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Behind the scenes: Rob Manfred

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Rob Manfred Sunday Conversation (6:28)

New MLB commissioner Rob Manfred discusses his vision for the game and his relationship with Alex Rodriguez. (6:28)

Robert D. Manfred Jr., the man designated to replace Bud Selig as Major League Baseball's 10th commissioner, is familiar to American sports fans only in lawyerly snippets on the big stage. His notable cameos include an appearance at a congressional committee investigating steroid use in 2005 and a 2014 "60 Minutes" report on Alex Rodriguez and MLB's Biogenesis investigation. To most people outside baseball's inner circle, he is a blank slate wrapped in an enigma dressed in a navy suit.

But Manfred's influence and achievements vastly outweigh his low profile. He's the guy who has helped ensure continuity and labor peace in MLB for two decades through his cooperative work with Michael Weiner, the late executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Weiner was fond of flannel shirts and Chuck Taylor high-tops and Manfred came to work in corporate attire, but they found common ground as baby boomers with Harvard Law School degrees and a flair for solving problems.

Who knew the secret bonding agent to their rapport was forged on dusty beach roads, in skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets? While Weiner's affinity for Bruce Springsteen was widely known, the Boss also provided the soundtrack for Manfred's formative years in Rome, New York. From the moment Manfred saw Springsteen perform live at the Utica Memorial Auditorium in the 1970s, he was smitten.

"I'm still a huge 'Born to Run' guy," Manfred said. "'Thunder Road.' 'She's the One.' 'Meeting [Across] the River.' My kids make fun of me for being such a huge Springsteen fan. If I never listen to another musician for the rest of my life, I'm good."

Manfred's earthy sensibilities reflect a more engaging side than his work-related pit-bull persona suggests. At heart, he's just a small-town kid who absorbed the life lessons of his youth and is ready to apply them to one of the most powerful and visible positions in sports.

Starting with his first official work day Monday, his actions will determine if he was born to run a baseball league.

With Selig as his mentor, Manfred expanded his résumé step by step and had input in just about every off-field issue that shaped the game or made headlines. From drug testing to franchise sales to broadcast deals, from questions about the San Francisco Giants' territorial rights to the Los Angeles Dodgers' formerly tangled ownership situation, he has been a major inside player in the arc of baseball's growth into a $9 billion industry.

Manfred joins Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Happy Chandler, Bowie Kuhn and Fay Vincent as the fifth lawyer-turned-commissioner, and he needs to show he can transcend the rigorous work of bargaining and embrace the future with his own unique stamp and personal vision. The people who watched him overcome historic divisions and build a partnership with the players' association have no doubt he is ready for the challenge.

"When Rob was being considered as a commissioner candidate, some people raised the question about his ability to address and solve very complicated issues," said Pittsburgh Pirates president Frank Coonelly, who worked with Manfred for years in MLB's central office. "I told anyone who asked me -- and even people who didn't -- that Rob was the creative mind behind changing the labor relations history of Major League Baseball. We went from having the poorest labor relations of any sport to a sport that has a very productive, professional relationship with its players' association. And much of the credit for that goes to Rob.

"To me, that was the best evidence that he was the right person for the job of leading this industry. I don't think there's anybody who has taken the position of commissioner who is any more prepared than Rob Manfred is right now.''

A new leadership model

Manfred's ascent to baseball's top post was fraught with intrigue. As the commissioner search led by St. Louis Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. progressed, Chicago White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and several other owners expressed concern that Manfred had been too accommodating in negotiations with the players and were dubious that he was the best man for the job. At a meeting in Baltimore in August, owners debated the issue and cast votes for a reported six hours before MLB executive vice president Tim Brosnan and Boston Red Sox chairman Tom Werner stepped aside as candidates and Manfred emerged victorious in a 30-0 vote. Manfred has a five-year contract that runs through 2019, and the owners are putting on a happy face and insist they are united behind him.

Everybody knows the dynamic will be different under the new regime. Selig was a folksy caricature at times, with his fondness for Gilles Frozen Custard Stand hot dogs and constant reminiscences about the good old days of John Fetzer and Gussie Busch. But he was a master horse trader and coalition builder who found a way to keep owners with vastly different objectives and financial agendas on the same page.

Manfred is less burdened (or bolstered, depending on the circumstance) by historical alliances. But he is defter with a text message and an email than his predecessor, and sufficiently confident in his instincts and connections to carve out his own path. Several owners have said Manfred fits the profile of the new "commissioner-as-CEO" model that MLB is seeking.

"To the extent that anyone can follow Commissioner Selig, Rob Manfred is the perfect person," said Miami Marlins president David Samson. "He's been around and seen both the good and the bad over the years. He understands what's in the best interests of baseball, and he knows he can't do it the same way Bud did. No one has the ability to build that type of consensus across all business streams and emotional streams. But Rob is well-positioned, and he'll be terrific."

