have a great combination of youth and veterans, a high-energy group. It's a perfect time to be a Cub. From the team, the point I want to put across is that whatever you put out there comes back to you. For hitters, respect that 90 feet between the plate and first base, respect that 90 feet the rest of the game, and for pitchers I've challenged our guys to become better defensively."
Every time I hear Joe Maddon speak I'm more impressed with him. Not only does he have a great understanding of baseball, he's got a great understanding of human beings and how to communicate with them. That's something that has been lacking, at times, in the manager's seat at Wrigley Field. I, personally, am very excited to see his team in action.
I took a number of photos of Maddon during the session and thought you'd like to see all of them. Here, then, The Faces of Joe Maddon: