By Dan Cook, WCCO Radio

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred paid a visit to Target Field Friday. Baseball’s in a period of tremendous popularity, but it also faces significant challenges. The Commissioner discussed several of them during a news conference.

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Right out of the gate he spoke to the recent incidents of racist comments emanating from the stands and directed toward both players and other fans.

“What we’re in the process of doing is gathering information from the clubs to get a good feel for what their practices are [and] make a judgment as to what the best practices are so that we in fact can provide our players with an environment in which they feel comfortable in every Major League stadium that they’re asked to play [in],” Manfred said, “We want to make sure we know exactly what the clubs are doing before we start recommending changes and we’re in the process of gathering that information right now.”

Manfred recognizes that no matter whom racial slurs are hurled at, it affects the experience for everyone in the ballpark.

“Our goal is to have an environment in all of our ballparks – all 30 ballparks – that is welcoming to fans of all racial backgrounds,” said Manfred, “We work hard to have a family-friendly and diversity-friendly environment and we will continue to do that.”

With the amateur draft rapidly approaching, the Commissioner also pointed to Hunter Greene – one of the draft’s top prospects – as evidence of the progress baseball’s made toward having more minorities – specifically African-Americans – participate in the game.

“He’s someone who is to a certain extent – not exclusively – a product of one of our MLB Academies,” Manfred said, “The 20-percent of the first round players that I’d mentioned earlier – African-Americans over the last five years – almost all those players touch one of our programs in some way, shape and form. It’s encouraging to us in two regards: one, we may have a great young star coming into the game – and that’s a good thing – and it also tells us that our investments are actually starting to pay off.”

Time of games and pace of play are also relevant buzz-phrases around Target Field. All the more so after Thursday’s nearly four-hour slog. Manfred was asked if he sees any signs of improvement in that area.

“I can’t say in terms of the length of game that we’ve seen any real progress this year. On average we’re about where we were last year,” said Manfred, “Having said that, our focus is really not on length so much as it is pace – in other words eliminating dead time in the game. We’re having an ongoing dialogue with the MLBPA about some changes that would address that issue. It’ll be a topic of discussion at the Owners Meetings in a couple of weeks in May.”

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With the Red Sox in town, the Commissioner was also asked to address the “self-policing” that plagued the recent Boston-Baltimore series and how the league can address the issue before a player is seriously injured.

“It has been a concern of ours – the issue of hit-batsmen, throwing at batters – it’s a concern of ours because it’s a safety issue,” Manfred said, “If you think about the things we’ve done in recent years – the catcher’s rule, the second base slide rule – those are player-safety rules. Obviously this is a similar player-safety issue. It was an issue that we raised during the negotiations over the Basic Agreement and I’m hopeful that we’re going to have a continuing dialogue with Tony Clark and the MLBPA about whether our rules in this area are really sufficient.”

Which is lawyer-speak for: we don’t like it, we’re working on it, but we need the agreement of the Union in order to accomplish anything meaningful.

Although he did hint at one potential tweak that could affect the issue.

“I will say this, the ‘semi-repeaters’ if you’ll have it – those series where I play Baltimore in Baltimore, maybe have one or two short series and then I play Baltimore in Boston – you don’t have that same cooling-off period,” said Manfred, “18, 19 games is a lot of games over the course of a 162-game season. I do think that the proximity of those series can make the problems more serious. We had an extensive conversation about that in the context of trying to deal with the Baltimore-Boston situation.”

So while MLB certainly enjoys the rivalries created by playing divisional-opponents frequently, an adjustment could be forthcoming to spread those games out a little more throughout the season.

Finally, given that he was visiting on Cinco de Mayo, the Manfred discussed MLB’s presence in Mexico. They’ve played exhibition games in Mexico, but the Commissioner would like to see some regular season games played there as well. But what about a franchise calling Mexico City home?

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“The idea of having a franchise outside of the continental United States – an additional one, we obviously have Toronto already – and the idea of that franchise being somewhere in Mexico is one that’s very appealing to me,” Manfred said, “I think it would open up an opportunity not only in Mexico but also with Mexican-Americans here in the United States. It’s something that we are focused on and very interested in.”