BONITA SPRINGS — With a late-March trip to Cuba on the verge of final approval, commissioner Rob Manfred said that Major League Baseball is proud to play a role in improving relations with the island nation and that the Rays will be a "great" representative.
Speaking Friday with the Tampa Bay Times, Manfred also said he is "encouraged" by recent developments in the Rays' search for a new stadium in the bay area.
The Rays are tentatively slated to play a March 22 exhibition in Havana against the Cuban national team, with indications an official announcement could come any day. They will be the first major-league team to play there since the Orioles in 1999.
Details are being finalized, but a likely scenario has the Rays staging a clinic and goodwill-type event March 21, then playing a March 22 afternoon game that will be televised by ESPN, with President Barack Obama possibly in attendance and even throwing out a first pitch.
"I think baseball is a really important part of Cuba's culture," Manfred said. "The president has made some change in the relationship with Cuba a priority. As an institution, baseball would be proud to play some role in the process."
The Rays were chosen from a number of interested teams via a lottery, and Manfred said he was glad to see principal owner Stuart Sternberg rewarded.
"I think the Rays are a great representative," Manfred said. "It's been a quality organization. Stu has been a really good citizen in the game for a long time and has taken on a larger leadership role in the last 18 months or so."
Manfred typically defers comment on stadium issues to the local owners, but he said he likes what he has heard from Sternberg since the team was given permission to look for a new site in Hillsborough County as well as Pinellas.
"I'm encouraged because Mr. Sternberg seems to be encouraged," Manfred said. "He seems positive and, as a result, I'm positive."
Manfred said MLB has no set timetable for a resolution and no plans to introduce relocation as an option.
"The timing of a process like this is driven by the developments that take place," Manfred said. "I regard this to be a very positive step and remain hopeful that the Rays and Mr. Sternberg can find a solution in the market where they currently play."
During a later media session before the Governor's Baseball Dinner — that Gov. Rick Scott did not attend — Manfred said he would like to see baseball expand to 32 teams, but he doesn't see it as an "immediate issue" and would want the Rays and Oakland A's to have their stadium situations resolved first.
Among other topics, Manfred said:
• Soon-to-be-announced initiatives to further improve pace of game likely will include a reduction in the time between innings — currently 2:25 to 2:45 — and "a focus" on the number and length of mound visits by all parties. There will also be a technological initiative keyed to fan engagement.
• He met Friday with union chief Tony Clark and labor negotiator Dan Halem to discuss a schedule to begin talks on a new collective bargaining agreement, aiming to start as soon as spring training and have an agreement before the current deal expires Dec. 1.
• A rule change regarding slides into second base, for safety reasons, will be made before the start of the season.
• He is "a status-quo guy" on the DH and sees no need for it to be adopted by the National League.
• The current alignment of having 15 teams training in Arizona and Florida is workable, and he thanked Scott for being "extraordinarily helpful" in getting facilities built and/or renovated. He also said it is important to have teams on both coasts of Florida.
• He doesn't believe teams are intentionally fielding teams to lose games — tanking — in order to improve their position in the next draft.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow @ TBTimes_Rays.