Manfred, 56, concedes he never saw this moment coming. In 1998, when he left the Washington office of the law firm Morgan Lewis & Bockius for a full-time gig at MLB, he thought he might last five years in the position before returning to the law firm full-time. Baseball labor negotiators had the shelf life of Spinal Tap drummers -- or Cleveland Browns offensive coordinators -- and 245 Park Avenue wasn't the place to go for stability for a married man with four young children.

He owes his longevity in the game to Selig, who saw leadership potential in him beyond anything he had envisioned in himself.

"If you look back, Commissioner Selig constantly expanded my portfolio, not only substantively, but in terms of the level of activity he let me engage in," Manfred said. "I was the 'labor guy,' and he got me involved in broadcasting deals and franchise sales, and it just broadened over time. I don't know what he had in his head. He was never that transparent, and we never had a conversation about it. But he did a hell of a job expanding my portfolio to where people looked at me as a viable candidate for the job."

Selig saw the same qualities that other mentors witnessed in Manfred through the years. Manfred's professional influences range from Samuel Bacharach, a former Cornell University professor, to Joseph Tauro, the U.S. District Court judge for whom he clerked out of Harvard, to Bill Curtin, the former Morgan Lewis senior partner who gave him a telling piece of advice early in his 14-year tenure with the firm.

"The best thing that can happen," Curtin said according to Manfred's recollection, "is that nobody ever figures out you were there."

Manfred was, by all accounts, exceedingly skilled and temperamentally suited to the role of labor lawyer, whether he was negotiating with airlines at Morgan Lewis or sifting through MLB's $280 million collusion settlement as an outside counsel to baseball in the late 1980s. Colleagues and adversaries have described him as brilliant, creative and pragmatic enough to make deals. He has a sense of humor and checks his ego at the door.

Manfred also is realistic enough to understand that nobody wins when one side crushes another in labor negotiations or business grinds to a halt. During his tenure at Morgan Lewis, he negotiated with employees on behalf of Washington Hospital Center, which has since become known as MedStar Health. One year the hospital's nurses filed a 10-day notice in anticipation of a possible strike, and Manfred had to thread the needle to avert disaster.

"We're the largest hospital in the nation's capital," said Ken Samet, MedStar's president and CEO. "We have trauma and burn centers, and these are very serious discussions. Rob had to balance things by steering us through the crisis of the moment, but doing it in a way where we couldn't just win completely and beat down our nurses. It wasn't a scorched-earth discussion. We needed to get people around the table and talk thoughtfully so we could find common ground. Rob was able to do that."

One of Manfred's toughest assignments as Selig's chief lieutenant was resolving the Dodgers' ownership dispute that stemmed from contentious divorce proceedings between Frank and Jamie McCourt in 2010-2011. During one particularly chaotic juncture, Manfred bounced back and forth between collective bargaining talks with the players' union on Park Avenue and Dodgers negotiations at the midtown offices of the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, which was representing Frank McCourt.

As the parties hacked their way through a thicket of strained personal relationships and financial woes interspersed with questions about the future of one of MLB's marquee franchises, Manfred showed a natural gift for tilting problems on their side and viewing them through an altered prism in the quest for solutions. Frank McCourt, who had become persona non grata with MLB, eventually agreed to sell the team, and Guggenheim Baseball Management bought the Dodgers for a record $2.15 billion in 2012. Manfred, in hindsight, played a pivotal role in making the best of an untenable situation.

"I don't think there's anybody who has taken the position of commissioner who is any more prepared than Rob Manfred is right now." Pirates president Frank Coonelly

"Having seen Rob in action, I always assumed he would be the top choice for commissioner," said Joseph Shenker, chairman of Sullivan & Cromwell. "He's had such a trial by fire. He successfully handled every one of the major crises without getting into trouble. He kept his eye on the ball and never got distracted. The A-Rod situation is a good example. It was very frenetic and there was a lot of publicity, but he didn't cave and he was unflappable.

"Rob plays his style for the appropriate situation. When he has to be patient, he's patient. When it's in his interests to be impatient, he's impatient. He's very measured and thoughtful. It's never about him; it's about what he's trying to accomplish. That's the most important trait in a negotiation."

Other than winning. Baseball owners are powerful men accustomed to getting their way, and Manfred has had to push the envelope at times. During the Biogenesis investigation, MLB took some hits for using strong-arm tactics in its vigorous pursuit of Rodriguez and others in the absence of failed drug tests. Baseball also came under scrutiny for its cozy relationship with Tony Bosch, whose track record in running the South Florida anti-aging clinic was dubious at best. Manfred received his share of criticism as the architect of MLB's strategy. But he has consistently maintained that baseball's methods were legal and approved by outside counsel.

