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Manfred has many challenges on his plate

Outgoing commissioner Bud Selig will always have blots on his record. But his two-decade reign overseeing baseball that will end come January still has far more successes. The latest came Thursday with what ultimately turned into a unanimous vote for Selig’s guy, MLB Chief Operating Officer Rob Manfred, to replace him.

It was a somewhat contentious process that has Red Sox chairman Tom Werner thrust into the role of alternate candidate by a bloc of owners led by Selig’s longtime ally, White Sox boss Jerry Reinsdorf. But in the end, Selig got his way and even got a 30-0 vote that was certainly symbolic of the way baseball has moved forward the last few years.

The game is going well in plenty of areas and one school of thought is Manfred just needs to keep the status quo going. After all, revenues are approaching $9 billion. And while baseball isn’t the NFL, let’s not forget the celebrations the NHL is having over the fact its revenues are expected to merely crack the $4 billion mark for the first time next season.

Manfred was the owners’ chief labor negotiator and there will be 22 years of peace in the game by the time the next contract expires in 2016. Still, that was apparently one of the issues of the eight-team bloc initially against Manfred – that he has gone too easy on the union. Talk about backwoods, 1980s thoughts.

Manfred is the right guy but he can’t keep the status quo either. What are some of Manfred’s biggest challenges going forward?

• Pace of play: Many owners know this is becoming a huge problem. And instant replay is not the reason. Remember, we really don’t see managers stomping around having tantrums for five minutes anymore. They just tell the umpires they’re challenging a call and they leave the field. It’s things like mound conferences, batters stepping out, pitchers stepping off and commercials between innings causing so much trouble.

And my biggest personal annoyance: Batters’ walkup music. Now guys wait for their name, listen to a few bars of their music – or maybe more than a few – and only then do they approach the plate. It’s ridiculous. Put a pitch clock on hurlers and tell umpires to order guys into the box or call a strike. And stop with the pea-sized strike zones. Call strikes. The average game cannot be pushing 3 hours, 10 minutes like it is now.

And this has to start in the minor leagues, too. The Bisons have exceeded 3 hours for nine innings more than 30 times this season. That’s unacceptable.

• The draft: There are all kinds of rules that need re-examination. Huge sums of money going to international players, especially those from places like Cuba, continue to be a problem. No one has yet to give a good explanation why a team awash in revenue like the Cardinals is getting a “competitive balance” pick next year. High bonuses for top draft choices is a major issue as well. Small-market teams especially are going to want plenty of draft revisions in the next labor deal.

• Tickets: Attendance is stale or down in several places and is a serious problem in cities like Tampa Bay and Cleveland. The New York market has been ruined as a baseball town by its bloated palaces that even the rich don’t go to very much. One of the reasons baseball was attractive was that you could go every day and not break the bank.

Prices make season tickets a dream these days and too many fans are resisting being relegated to the upper deck. At a high-demand place like Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, you’re paying $30 and up just to sit in the bleachers and pushing $100 for a decent box seat. The game needs to reach out more to families at the major-league level than it does. There are plenty of fun promotions at big league parks but the two reasons the minors have grown exponentially the last 25 years or so is new facilities and affordability.

• Television: All the national contracts are signed through 2021 but the ratings decline has to stop. The length of games, especially in the postseason, pushes too many contests toward the midnight hour and beyond. Baseball has to start its postseason games earlier – forget this 8-8:30 local time garbage – and keep them moving.

Local television is a huge issue for Manfred to deal with as well, with the Dodgers and Astros embroiled in disputes with cable providers, the Orioles and Nationals battling over a Maryland regional network and fans across the nation still upset by archaic blackout laws on the Extra Innings and MLB.TV packages.

• Engage younger audience: Pace of play is a big factor but baseball has to keep pushing into areas like video games and mobile devices like it has. It must elevate its stars. LeBron James has only played in Cleveland and Miami, two markets baseball barely sniffs at.

You don’t have to be in New York to be marketable. Enough of FOX jamming Yankees-Red Sox down everyone’s throats 10 years after the rivalry’s halcyon days. We need to see more of Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen and Felix Hernandez.

• A-Rod: He’s going to be baaaaack next season. Good luck with that one. But keep pushing the drug program, both in enforcement and technological advancement, to stay ahead of the cheats.

High on Heim

Former Amherst High School catcher Jonah Heim has struggled to keep a batting average above .200 this season for the Baltimore Orioles’ Gulf Coast League team in Florida, but two names pretty familiar in Buffalo have a stern message to him and his followers back home: Don’t worry about it.

Orioles farm director Brian Graham, the former Bisons manager, and Baltimore hitting instructor/Herd legend Jeff Manto were in town last week for Manto’s induction into the International League Hall of Fame and said they’re more than pleased with the development of the 19-year-old taken in the fourth round of last year’s draft.

Heim entered the weekend on a seven-game hit streak that had pushed his average to .244. He has no home runs and five RBIs in 26 games for the short-season team.

“You have to love the body, you have to love the arm and you have to love the makeup,” said Graham, who compared the 6-foot-3 Heim to former big-league catcher and Bisons manager Joel Skinner. “Great character, smart kid, feel for the game. The swing will come. He just needs experience.

“He’s a catcher who’s athletic. You don’t obsess about numbers in this case and we’ve made that perfectly clear to him. This is a development process that will take time.”

Manto said the Orioles knew Heim would need plenty of work because Northeast weather prevents loads of at-bats during high school seasons.

“Whoever he worked with did a great job with him because this kid is the real deal,” Manto said. “I’m not saying that because I’m in Buffalo. I would say that if I was sitting in Wausau, Wisc. The kid is the real deal. Strength, arm is off the charts and he’s going to be able to hit.

“He is definitely on our radar. We know where he is at all times. He’s one of these guys we will push. He’s a guy who needs to get his at-bats in because he’s going to be something special.”

Herd grapevine

• Daniel Norris’ 13-strikeout effort Friday at Lehigh Valley was one shy of the franchise’s modern-era record of 14 set by Marcus Moore in 1997 at Louisville – and made him the first Bisons pitcher with back-to-back outings of 10 or more whiffs. He also is just the third Bison with multiple 10-K outings for an entire season, joining Dillon Gee (2010) and Matt Harvey (2012).

Morris is just the fourth Bison with at least 12 in a game, joining Moore and 12-K men Mike York (1990) and Albie Lopez (1996). It looks like he’ll get two starts on the final homestand, either Wednesday and Aug. 25, or Thursday and the Aug. 26 Fan Appreciation Night.

• Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to Norfolk, a three-run collapse in the ninth inning with the last two runs scoring on two-out wild pitches, was easily one of the most grievous in Coca-Cola Field’s 27 seasons. There is no excuse on any level – none – for former MLB All-Star Steve Delabar and catcher Sean Ochinko to fail to execute a simple intentional walk. Delabar’s pitch sailed away, allowing the Tides’ tying run to score.

Manager Gary Allenson said the same thing happened to him at Double-A New Hampshire last season, allowing a winning run to score. It also happened downtown for the Bisons in a 7-6 win over Iowa on Aug. 14, 1989, as infielder Kevin Burdick scooted home when the I-Cubs failed to execute the play.

• With Asdrubal Cabrera getting traded and Frank Herrmann getting released, pitcher Josh Tomlin is the last former Bison in the Cleveland chain. He threw one game here in 2008, the Indians’ last season in Buffalo.