Fan anger surrounding the Astros cheating scandal has been stoked by the unmitigated heat coming from MLB players. Usually reserved figures (Nick Markakis being the latest) have laid bare their intense anger over the cheating of their peers and the league’s handling of the matter to date.
This isn’t how it was supposed to go for MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and Astros owner Jim Crane when they released a double-whammy on January 13th. No doubt the hope was that suspending and then firing GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch (along with some punishment for the team) would do much of the necessary work of moving past a now-infamous trashcan-banging scheme — a scheme, it is important to note, that was rooted out by a combination of long-held suspicion, investigative reporting, and dedicated public analysis (aided by the very same technology that has boosted MLB’s fortunes and allowed the Astros to hatch their scheme).
While Manfred orchestrated this approach to dealing with the situation, he surely hoped the furor would die down by the time Spring Training rolled around. Instead, players around the game have directed a steady and potent stream of venom at their opponents, as well as at Manfred and Crane. It’s a reaction without precedent, and Manfred is a self-proclaimed “precedent guy.”
The curveball was not preceded by a pair of loud bangs — but perhaps they still should’ve seen it coming.
The core problem with the league’s and the team’s handling of this situation doesn’t lie in the specifics of just what punishment was meted out. It’s inherent to the crisis-management approach that MLB and the Astros adopted. It all comes off as entirely driven not by what’s right, but by what is convenient, which is precisely the wrong tone when the underlying matter of concern relates to the essential fairness of the contest that itself underlies the entire economic structure of Baseball.
In somewhat different ways, over time, Manfred, Crane and many of the Astros players have left an impression of insincerity. Initial suspicions to that effect seemed to be confirmed by later statements and actions. And that leads to yet more suspicions, which is probably why we’re all now well versed in the unwritten rules of on-field clothing removal and Jose Altuve’s tattoo travails.
More to the point, this reinforced sense of disingenuousness completely undermines the reasoning behind the punishment that was and wasn’t imposed. And it provides the tinder and kindling needed to turn a trashcan bang into a dumpster fire.
The typically reserved Mike Trout says he “lost some respect for some guys” — which is a quietly immense issuance of judgment roughly akin to your beloved grandmother softly crying and informing you that you have let her down. He says it’s unfortunate that players involved in the illicit scheme have escaped punishment.
But wait … Manfred says this too! He said just the other day he’d have punished players “in a perfect world,” explaining why he couldn’t and didn’t. So why the loathing for the commish? Why is Justin Turner calling Manfred out in such stark terms (beyond the fact that the commissioner stepped on a rake by calling the commissioner’s trophy a “piece of metal”)?
Here’s why: the league only backed into the real explanation for its stance after it couldn’t get the players to pipe down about the subject. And when the truth finally emerged, it was accompanied by a baseless suggestion that the MLBPA is at least as much to blame for the lack of punishment of specific players.
Evan Drellich of The Athletic (subscription link) and Jeff Passan of ESPN.com each covered the matter from a fundamentally legal perspective, explaining why the league simply could not have imposed punishment of the Astros players. You can read on for the full details, but the essential reason is fairly straightforward: the league didn’t act in advance to install clear rules and therefore wouldn’t have had solid legal ground to stand on in suspending or fining players.
This is, on the one hand, a sensible and comprehensible explanation. Manfred acknowledges in an interview with Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (subscription link) that his office wasn’t ahead of the game when it came to the use of technology to steal signs. Whether that was or wasn’t a major failure on the league’s part can be debated. But Manfred’s hands were tied when the Astros scandal hit.
Fine. But this isn’t what we heard when Manfred issued his report and disciplinary decision a month back.
That report spent more time expressly clearing Crane of any wrongdoing or responsibility than it did mentioning legal obstacles to disciplining players. Manfred wrote that it would be “difficult and impractical” to punish specific players, not because of these newly revealed reasons but because so many had participated and some now played for other teams. He said he placed blame primarily on the leaders (Luhnow and Hinch, especially) rather than on players; indeed, Manfred wrote that “some players may have understood that their conduct was not only condoned by the Club, but encouraged by it.” We were also told that players were granted immunity for their testimony — a practical necessity to reach the truth.
Even as it revises its stance — it’s not that the initial lack of punishment was necessarily right and appropriate; it’s that, oh man, we totally would’ve suspended them but we couldn’t! — MLB has rather obviously started a whisper campaign to draw the union into the circle of distrust. There is still no public reporting to tell us much of anything about what the MLBPA did or did not do between the emergence of the scandal and the issuance of Manfred’s report. But we’re now being treated to hints (or, in some cases, outright claims) that suggest the union hindered player punishment and was wrong for doing so.