In a recent Grantland.com profile, writers Tim Elfrink and Gus Garcia-Roberts compared Manfred to Tom Hagen, the fictional counselor to Don Vito Corleone. Among other things, they cited Manfred's willingness to take less in the short term if it meant consolidating power for Selig and MLB over a longer time frame.

"Like Robert Duvall's consigliere character in 'The Godfather,' Manfred is close-cropped, buttoned-up, and publicly soft-spoken," wrote Elfrink and Garcia-Roberts. "And also like Hagen, Manfred can be a cunning attorney who specializes in the Machiavellian aspect of running an organization that relies on uneasy alliances between powerful bosses."

Most people who have sat across the bargaining table from Manfred choose to describe him as more formidable than sinister. That appeared to be the case in the summer of 1999, when 54 umpires submitted resignation letters in a rash negotiating tactic advised by their union leader, Richie Phillips. Many tried to return, but 22 ultimately lost their jobs.

It was a bitter and bruising dispute, and lawyers for the umpires' union were in an unenviable position, operating with zero leverage in the face of a flawed and disastrous strategy. What was it like to negotiate with Manfred under those circumstances?

"I would describe him as extremely bright, articulate and persistent," umpires' union lawyer Larry Gibson said of Manfred in a 2001 interview. "I pity the person who's unprepared or unskillful in dealing with him."

Calling all kids

Only a few days after owners named Manfred to succeed Selig, he traveled to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to throw out the first pitch at the Little League World Series -- and meet Mo'ne Davis. Manfred is the first MLB commissioner to be an alumnus of the Little League program, and he wants to make participation and engagement among American youth a focal point of his tenure. No offense to the folks at Pfizer, but when Viagra ads are a nightly staple during postseason games, baseball's viewing demographic is in need of some revitalization.

Manfred's passion in preaching the gospel of baseball to America's youngsters is a carryover from his formative years in New York's "Leatherstocking Country." The game tugged at his emotions during his boyhood in Oneida County, and it resonates with him every time he looks in the mirror.

"Did you ever notice I don't have the greatest teeth in the world?" he casually mentions during a 90-minute interview.

Then he proceeds to tell the story. He was 10 or 11 and playing shortstop in the Rome Little League when he hopped on his bike one day and headed for Pinti Field, with his spikes draped over the handlebars in the fashion that made all the kids look cool. The trip had barely commenced when one cleat lodged in the front tire, the bike pitched forward and Manfred hurtled over the handlebars and mangled his front teeth in a nasty fall. He rushed back home to his mother, who drove him to the dentist's office for an emergency repair. All the while, he implored his mother and the dentist that time was fleeting, because there was a game to be played.

A couple of hours later, clad in his flannel uniform and drenched with sweat in the midsummer heat, Rob Manfred looked up from his shortstop position and saw a towering pop fly headed in his direction. With the sky in spin mode and a bloody gash on his chin, he squeezed the final out of teammate Carl Weaver's perfect game and exchanged celebratory hugs with his teammates. Then he went off and got his teeth fixed.

Manfred was fortunate to grow up in Rome when the Newhouse School at Syracuse University introduced cable TV to the local populace, but nothing could compare with a trip to the park. In August of 1968, Bob and Phyllis Manfred loaded their three kids into the family Pontiac for their first trip to Yankee Stadium. In a 3-2 Yankees loss to Minnesota on Saturday, they watched Mickey Mantle hit two home runs in a game for the final time. The following day, Mel Stottlemyre was shelled for seven runs in 1 2/3 innings in an 11-2 loss to the Twins.

The Manfreds stayed overnight at a Howard Johnson's on Rte. 119 in Elmsford, and young Rob was introduced to the wonders of Carvel ice cream. His father also admonished him for consuming what Rob now recalls as an "inhuman" number of hot dogs at the park.

Sit with Manfred for an extended period and probe his background, and it's readily apparent how important family and sports are to his world view. His father ran the Revere Copper and Brass facility in Rome and coached basketball on the side, and his mom was a schoolteacher and ran the concession stands at the high school and youth league basketball games in town. Manfred has an older sister, Lynn, who is a doctor in Charleston, South Carolina, and a younger brother, Lee, who runs a consulting company in Annapolis, Maryland.

Robert Sr., known as Bob, was a gentle and thoughtful man, but his job as a management negotiator put his son in an emotional bind. Rob Manfred went to school and played sports with a lot of kids whose fathers worked at the mill and were directly affected by labor strife.

