PHOENIX, Arizona -- In the same location as 2015, the Arizona Biltmore hotel/resort complex, I attended a news conference featuring Commissioner Rob Manfred and the managers and general managers of all the teams that train in Arizona.
Unlike a year ago, the news conference was a bit more routine. Manfred's now in his second year as commissioner and seemed much more at ease in front of the microphone addressing issues ranging from the DH (those of you who are against it will like that he said he likes things the way they are) to upcoming decisions on possible suspensions for Aroldis Chapman and Jose Reyes due to alleged domestic violence (he wouldn't comment at all on any of it) to international signings (Manfred's very much in favor of eventually having a worldwide draft).
I asked him about in-market streaming, which, due to the lawsuit settled by MLB last month, is going to be available for all the markets which have a Fox Sports Net as their regional sports network. Manfred said that they are still talking to the RSNs in the other markets (that would include the Cubs, with Comcast SportsNet) and are hopeful to have a deal for in-market streaming for every team by Opening Day.
I realize this isn't helpful for those of you in the Illinois/Indiana/Iowa blackout areas, where you won't be able to see the WGN/ABC7 over-the-air games unless a station in your market picks them up. I hope to have more information on this later in the week.
Manfred was also asked about expansion. He says there's no timetable and that they "wouldn't even begin to consider" it before there's a new collective-bargaining agreement. He did say "four is better than five" when it comes to scheduling and he'd like to see it somewhere down the road. Right now, he said, "we're just thinking about the possibilities and there's no process in place."
He was asked about the TBS PitchTrax that so many of you complained about during last year's playoffs. He said that the system in place that's used to evaluate umpires isn't the same thing you see on TV, and that MLB is satisfied with the evaluation system in place. It wasn't clear, though, why the umpire-evaluation system couldn't be used by the TV networks, instead of the grid that we all wind up complaining about.
The Oakland Athletics stadium situation was addressed -- Manfred said he wants the A's to stay in Oakland and he mentioned the possibility of another site besides the Coliseum site but that he'd leave the stadium site selection up to A's management and people in Oakland. San Jose, the most logical place for the A's to move, wasn't mentioned.
Someone -- not me -- asked the commissioner about "tanking" and specifically mentioned the Cubs and Astros as teams that had success after losing seasons. Manfred reminded the media that you could conceivably try to lose, but still wind up with not the No. 1 pick, because if more than one club "chooses" to do this, they might wind up with, say, the No. 5 pick, which he said is "very different from getting the first one." He doesn't believe that any major-league club would deliberately pick a strategy in which they would lose 90+ games a season in order to get the No. 1 pick and says he has never heard, in his 25 years in the game, any owner or GM talking about doing this.
After the Commissioner answered questions for about half an hour, the waiting game began, because Jed Hoyer and Joe Maddon weren't scheduled to arrive until the second group of GMs and managers. That led to lots of this:
I spent a few minutes speaking to Maddon. The man is just amazingly impressive. He doesn't measure his words, but he knows exactly what he wants to say about any particular situation, and seems to understand why he's being asked specific questions. Even when a local TV news reporter from Phoenix asked him about "breaking curses," he scoffed, saying, "I don't believe in those." He praised Anthony Rizzo, saying he's a "young man" who will continue to "get better."
I asked him how he was going to not let the pressure exceed the pleasure, as he often says, given the expectations are higher this year.
His reply: "I'm not changing anything, man." He emphasized the "process," by which he explained that he doesn't want players coming in thinking things like: "Oh, man, this is going to be a really tough game today." Instead he said he tries to keep the players on their same routine every day -- coming in, maybe getting a cup of coffee, watching video, reading scouting reports, asking "What are we going to do today to win today?" Maddon says focusing on that keeps the other stuff from "entering your mind." This is good advice not just for baseball players, but for anyone.
He says Wrigley Field is "one of the best venues in the world" for professional sports and loves going to work there every day ("who wouldn't?"), and noted that the players will be heading to a new clubhouse this year, which he seemed excited about.
I asked him about Javier Baez and where he'll use him. "All over the field," was his answer, and he said he feels completely confident about Baez playing center field. In addition to Ben Zobrist, who played a role like that for him at Tampa, he also mentioned other players he's tried this with or seen do it: Melvin Upton (back when he was B.J. Upton) was going to play some second base until he got hurt. Maddon also noted , Chone Figgins and Tony Phillips, guys who played a similar role when he was around them in the Angels organization, as examples of players he's been around who have played multiple positions. So this isn't something new for Maddon and I'm sure he'll be able to sell Javy on this role.
Kyle Schwarber is going to play left field and catch, according to Maddon, and will definitely get "reps" in both places during spring training.
To wrap it up I asked him about Bruce Springsteen. Why? Because a friend of mine who's met Maddon before tipped me off that Joe is a big fan of Bruce. I asked him what his favorite Springsteen song was, and he didn't hesitate: "Kitty's Back." I asked him if he was going to go to the Springsteen concert March 10 in Phoenix. He said he didn't learn about the show until he got out to Arizona and is hoping to go. Then he launched into a story about how, in his freshman year at Lafayette College, a lot of his classmates were "Jersey shore" people and introduced him to Bruce. He went home on a school holiday and gave a Bruce cassette to a friend of his named Willie Forte and told him, "Play this, this guy's going to be really good someday."
Willie Forte now heads up the B Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen tribute band.
See what I did here? Digressed totally away from baseball and talked about something that Joe Maddon likes outside of the game. This, I think, is among the ways that Maddon helps his team never "let the pressure exceed the pleasure." It's a gift, and beyond the great baseball knowledge that helps Maddon outmanage his fellow managers, this is the gift that Joe gives to his players to help them succeed.
Personally, I can't wait for the 2016 season. And I hope to see Joe at the Bruce show at the Talking Stick Resort Arena in downtown Phoenix on March 10.