Barring some compelling information that has yet to be revealed, this is flatly ridiculous.
First of all, it isn’t as if the union has stood firmly in the way of all punishments of players. We have rules in place that give Manfred broad leeway to punish players accused of domestic violence and certain other bad acts. There’s a broad regime dealing with performance enhancing drugs. In virtually all cases in recent years, suspensions have been worked out in advance without grievance actions to challenge them. And we’ve seen strong evidence that players writ large are not cool with cheating of the Astros’ kind.
Further, there is no indication here that the union was asked for its approval of any leaguewide system for dealing with illicit sign stealers — let alone that it obstructed any league effort to do so. To the contrary, Manfred acknowledges the league didn’t have quite enough foresight. Neither is there any suggestion that the union specifically gummed up actual attempts by the league to pursue discipline against Astros players.
Rather, the implied reasoning goes like this: Manfred told Luhnow he couldn’t use technology to steal signs. Whether or not he was on notice, Luhnow didn’t tell the players in sufficient detail. That lack of notice to the players made it legally impossible to punish players who eventually cheated (with the assistance of Luhnow’s staffers). And this is … the union’s fault?
Here’s how MLB.com’s Alyson Footer states things, via Twitter: “My only point is — if players are mad Astros weren’t punished, they need to talk to the union, since the union is the reason why players were granted immunity.”
It’s rather stunning to see such an intimation that the union is somehow at fault for advocating for the rights of individual players. The union’s purpose — its legal duty, in fact — is to represent all of its members and back their rights. It would be inconceivable to give up compelling legal arguments against punishment of specific players, even if the union was also amenable to working out clear-cut rules to prevent this sort of behavior in the future. It is disingenuous to interpret the negotiation of immunity in exchange for testimony otherwise when Manfred himself acknowledged that the league simply didn’t have legal standing to issue punishment.
Rosenthal seemingly casts aspersions in a different but still notable manner: “In fairness, Manfred was not alone in failing to see the future clearly. As far back as 2015, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) expressed concerns to MLB about the rise of technology in the sport. The union, however, did not directly focus on the threat to the game’s integrity.”
The suggestion here, and in other similar accounts in the media, seems to be that the MLBPA shares equal responsibility with the commissioner’s office for studying and guiding the overall path of the game. One wonders whether the league really feels this way when it is bargaining with its players. As a practical matter, the union has nowhere near the resources or the breadth of responsibilities and capabilities enjoyed by Major League Baseball. Craig Calcaterra of NBC Sports has much more to say on this particular point.
Manfred has stated that the primary focus was on rooting out all the misdeeds so that we’d all know just what had happened. “We ended up where we ended up in pursuit of really, I think, the most important goal of getting the facts and getting them out there for people to know it.” Concepts of truth-finding, transparency, and opportunity for public reaction (even shaming) are perhaps all necessary building blocks to ultimate reconciliation — especially for a bad act that cannot be met with retributive justice. It’s an approach deployed in situations far more dire than this one. But while Manfred seems to acknowledge as much, this is precisely where the investigation and assessment of punishment has failed so badly.
Manfred’s report called it a player-driven scheme but didn’t name any current players, leaving it to speculation and intrigue to guess at just who had been at the center of the scandal. This only deepened the problems caused by the lack of punitive action.
Then, ensuing reporting showed that Manfred had not revealed a bevy of pertinent information he had regarding the involvement of the Astros’ front office. In what the kids call a self-own, Manfred appeared to mock Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal for digging up the “private letter” he had sent on the topic to Luhnow. Manfred did not explain why that information was provided to the suspended Luhnow but not the broader public. He did not explain how the facts he set forth in that letter related to his conclusions regarding the player-driven nature of the sign-stealing/conveying scheme. And he was bizarrely dismissive of the importance of his own communications to club officials — despite specifically premising the punishment of Luhnow and lack of punishment of Astros players upon a league-issued memorandum.
Now, we’re left wondering: Are the ’Stros players really regretful? Can we trust them when they say they didn’t cheat in 2019? How exhaustive was Manfred’s investigation of that matter? What of the still-open Red Sox situation? Just yesterday, Sox owner John Henry and CEO Sam Kennedy indicated that they’ve yet to even be interviewed as part of the league’s probe into the organization, which is set to wrap up next week. What actually is the league stance on player culpability in the use of technology to steal signs? Does anyone care about the cheating that took place, or only that it was exposed?
Just as the Astros’ words have largely rung hollow, the league’s own statements are now tumbling into an ever-widening credibility gap. “I hate where we are,” Manfred said of the scandal. Before MLB and the Astros can climb out of the hole they dug for themselves, they’ll need to backfill it with the unvarnished truth.