"They had a couple of real beauties where the workers went out on strike," said Stan Evans, former basketball coach at Rome Free Academy and a longtime friend of the Manfred family. "Robby went through that as a young boy. His parents were wonderful people, but his father wasn't the most popular guy with the mill workers at the time because he was negotiating for management."

The Manfred kids learned the importance of hard work and good grades, and they were schooled on the importance of competition as a springboard to character development. Bob Manfred was a skilled tennis player, and he routinely beat his son in head-to-head matchups until that sweltering summer day when they spent hours sealing the driveway at 1004 Van Buren Avenue before heading to the courts for a couple of sets.

"I finally beat him after all those years," Rob Manfred recalled. "And all I could think of walking off the court was, 'I wonder if it was because he was tired.' I just couldn't get that out of my head."

High school weekends in Rome brought a comforting predictability. Rob and his crew started out at the V&E Bar and Grill, where the shuffleboard/bowling game was the main attraction, before a trip to the Rathskeller and a final stop at the Grand Hotel for steak and eggs. Manfred can't even calculate the hours the group spent on the front porch at Anthony Darcangelo's house on Locust Street, playing poker in wicker chairs.

"I grew up in a really, really simple place," Manfred said. "It's a small town. Everybody knows everybody, and it's not like there's a ton to do. I learned pretty early in life the value of family and relationships with friends and the fun you make by having those sorts of relationships with people.

"When I got into business, I always felt the best way to get something done was to develop relationships. People develop a sense of your humanity by knowing something about you other than, 'He wears a blue suit and red ties.'"

Rome's favorite son

The Mohawk Correctional Facility arrived in 1991 and Griffiss Air Force Base closed in 1995, but Rome (population: 32,837) remains essentially the same close-knit town Rob Manfred left behind when he headed off to college in the mid-1970s. When his friend and former high school classmate Darcangelo died two years ago, Manfred delivered one of the eulogies at the funeral. And shortly after he was named to replace Selig, Manfred received a congratulatory card from Alice Fiore, his first-grade teacher at Fort Stanwix School.

With his ascent to commissioner, Manfred has joined "Roots" author Alex Haley, NBA coaching great Pat Riley and Francis Bellamy, author of the Pledge of Allegiance, on the Mount Rushmore of noteworthy Rome products. But he's still just Rob to the locals. During a trip to Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in 2014, he stopped off at DeMatteo's Restaurant in Rome for a hamburger, and time stood still.

"He's just a regular young man who had success and never let it go to his head, and never forgot where he came from." Stan Evans, a longtime
friend of the Manfred family

"That's the type of guy he is," said Stan Evans. "He's just a regular young man who had success and never let it go to his head, and never forgot where he came from."

That opinion is shared by Samuel Bacharach, a former professor of Manfred's at Cornell. In an email to ESPN.com, Bacharach spoke at length about Manfred's core values, common decency and commitment to everything right and good that baseball is supposed to represent. Bacharach has taught thousands of students since his arrival at Cornell in 1974, and Manfred is among a handful or two who made a lasting impression.

"Pardon the schmaltz," Bacharach wrote at the end of his email, "but such is my affection and respect for him."

Manfred sets an example for stability and continuity in his personal life. He and his wife, Colleen, have been married 32 years and have four children with impressive résumés of their own: Megan, 29, went to Princeton University and New York University Law School and is an attorney with a prominent firm in New York; Michael, 27, graduated from Wake Forest University and works for Morgan Stanley; Jane, 26, was captain of the cross country team at Williams College and works for American Express; and Mary Clare, 20, is a junior at Colgate University.

The Manfred children will make sure their father's new status as baseball's boss doesn't go to his head. But the magnitude of Rob Manfred's heightened profile, and the changing course of his life, became evident with a few strokes of the pen late last summer.

Shortly after the vote in Baltimore, Howard Smith, MLB's senior vice president of licensing, knocked on Manfred's door with a stack of blank cards to be signed. Smith's task: To collect an autograph from the incoming commissioner that was worthy of being stamped on the official MLB Rawlings baseball.

"Howard looks over your shoulder like the nuns did when you were in grade school," said Manfred, who signed several balls before they agreed on one befitting the transition to a new era.

In September, Rob Manfred gave a sanctioned MLB ball with his name adorning it to his father for his 85th birthday. Bob and Phyllis Manfred have moved to South Carolina, and they've seen their middle child leave the playing fields of Rome for the Ivy League and much bigger things. They are understandably proud of his achievements, and like so many others who knew their boy way back when, they believe he is the right man for a momentous time.

Bud Selig is moving on to write his memoirs and collect a healthy salary as baseball's commissioner emeritus, and Rob Manfred has graduated from the backstreets to the game's biggest stage. Armed with his intellect, ambition and a life's worth of lessons, he is ready to make some baseball history of his own.